A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 1
I ultimately hope to cover everything that a beginner-intermediate grammar might but in a much more exploratory fashion. I’ll occasionally touch on morphological theory but I mostly want to point out phenomena in the language that students have already seen but perhaps have not thought about in any depth.
We’ll start with a paradigm familiar to all students of New Testament Greek:
At its most basic, a paradigm is just a showing of related forms next to one another for comparison. The idea is to get a sense of how forms and meaning relate by showing contrastive examples.
In most cases, there’s something held constant across all the cells. In the list above, all the forms are present active indicative forms of the word λύω. What distinguishes them from the point of view of their morphosyntactic properties is the person and number.
Respectively the list above is:
- the first person singular (present active indicative form of the word λύω)
- the second person singular
- the third person singular
- the first person plural
- the second person plural
- the third person plural
It may not be the case that the forms all have something in common, although in this case you can see they all start with λύ. It may be tempting to make the simple analysis that λύ itself means “the present active indicative form of the word λύω” and, say, εις means “the second person singular”. But as we shall see, that’s not the most helpful analysis in general.
It’s worth thinking about other possibilities we could draw from just this tiny example (even though many theories will be ruled out once we look at other data): perhaps λ indicates indicative; perhaps εις indicates not only second person singular but present active too; perhaps εις is only used if the word starts with an λ.
About all we can say at this stage is the way you discriminate between, say, a second person singular and a third person singular, in the case of the present active indicative of λύω, is the εις vs ει. And that particular example, in the absence of seeing the other cells, may even lead one to conclude you get from the third singular to the second singular by adding a sigma.
The point is there’s a LOT we can’t tell yet. What we CAN tell, within the set of forms with the properties held constant, is how to discriminate across forms with the morphosyntactic properties that vary. In other words, IF we have a present active indicative of λύω, how do we tell the person and number?
There is one very important property of Greek morphology that we can see just in the paradigm so far: there is no consistent way person is discriminated for a given number, nor number for a given person. In other words, the relationship between the forms λύω and λύομεν seems completely unrelated to that between λύεις and λύετε. And the relationship between λύω and λύεις seems completely unrelated to that between λύομεν and λύετε even though they differ in meaning in only one property. Or put another way, we can’t just tell the person OR number, only the person AND number. We will talk more about this in future posts.
Finally, you may be wondering “why is λύω used so often?”. There are multiple reasons for this choice. Firstly, as we shall see later, λύω has completely regular stem formation. Secondly the υ is robust in the face of what sounds follow it. Some Classical Greek textbooks will use παύω for the same reasons.