A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 2

Part two of a tour through Greek inflectional morphology to help get students thinking more systematically about the word forms they see (and maybe teach a bit of general linguistics along the way).

In the first part we took an initial look at the present active indicative paradigm for λύω, repeated below for easy reference:

  • λύω
  • λύεις
  • λύει
  • λύομεν
  • λύετε
  • λύουσι(ν)

There are a number of morphsyntactic properties we could alter to see the effect on the paradigm, but in this post, we’ll look at the middle voice:

  • λύομαι
  • λύῃ or λύει
  • λύεται
  • λυόμεθα
  • λύεσθε
  • λύονται

So again, we’re showing, side-by-side, the various number-person forms for λύω, keeping the tense, aspect, voice, and mood constant. In this way we can see, by comparing the paradigms (a paradigm of paradigms!), how the active/middle alternation is realized in Greek (at least for the present indicative λύω!)

A few things may immediately jump out at you:

  • the forms continue to all start with λυ
  • the υ is always followed by a vowel (and mostly ε or ο)
  • the second person singular has two possible forms
  • three of the forms end in -αι
  • both the first person forms have a μ and both the third person forms have a τ
  • the first and second plural both have a θ and there seems to be more of a link between the active and middle forms (ομεν/ομεθα, ετε/εσθε)

We have to be careful not to make too much of some of these yet. Many a bad linguistic analysis has come from noticing patterns in a small number of instances without seeing if the same pattern applies more broadly! We need more data. But these initial observations are at least things to keep in the backs of our minds as we explore more forms. Some of them will prove particularly interesting later on.

For now I just want to explore the two second person singular forms, λύῃ and λύει. You’ll notice one of these forms is identical to the third singular active form. Isn’t this potentially confusing?

Yes, but there are two things to note here: one, it should generally be clear from the context, regardless of the ending, whether a third person active or second person middle is intended. Ambiguities in morphology like this are far more likely in cases where multiple morphsyntactic properties vary at once (in this case both person AND voice) and where the larger context is likely to make clear which alternative is meant. It’s worth also noting, for example, that -ει can also end a dative noun (and in fact does in over 300 cases in the NT).

Two, the -ῃ forms are much more common in the NT than the -ει and, in fact, there’s actually only one second person -ει form in the SBLGNT text and it is βούλει where lexically the word must be middle anyway and so even the context isn’t needed to disambiguate.

As to why two forms developed in the first place, we’ll have to wait a bit to discuss that.

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