What’s Unique about Greek

Greek is a unique language, you know, just like every other language is.

But seriously, there are things going on in Greek that the majority of languages do not do. What I’m thinking of presently is the the verb morphology of Greek. Its is pretty cool – especially the way inflectional and derivational morphology function.

Inflection morphology changes the stem or root of a word without changing the word itself. For example, the case endings are inflectional morphology: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive. Likewise, the verb endings for Person and Number are inflectional as is Tense/Aspect.

Derivational Morphology changes the word into a new word such as the affixation of prepositions to the front of verbs: δίδωμι ‘give’ and παραδιδωμι ‘hand over.’ That’s a derivational change. We have the root and then we add the preposition to create a new stem.

In the majority of languages inflectional morphology always occurs outside the root or stem. But in Greek the past marker actually occurs between the the derivational prefix and the root:



Now that is really unique. So today, you’ve learned something about language typology – what most languages do. All languages diverge from the norm at some point. And this is one of the special places where Greek does. This the kind of thing that makes a morphologist say, “hmmm, interesting…”

19 thoughts on “What’s Unique about Greek

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  1. Most Greek students don’t read about Language typology in general – though they should.

    I don’t know if I would call this a nuance exactly, its just an unusual way to form words. Classical does have some things that are very different compared to English. For example while we have singular and plural nouns, Classical Greek has a singular, a dual, and a plural.

    The difference is though that languages having a dual marker for referring to two of a noun isn’t as unusual as having inflection occuring between a derivational morpheme and the root morpheme.

  2. Mike,

    I thought German did things like “vorgekommen.”

    Also, you write,

    “In the majority of languages inflectional morphology always occurs outside the root or stem.”

    English, Greek and German all have a very similar system of strong verbs, in which indflectional change occurs inside the root.

    Think of πεμπω and ‘give’ and ‘trinken.’ Or most verbs. I don’t remember much nomenclature. Likely I have misunderstood you.

  3. Oh, yes that’s true, Peter.

    Suzanne, I suppose I shouldn’t use the word “always” in referring to Language. What I’ve read about language typology has consistently said that inflection occurs typically outside the root or stem. I don’t know German, so I cannot speak about what German does.

    But regarding Peter’s example of the same phenomena in English, its the exception not the rule, whereas the Greek past augment always occurs between the derivational prefix and the verb root.

  4. Mike,

    Two things. First, splitting the derivational prefix from the stem to insert the inflectional prefix seems to be the norm.

    Second, “swim” “swam” is a strong verb. All the basic verbs in Greek, French, German and English work like this. These are the only lgs. I know except of course Hebrew, where all inflections happen within the root, so all the lgs that I know have inflectional changes within the root.

    So I am still unsure of why you think this is extremely rare.

  5. Verbs such as swim don’t fall into to the category I’m referring to. I talking specifically about prefixes and suffixes (which I suppose I wasn’t clear about). The -i and the -a- in ‘sw_m’ is an infix and Hebrew inflection in the root where the vowel change is a suprafix. They’re different animals.

    In contrast, what makes a prefix a prefix is that it occurs on the outside, so when we see the Greek augment between the derivational morpheme and the root (i.e. within the verb stem), its unusual. Perhaps its would be more clearly stated as this: It is not normal in languages for prefixes to change into infixes. Peter’s in-law example is the same thing with the plural marker being inside the stem instead of on the outside, but in English that’s an exception, while with Greek verbs its the rule.

    Is this more clearly articulated?

  6. If you say so, I believe you. I haven’t yet studied German. My two questions about the German would be:

    Is the ‘vor-‘ a derivational or an inflectional morpheme? And does the ‘ge’ ever occur on the outside?

    I’m not saying that no other languages do it, just that its not the norm, at least not according to the linguistics books I’ve read on morphology or what I’ve been told by my morphology professor.

  7. Vor is a derivational prefix meaning “before” or something like that. “ge” is the past participle marker, an inflection. Normally “ge” would be a prefix, not an infix. There are other prefixes that act like “ge”. Lets see, anbekommt, ausgefallen, they are all like that. But is there is no derivational prefix, then gesehen, gefallen and so on.

    Either Greek and German have this oddity in common or it isn’t that uncommon. I really don’t know.

  8. If that’s the case, I might surmise that this is a trait of proto-Indo European that German and Greek maintained when other languages dropped it out. I don’t know, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

  9. I don’t really know what you mean by that TC. If you’re referring to morphological complexity, I suppose so to an extent. But its not as if you can say things in Classical Greek that couldn’t be said in Koine. They would just be said differently. Given the vocabulary, all language have the potential for communicating the same meanings. That’s why Bible translation is possible.

  10. I think TC’s point might be that since Koine was essentially the ESL of its day, the language underwent a natural simplification (much like Old English lost its case system about the time the non-English-speaking Danes moved in next door). In a way, then, Koine is actually *more* nuanced since the simplified structures had to be able to communicate most of the same ideas. You would therefore have to depend (to some extent) upon vocal inflection and non-verbal cues to determine meaning. This, of course, makes it harder to be sure you’re understanding an aorist participle the way its original writer intended. That’s why Bible translation is difficult. Of course, it’s not a problem unique to Bible translation, but since written Koine is essentially transcribed speech (unlike self-consciously written Classical), the problem may be more acute than usual.

  11. And that’s exactly my point. What is “more nuanced” is completely a matter of perspective. Classical Greek did more with morphology than Koine, but Koine did a lot more with a number of other linguistic phenomena to make up for the morphological differences.

  12. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add to the conversation due to ignorance, but I love reading about this stuff.

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