One Athen, two Athens

Kriton Kyrimis kyrimis at
Mon Mar 13 13:49:40 CET 2006


> "Athens" is plural? I never heard that one before.

Ah, a question for me!

Athens is, indeed, plural. The Greek name of the city is Athenai or Athinai, 
depending on how you transcribe the Greek letter eta in the name. The word has 
a plural suffix and is conjugated in the plural, so there is no doubt about this.

This practice is not uncommon in Greece, with several Greek cities having 
names in the plural, such as Thivai (Thebes), Patrai (Patras), and Serrai. In 
modern Greek, the names of all but the last have evolved into the singular, so 
Athinai is now called Athina, Thivai is called Thiva, and Patrai is now called 
Patra. Woe betide anyone who attempts to call Serrai "Serra" in front of 
someone from that city, though!

As to why this is so, one theory is that these cities were formed by the 
joining of a number of towns and villages, and the plural records this event. 
This joining was not in the sense of towns getting bigger and bigger until 
their boundaries merged, but in the sense of distinct settlements uniting into 
one political entity. Ancient Athens, e.g., encompassed most of the Attican 
peninsula, and was not limited to the town at the foot of the Acropolis.

Presumably, the English name "Athens", the French "Athènes", etc., are direct 
translations, retaining the Greek plural.

> So, what does it mean to speak of one Athen?

That you're German?

"Just because something is not possible does not mean it can't be
  done--especially by someone who doesn't know any better."

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