Irine Darchia 


Alliterations and Puns – Means for Better Understanding of Plato’s Phaedo


Abstract: Oratory pays great attention to the phonation of a phrase, to its “material texture”, but – the acoustic affect of a text (let’s call it “sound-writing”) must be taken into consideration when we deal with a work of any great writer, Plato among them. A modern reader, who perceives the text by seeing and reading it, may not notice the alliterations and puns, but Plato intended his dialogues for the reader who “perceived the pronounced word by trained ear“. The peculiarities of Plato’s “sound-writing”, the alliterations and puns used by the philosopher in Phaedo, the importance of such acoustic affects for philosophical discourse will be discussed in the paper.


Key words: Plato, Phaedo, alliterations, puns


Oratory pays great attention to the phonation of a phrase, to its “material texture”, but – the acoustic affect of a text (let’s call it “sound-writing”) is something that must be taken into consideration when we deal with both oratory and a work of any great writer, Plato among them. A perfect philological analysis of his dialogues implies the consideration of the issue as well.

A. Losev, even for those days, regarded the stylistics of Plato as the most important, “great issue”, which he believed to be unsolvable at those times (Losev 1993: 658). The issue remains insoluble for modern researchers as well though some important works and researches can be observed.

C. J. Classen was the first who paid attention to one of the features of Plato’s mastery; it deals with how the philosopher uses those “ordinary” words that have no “direct philosophical utilization” (Classen 1959). According to S. Averintsev’s evaluation, in Classen’s research the splendidly chosen material sometimes lacks the proper analyses and conclusions; to some minor issues are paid much attention, but in spite of all these the work bears undoubtedly great importance as it is the first attempt to study the problem (Averintsev 1979: 69).

S. Averintsev develops the new and to my mind extremely perspective direction chosen by C. J. Classen. He examines the less studied aspect of the language material in Greek philosophy and, namely, in Plato’s Dialogues, i.e. “its material texture,” the peculiarities of word choosing, alliterations and puns, “the play of a word and a sound”. The researcher with the large range peculiar to him, studies the given issue as the phenomenon of historical and literary importance, as one of the constituent elements of the thinking process (discourse), and considers them in connection with the formation of philosophic terms and oratory.

“The creative” approach to a word is typical not only of Plato but also of his entire epoch. “Just the pre-philosophy creates sharp and moving word, that is ready to sound-playing and metaphoric transformation. And this phenomenon belongs both to Greece and East World” (Averintsev 1979: 65).

A modern reader, who perceives the lines by seeing them, may not notice the similarity of word sounding, but Plato intended his dialogues for the reader who “pronounced the written word with voiced larynx and perceived the pronounced one by trained ear“(Averintsev 1979: 56). Consequently, the latter apprehended and “felt” the puns more easily.

The researcher who looks at Plato’s prose from the sound-writing point of view faces two problems: for one thing, how to notice the acoustic peculiarities of the writer’s language, and for another, how to describe and explain them. Most of readers are unable to notice the expressiveness of Plato’s language material  for, as a rule, it is not (or can not be) expressed in the translation.

I absolutely agree with S. Averintsev when he says: “It is impossible to translate puns and to make them by imitating Plato is quite attractive but, at the same time, a very dangerous thing because it can result in the deformation of the philosophical content” (Averintsev 1979: 57). We should add here that it is not easy to translate Plato’s puns from technical point of view as well. Those possibilities (e.g. flexible system of word-building) of the Greek language that Plato constructs his puns on may not exist in other languages. That is why we consider all the puns found in Phaedo together with their literal translation and sometimes at the expanse of euphony of the English language (or any other language of translation).  

One or another form is conditioned by content. Perhaps Plato not accidentally applies the similarity of word sounding. He tries to make us see or feel something special, but what?  According to S. Averintsev’s explanation “any example of word or sound punning may be casual (though the more carefully we study the context the less possible it seems to us). It may be the unconscious manifestation of Plato’s genius or the device used quite consciously. It is the wrong way to seek for the consciousness of one or another pun. It is more important to notice an intensive, thrilling and free state of a word...” (Averintsev 1979: 57).

S. Averintsev mentions the term definitions of the followers of stoicism. They confront “a word that can be pronounced” (λόγος προφορικός - the device for expressing an idea), with “an inner word” (λόγος ενδιάθετος - the device for thinking of an idea). These two create the different levels of one and the same reality, they are easily made out of each other in abstraction, but are inseparable in a certain subject of the research and more so if the subject is a philosophical text. A real philosopher (and, of course, Plato) differs from an orator by having λόγος προφορικός that at the same time is λόγος ενδιάθετος (Averintsev 1979: 45). Just the interaction of these two things (λόγος) creates Plato's artistic world.

The neutralization of that two oppositions, of the poetic language and the philosophical one, is not the constant of all times; it changes from epoch to epoch; but it is possible that in a certain epoch philosophical speech undertakes the tasks that can be taken upon the poetic speech in another one and vise versa” (Averintsev 1979: 80). As regards Plato, the poetic language and philosophical one are equal in rights components of his dialogues.

According to the above-mentioned, I’ll try to illuminate and explain as far as possible the stylistic peculiarities of “language material” in Phaedo. Although S. Averintsev offers us a huge factual material from Plato’s dialogues he never cites Phaedo, thus, the analysis of sound-writing of the dialogue will be based on my own observations. 

