A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 6

Part six 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).

Every form we’ve seen of λύω so far starts with λυ, unchanged except for accent. Also, all the forms that start with λυ (or λύ) have been forms of λύω.

Every form we’ve seen so far that’s active first person plural ends with μεν. Also, all the forms that end with μεν have been active first person plural.

Put another way, the λύ in λύομεν has nothing to do with being active first person plural and the μεν in λύομεν has nothing to do with being a form of λύ (at least based on every paradigm we’ve seen so far).

What about the ο in between them? It cannot (at least at the moment) be said to only depend on the fact we have a form of λύω nor can it be said to only depend on the fact we have an active first person plural form. The vowel seems to depend BOTH on the lexical item AND the morphosyntactic properties of voice, person, and number.

Similarly with ποιεῖτε. The initial ποι indicates and only indicates the lexical item. The final τε indicates and only indicates the active second person plural. The fact we have εῖ rather than ο (or ε or οῦ or any other vowel) is because of BOTH the lexical item and the morphosyntactic properties.

What is happening here becomes very clear when we look at some older texts or texts in more conservative dialects. For example, in Herodotus, written in the Ionic dialect, we don’t find ποιεῖτε but instead ποιέετε. In fact, here’s what we find:

ACT INFποιέειν
ACT 1SGποιέω
ACT 2SGποιέεις
ACT 3SGποιέει
ACT 2PLποιέετε

There are a couple of things about this that are remarkable. Firstly, if we split off the common part (now ποιέ rather than ποι) then our distinguishers are all IDENTICAL to those of λύω. Secondly, this restores the accent placement to be properly recessive.

Our ποιῶ and ποιεῖτε are so accented (and not *ποίω or *ποίειτε) because the accent has remained on the same mora (relative to the start) as the older form.

The vowels are thus explained by noting that historically:

  • έει > εῖ
  • έω > ῶ
  • έε > εῖ

Even without finding the necessary forms in Herodotus, we can infer (assuming the ποιέ is consistent and the distinguishers are those of λύω) the forms missing above and hence the following additional historical vowel changes:

  • έο > οῦ
  • έου > οῦ

And making the same assumption about the middle forms add:

  • έῃ > ῇ

All the PA-2 and PM-2 endings can now be explained by:

  • the verb-specific common part (the stem) ending in ε
  • the voice / person / number endings originally being identical to those of λύω
  • the six historical vowel changes listed (referred to as contractions)

In the tour’s next post, we’ll see if we can similarly explain the other forms we’ve seen. Then, in a subsequent post, we’ll come back to these vowel changes and see what’s systematic about them.

I want to close by emphasizing that I am only trying to describe HOW the circumflex verbs came about, not suggest anything about how native speakers processed or generated the contracted forms. As an analogy: it might be interesting to learn why the English words foot and feet are spelled the way they are relative to how they are pronounced but that explanation doesn’t bear much, if any, relation to what’s going on in the minds of native speakers nor is it necessarily of any use to people learning English as a second language. I’ll touch on that again in a few posts time, but you can also read my 2015 post The Dangers of Reconstructing Too Much Morphophonology.

Comments on “A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 6”