A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 25

Part twenty-five 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 the previous part we looked at the endings of the active imperfects with theme vowels. Now we are going to look at the middles.

 IM-1 IM-2 IM-3 IM-4 IM-5
1SG Xόμην Xούμην Xούμην Xώμην Xώμην
2SG Xου Xοῦ Xοῦ Xῶ Xῶ
3SG Xετο Xεῖτο Xοῦτο Xᾶτο Xῆτο
1PL Xόμεθα Xούμεθα Xούμεθα Xώμεθα Xώμεθα
2PL Xεσθε Xεῖσθε Xοῦσθε Xᾶσθε Xῆσθε
3PL Xοντο Xοῦντο Xοῦντο Xῶντο Xῶντο

The vowel differences between these five different classes of verb should largely be familiar to you by now as they’re pretty much the same pattern we’ve seen in the present active, present middle, and imperfect active—namely:

  • The -2 class historically had an ε before the theme vowel and this led (depending on whether the theme vowel was ε or ο) to ει or ου
  • The -3 class historically had an ο before the theme vowel and this led (regardless of whether the theme vowel was ε or ο) to ου
  • The -4 class historically had an α before the theme vowel and this led (depending on whether the theme vowel was ε or ο) to ω or ᾱ
  • The -5 class is like the -4 class but with a η for the ᾱ

One difference in the above table from what we’ve seen before is that the 2SG ending is identical between IM-2 and IM-3 and between IM-4 and IM-5.

The fact the distinguisher is a bare diphthong might remind you of the 2SG in the present middle, which in part 9 we partially explained as historically coming from a dropped intervocalic sigma (e.g. ε+σαι > εαι > ηι > ῃ). This is indeed what happened here too.

The pattern is clearer put alongside the 3SG and 3PL as well.

 PM-1 IM-1
2SG ε+σαι > ῃ ε+σο > ου
3SG ε+ται ε+το
3PL ο+νται ο+ντο

We can see here that, prior to the dropping of the sigma (and subsequent contraction) to a long-ο written as a spurious diphthong ου, the present and imperfect endings in the 2SG, 3SG, and 3PL just differed in a final αι/ο alternation (which is tantalisingly close to just a iota/no-iota alternation like we might expect).

If we try to summarise the historical origins of the personal endings, we might get something like the following:

1SG μι μ μαι μην
2SG σι σ σαι σο
3SG τι τ ται το
1PL μεν μεν μεθα μεθα
2PL τε τε σθε σθε
3PL ντι ντ νται ντο

There is a clear μ/σ/τ/ντ pattern in the 1SG/2SG/3SG/3PL. Cross-cutting this there is a clear ι/-/αι/ο pattern in the PA/IA/PM/IM. The exception is the μην in the IM 1SG (where we might expect μο).

The 1PL and 2PL seem to be playing by a different set of rules and notice they don’t make a distinction between the present and imperfect at all.

Note that this summary of endings, while providing a historical background to the Greek forms we see, is really in the realm of Indo-European comparative linguistics rather than Greek. It’s the foundation to how Ancient Greek came to be the way it was but doesn’t reflect the way native speakers would have internalised inflections nor should be suggestive of the way they should be taught nowadays.

The goal here is to explain some things once the actual endings are already familiar.

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