Part twenty-three 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).

Okay, so we want to contrast two forms of the indicative generally referred to as the “present” and “imperfect”.

As we always do with paradigms, we’ll keep certain things constant (in this case, the lexeme, voice and mood) and vary things along along one axis (person / number agreement) and another axis (present vs imperfect).

  present imperfect
1SG λύω ἔλυον
2SG λύεις ἔλυες
3SG λύει ἔλυε
1PL λύομεν ἐλύομεν
2PL λύετε ἐλύετε
3PL λύουσι ἔλυον

There are numerous things which should stand out:

  • the imperfect forms all have an initial ἐ-
  • this is then followed by the same λυ root found in the present
  • this is then followed by an ε/ο “theme” vowel
  • the 1SG and 3PL are identical in the imperfect
  • the present and imperfect share the same ending in the 1PL and in the 2PL

There’s another perhaps more subtle thing you may notice:

  • the endings in the imperfect 2SG and 3SG are the same as the present without the ι

Recall also that the -ουσι ending in the present 3PL historically came from -οντι. Without the ι, that would be -οντ and given Greek words can only end in ν, ς, or a vowel, dropping the τ from -οντ would give us the -ον we see.

Furthermore, if we consider the athematic 1SG ending -μι and drop the ι, we get -μ. This is not one of the sounds a Greek word can end in and historically, this was changed to an ν. This gives us the -ον we see in the 1SG.

So it seems that historically the relationship between the two sets of endings has to do with the existence or non-existence of an ι. The only exceptions are the 1PL and 2PL. Interestingly these are the only two-syllable endings (counting the theme vowel).

It could even be stated (at least in the earlier history) as: imperfect has ἐ- but not -ι- and the present has -ι- but not ἐ-, except in the two-syllable ending cases where the only contrast is the existence or absence of ἐ-.

We’ve only looked at λύω / ἔλυον so far, so in the next couple of posts we’ll look to see how the imperfect endings work in other lexemes.