A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 9

Part nine 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 part 8 we saw, amongst other things, that the present active infinitive has a spurious diphthong ει from ε+ε whereas the the present active second and third person singulars have a ει that is a true ε+ι diphthong.

This somewhat justifies our observation of the ις and ι pattern in the second and third person singulars across all the present actives we’ve seen so far.

If we show the “inert” part of the endings separated from the vowel that interacts with a preceding stem vowel to form the circumflex verbs, we get something like this:

INFε ε νε σθαι
1SGω -ο μαι
2SGε ιςη ι (sometimes ε ι)
3SGε ιε ται
1PLο μενο μεθα
2PLε τεε σθε
3PLου σι(ν)ο νται

You can see the predominance of initial ε and ο with three exceptions:

  • the ω of the ACT 1SG
  • the ου of the ACT 3PL
  • the η of the MID 2SG

We now know to ask the question: is ου in ACT 3PL a spurious diphthong (from ο+ο) or a true diphthong (from o+υ)? If υ works the same way as ι in our contraction rules, it must be a spurious diphthong.

There’s additional evidence for this:

  • In the Western Greek dialects (like Doric) we find -οντι
  • It was not uncommon for Attic-Ionic to have σι for τι in other dialects (we’ll encounter more examples later)
  • Dentals like ν drop out in Attic-Ionic when followed by σ and this generally causes the preceding vowel to lengthen (what is called compensatory lengthening)

So it seems our ουσι(ν) was originally from the -οντι preserved in Doric.

This introduces interesting parallels with the -ονται in the middle.

What about the ῃ in the MID 2SG? We don’t need to go to another dialect to see traces of what’s going on. In the NT we have the PM-4 circumflex verb:


with ᾶσαι for ᾷ. The ᾶσαι can be explained as the stem vowel α interacting with the ending εσαι. The ᾷ can be explained simply through the σ dropping out (and similarly the ῃ in the PM-1 and PM-2 and so on) plus our contraction rules.

Interestingly, later Greek restored the uncontracted ending and we find it again in Modern Greek.

And so we have the reconstructed endings:

INFε ενε σθαι
1SGω -ο μαι
2SGε ιςε σαι > ῃ
3SGε ιε ται
1PLο μενο μεθα
2PLε τεε σθε
3PLο ντι > ουσι(ν)ο νται

There are some tantalising patterns here, especially in the middle: the αι in 5 out of 7 cells; the μ/σ/τ in the 1st/2nd/3rd person.

As usual I want to emphasize the reconstructed forms in this table help explain things historically but should not necessarily be taken as an indication of a process that went on syncronically in the minds of native speakers. I’m not aware of any evidence that native speakers would have, for example, thought of ουσι as being an underlying οντι, or ῃ as being an underlying εσαι.

We haven’t yet explained what’s going on with the ACT 1SG nor why ει would have been an alternative for ῃ in the MID 2SG.

But other than the ACT 1SG, all other endings start with either an ε or ο. We’ll talk more about this later (including why this vowel is called the thematic vowel) but note that which of the two vowels is used is completely predictable by what follows.

If the following segment is nasal (μ or ν), the vowel is ο. If the following segment is ε, ι, σ, or τ, the vowel is ε. Most descriptions consider the ε the default and the nasal context leading to ο being the exception. But we could also look for features that ε, ι, σ, and τ have that μ and ν don’t (other than just being NON-nasal).

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