A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 22

Part twenty-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).

I’ve deliberated for a while about whether to follow the present with the imperfect or with the aorist. I had recently elected to go with the aorist but as I sketched out what I wanted to say, I realised it would be easier if I’d said some things about the imperfect first.

And so I’ve decided to do a few posts about the imperfect.

We won’t talk about the endings in this post. I want us to start thinking about the imperfect and its relationship to the present not in terms of endings but in terms of the overall paradigm structure.

In previous posts, we saw that the present comes in two voices: an active and a middle (although we haven’t yet touched on the notion of presents coming in both versus just one of these). Within each voice, we looked at six indicative forms (corresponding to patterns of person and number agreement) and an infinitive (which effectively just has no person or number). We haven’t yet covered this, but each present voice also has imperative forms, subjunctive and optative forms, and participles in each of three genders.

The imperfect, in contrast, only has the indicative forms. No infinitive, no participles, no imperative, no subjunctive, and no optative.

We might be tempted to think of this in terms of the imperfect somehow being “defective”, as if we were doing a feature comparison like this:


But another way to think of the imperfect as being part of the “present” family and providing a contrasting set of indicatives.

So we have:

  • indicatives 1 (“present”)
  • indicatives 2 (“imperfect”)
  • infinitives
  • imperatives
  • subjunctives
  • optatives
  • participles

This model suggests that, say, the infinitive or imperatives or participles, are just as much the infinitive, imperatives, or participles of the imperfect as they are of the present.

This also leads to the need for a new name for this entire family. Traditionally it’s referred to as the “present system” because of the shared stems, but as I’ve ranted on this blog before, I think it’s unfortunate to use “present” for both the entire system and for one of the two types of indicatives within it.

For reasons we’ll touch on later, the system could perhaps better be called the “imperfective system”.

But the remainder of posts on the imperfects will focus on their endings and, in particular, the contrast with the other set of indicatives (the “present” indicatives we’ve been talking in about the previous posts).

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