A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 12

Part twelve 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).

There is one very important verb we haven’t looked at the paradigm of yet: the copula.

For comparison, we’ll put the present infinitive and indicative forms alongside the common endings of the μι verbs we saw in part 10.

INF εἶναι -ναι
1SG εἰμί -μι
2SG εἶ
3SG ἐστί(ν) -σι(ν)
1PL ἐσμέν -μεν
2PL ἐστέ -τε
3PL εἰσί(ν) -ασι(ν)


  • all but the INF and 2SG are enclitic
  • in the INF, 1SG, 1PL and 2PL we find the expected ending
  • the 3SG and 3PL are slightly different
  • the 2SG is lacking the ending all together
  • with all the endings removed, we sometimes have ἐσ and sometimes εἰ

Recall in part 9 we said that “it was not uncommon for Attic-Ionic to have σι for τι in other dialects” (a type of lenition). Perhaps the 3SG ending was originally τι(ν) and it just became σι(ν) in all the μι verbs except the copula.

And in part 11 we questioned “why the active 2SG and 3SG forms don’t end in σι and τι to mirror σαι and ται.” Well, what if they originally did and some change masked this?

The 3SG τι(ν) would be explained as an original τι with the occasional movable nu. The 3SG σι(ν) would just come from τι(ν) via the tendency for τι to become σι in Attic-Ionic.

The 2SG εἶ is perfectly explainable as coming from ἐσι with the intervocalic sigma dropping. In fact, we find ἐσσί in Homer, Pindar and other writings in older or more conservative dialects. If εἶ came from an older ἐσσί, that would not only suggest a -σι ending but a ἐσ stem. [EDIT: it’s also possible, or even likely given the evidence of other Indo-European languages, that the first sigma was dropped much earlier in Proto-Indo-European and the instances of ἐσσί are actually a reintroduction of a double sigma by analogy with the 3SG!]

Is it plausible that εἶναι came from ἐσ+ναι and εἰμί from ἐσ+μι? Absolutely! A sigma dropping and the preceding vowel lengthening would explain those forms. But why would we still find ἐσμέν rather than, say, εἰμέν? Well it turns out Homer and Herodotus do have εἰμέν. There is clearly tension between keeping the ἐσ and going to εἰ and different dialects went a different way even at the level of different cells in the paradigm.

In the 3PL, we do find that Homer (as well as εἰσί) has ἔᾱσι, following the 3PL ending of the other μι verbs, but much as the ω verb ending -ουσι comes from -οντι, we can explain εἰσί from ἐσ+ντι.

Further justification of earlier forms comes from comparison with other Indo-European languages but doing that would take us too far afield for this survey. For now, we’ll just summarize what we have for this new paradigm.

We’ll call this PA-10 but because of the ἐσ/εἰ alternation, we can’t really isolate distinguishers across the entire paradigm other than the full words themselves.

INF εἶναι ἐσ+ναι sigma-drop and compensatory lengthening
1SG εἰμί ἐσ+μι sigma-drop and compensatory lengthening
2SG εἶ ἐσ+σι sigma-drop (twice) and compensatory lengthening
3SG ἐστί(ν) ἐσ+τι
1PL ἐσμέν ἐσ+μεν
2PL ἐστέ ἐσ+τε
3PL εἰσί(ν) ἐσ+ντι lenition of tau, sigma and nu drop with compensatory lengthening

As always, I stress this is a historical explanation, not an explanation of what was going on in the minds of native Greek speakers nor the best way to initially learn the forms of the copula.

The μι/σι/τι/ντι pattern is fascinating, though; with its parallel to the middle μαι/σαι/ται/νται.

There are still, of course, open questions, like the relationship between these endings and those of the ω verbs that differ (not least of which -μι vs -ω itself!) Or the fact that our other μι verbs seemed to use a different vowel in the singular than the plural and there’s no sign of that in the copula. [EDIT: also as noted, ἐσσι as the original form is problematic; it was likely ἐσι in Proto-Greek.]

One earlier observation we can say a little bit more about now, though, is the alpha in the -ασι(ν) ending which previously seemed inexplicable. As we shall see later on, when a ν can’t be pronounced in a particular context, it often became an α rather than just dropping out completely. Given we reconstruct an ν in the 3PL ending, this ν becoming an α rather than dropping out entirely explains -ασι(ν) (with no compensatory lengthening). Because the μι verbs (unlike the ω verbs) have a 3SG ending in σι(ν), keeping the α around was useful to discriminate between the singular and plural. In the case of the copula, though, the 3SG retained the τ so there was less reason to keep the old ν (pronounced as α) around and it could just drop out entirely.

We’ve now covered the major present infinitive and indicative paradigms. In the next few posts in this series we’re going to step back a little and talk about the relationship between paradigms, the notion of lemmas and citation forms, some more about cell filling and class inference, and some statistics about the frequency of these different paradigms we’ve looked at. Then we’ll move beyond the present and look at a whole new set of paradigms!

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