Plato’s Phaedo is an inventive artistic world, but it is not well seen even in the best translations. We can only perceive it when contacting with the original, with the Greek text because the influence power of images greatly depends on the sounding of the Greek phrase.

Let’s consider the sentence: καθαιρόμενοι  αδικημάτων διδόντες δίκας απολύονται, ει τις τι ηδίκηκεν (113d7-8) - “Undergoing purgation by paying the penalty for their wrong-doings, and are absolved, if any has committed any wrong” (For Greek text see: Rowe 1993; For English translation see: Gallop 1975). 

It is not accidental that the words derived from the root δικ- are used in the whole phrase (αδίκημα, δίκη, αδικάω) Plato was able to apply the different words of the same meaning, but to my mind, he deliberately used to repeat one and the same root that was connected to the word “justice.” The writer creates acoustic effect by rhythmical repetition of the same sounds and tries to drive reader’s (listener’s) attention to the given sentence. Meanwhile, the repeated usage of the root δικ- lays the accent upon its meaning. Consequently, the writer uses acoustic effect to stress the notion of justice.

Our interpretation has something in common with S. Averintsev’s comments about the repetition of the root πορ- in one of the passages of “Critias.” He explains well the function of the root πορ- here. “By blending two (and three in the case of Phaedo) one-rooted words Plato likes to underline the original semantics of  the root πορ- (in Phaedo of the root δικ-) (Averintsev 1979: 67). In Phaedo the alliteration of the consonant -δ- (the usage of the word δίδοντες) creates some additional effect.

Let’s consider in what cases Plato applies to the effect of the similarity of word sounding, how he chooses the lexical unit that he has to “run” in one or another context. Τω καλώ τα καλά καλά (100e2-3) – “It is by the beautiful that beautiful things are beautiful”, Καθαράν εν καθαρώ κείσθαι (109b7) – “A pure thing is set in pure surroundings”, επεί, είπερ είη (70a6) – “For if indeed it were somewhere.”

In the above shown examples, the repetition of the root καλ- lays the accent, on the one hand, upon the notion of beauty and, on the other hand, upon the theory of ideas in the context of which the given phrase is shown. By the alliteration of the root καθαρ- and consonant κ- one of the main notions is stressed; it is holiness, and by the two last phrases the two sentences are connected. At the same time, the certain conclusion, made in the second sentence on the bases of the paradigm expressed in the first one, is stressed by the alliteration. επεί, είπερ είη is the link connecting the two phrases and underlining the content of the second one.

Άλλους άλλοθι πολλούς εν πολλοίσι τοιούτοις τόποις οικείν (109b3-4) – “There are many others living elsewhere in many such places.” One can clearly observe the peculiar sound-writing of the given sentence. This phrase is put in the passage where the description of the earth is given. Proceeding from the context we can conclude that Plato’s desire is to drive our attention to the fact that the universe is much more infinite then we think (in the previous phrases other artistic device, namely, metaphoric simile is used with the same purpose, see: Phaedo,  109a9-b3).

Τυχόντας δε εκεί ων δει τυχείν (107e2) – “And when they have experienced there the things they must…” I think that here both the root τυχ- and the sounds δει can be considered as the repeated element. According to the phonetic rules of the Greek language, δε + εκεί may have sounded as [deikei] because ε + εει.

Though τυχ- is presented as the forms of the verb τυγχάνω, the original meaning of the root is “fate”, “fortune”. The given phrase is in the passage about the fate of the souls after their death and this fate is determined by their earthly life. Therefore, by repeating the root τυχ- and the sounds δει, the accent may be put on the inevitableness of either fate in the next world.

While postulating the third argument, based on the theory of ideas, for the immortality of the soul and characterizing the ideas, Plato suggests us the following phrase: ουδέποτε ουδαμή ουδαμώς αλλοίωσιν ουδεμίαν ενδέχεται (78d6-7) – “And never admit of any kind of alteration in any way”.

If we want to interpret correctly a given artistic device it should be discussed within its context. The trice-repeated usage of the root ουδ- is neither accidental nor superficial, decorative artistic device. This root, having the meaning of negation, makes the phrase more categorical, strict and it lays the accent on the principal proposition of Phaedo about the idea of eternal, forever lasting existence.

The acoustic peculiarities of Plato’s Phaedo, its “sound-writing” revealed that sometimes the alliterations and puns are used by the philosopher for his philosophical purposes. Such acoustic affects can be effective artistic devises and important tools for philosophical discourse, having literary and philosophical function at the same.




Averintsev 1979: Averintsev S. S., Classical Greek Philosophy as a Literary-Historical Phenomenon, Novelty in Contemporary Classical Philosophy, M. 1979.

Classen 1959: Classen C. J., Sprachliche Deutung als Triebkraft platonischen und sokratischen Philosophierens, München, 1959.

Gallop 1975: Gallop D.  (ed.), Plato, Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975.

Losev 1993: Losev A. F.  Essays on Ancient Symbolism and Mythology Мoscow 1993.

Rowe 1993: Rowe C.J. (ed.), Plato, Phaedo, Cambridge University Press, 1993.



Volume 4, Issue 2


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature