Untangling L’Engle’s Greek

I’m currently reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle for the first time. This is considered a YA classic, and for a good reason: it’s awesome. For reasons which could be the subject of their own post I was never able to read it in childhood, which might be just as well because now I get to puzzle over a curious multilingual typo in the book.

I’m reading the 1979 Dell edition, the one with this cover:

A Wrinke In Time Cover
This is the edition that I grew up seeing as a kid; all of the other cover images that the book has sported seem like pretenders to me.

I mention this only because it’s possible that later printings have corrected the errors I’m about to discuss.

There is a character, Mrs. Who, who frequently speaks in quotations. At one point she quotes Euripides in the original Greek. The quotation is printed thus (printed large to make the accents clearer):

“Αεηπου οὐδὲν, πὰντα δ’ εηπἰζειυ χρωετ.

Translation (from the book): Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.

Now anyone with a little Classical Greek (which I minored in) could tell you that this is nonsense. Three of the words are nonexistent, and the diacritics are placed in violation of every rule of Greek accentuation. However, with the help of the translation I was able to guess what went wrong and reconstruct the original.

There are two simple letter mistakes: lambda (λ) has been replaced with eta (η) in every instance, and nu (ν) has been replaced with ypsilon (υ) in two places. The latter mistake is quite easy to make; the former is a bit more puzzling, but we’ll let it go. The final word stumped me until I realized that someone had substituted tau (τ) for iota-with-circumflex (ῖ). Making those substitutions, we arrive at this:

Ἄελπον οὐδὲν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρωεῖ.

(You’ll notice that I’ve corrected all of the accents, too. The errors here are very comprehensible and easy to make–and let us take a moment to pity the poor typesetter who was tasked with setting this line, based on a probably handwritten fragment in a language he didn’t know. He had probably never ever heard of a smooth-breathing-with-acute-accent mark, and so may be forgiven for using a double-quote in its place. Alongside the numerous other errors.)

This matches the translation given, and satisfies me. Only two questions remain:

  1. Why Ἄελπον and not Ἄνελπον?
  2. Whence the omega in χρωεῖ? The word that I know is χρεῖ; but perhaps the long form is a poetic variant that I’m not aware of.

Of course, both of these things could also be typesetting errors, but they don’t seem easy to explain in the way that the other substitutions are.

Update: My erudite friend Brett sent me the following in private correspondence:

The TLG says it’s Euripides Trag., Fragmenta (Nauck) 761.1:

Ἅελπτον οὐδέν, πάντα δ’ ἐλπίζειν χρηῶν

lit. ‘nothing hopeless/unhoped, it’s necessary to hope for everything.’ L’Engle’s source translator took the first clause as “nothing is hopeless” which seems fine. An Italian on the single google result I got (http://spazioinwind.libero.it/gattonero/index5_RCol.htm) apparently takes it as “nothing [can happen] unhoped for” or “[if the thing is] unhoped for [then it doesn’t get achieved].” Ἅελπον doesn’t seem to be a word, and it looks like the last word’s typo may be switching ω and η, and replacing _ν with τ for whatever reason. I wonder in a positive, respectful, evocative sort of way what the draft the typesetter was going off of looked like. Finally, a-elp- rather than *_an-elp-_ is the privativized stem of ‘hope’ because _elp-_ originally started with digamma (http://www.aoidoi.org/articles/epic/digamma.html), indicating (with asterisks now meaning prehistoric rather than incorrect) *_n-welp-to-_ > *_awelpto-_ > _aelpto-_. If you have a different edition of the book see if they’ve corrected any typos


  1. Hmm, interesting. I suppose I haven’t reread A Wrinkle in Time since I had enough Greek to attempt to make sense of it. I think my family has the same edition, so it presumably has the same errors.

  2. Oh, I’m glad Brett was able to help you more than I was. I didn’t respond because I didn’t really have any ideas but thought I might see if I could do some digging and never did. Glad I checked back.

    (Really, I’d be surprised if I had been able to solve anything when you couldn’t, given that you have a minor in Classical Greek, and I’ve only taken first-year Greek and one second-year course.)

  3. And the first word has a rough breathing? Why is it not smooth? (Or did you just type the wrong character?)

  4. yes, the Greek really is a hash
    in my edition
    Farrar, Straus and Geroux Square Fish imprint

  5. Hello Mr. J. S. Bangs and commenters!

    This post was brought to my attention recently and I am most grateful for the opportunity to participate.

    Madeleine L’Engle was my mentor and friend. Over the years I was in her writing classes and saw her often in NYC.

    In 1993, my partners and I produced the audio version of Madeleine’s reading of WRINKLE in its entirety. It was a challenging project and most inspiring.

    In my preparation, I noticed the inaccuracy of the Greek quote. My heritage is Greek and the words didn’t make sense. I asked Madeleine about the source at which point she took a book from her shelf and said ALL of Mrs. Who’s quotes came from this volume……

    Edited by H.P.Jones
    Edinburgh 1910

    The book is a treasure. Sure enough, the Euripides quote had fallen victim to two sets of inaccuracies. When Madeleine copied the quote on to her original manuscript by hand, a letter was omitted. When then typesetter chose Greek characters from the manuscript, more mistakes were made. To date, after several requests, the Greek quote has not been corrected with millions of copies of WRINKLE sold.

    The recording of Madeleine’s reading is the only correct version. It is the definitive WRINKLE since her wishes were honored with regard to other issues. For instance, there is variance between the hard bound and paperback versions. (Grammar school vs Grade School, jacket vs blazer)

    Currently a new film of WRINKLE is in the works by Ava DuVernay. The timing has prompted me to let the appropriate parties know that the quote must be corrected. Hopefully it will happen.

    In my workshop THE BIG FAT LITTLE GREEK MISTAKE, participants have enjoyed analyzing the process happened. The Euripides quote from the H.P. Jones volume reads
    Αελπτον ουδέν, πάντα δ´ελπιζειν χρεών. Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything.

    Again, thank you for this post and responses. Please feel free to contact me via email. I would appreciate any information you wish to share.

    MaryJo Cally
    13 December 2016

  6. Since rereading “Wrinkle” something seemed amiss wit “aelpon” and “elpidzein”. I went looking & came upon this page. Thank you all for digging into the quote. I am happier now.

  7. My husband just handed me the quote and asked me to read it – I’m a native Greek speaker and a Classics major. The first word stumped me . . . so I went in search of Euripides and this answer. Many thanks.

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