Greek Non-Verbal Predicates

Ancient Greek allows for (at least) two types of non-verbal predicates.* In English grammar, non-verbal predicates are expressed by means of the linking verb, “to be.” English non-verbal predicates tend to express, existential  (“I am a man.”), attributive (“I am short.”), or locative meaning (“I am in Canada.”).

In Greek, non-verbal predicates are expressed in two different ways. One of these uses the copula, εἴμι, while the other lack a verb entirely. The other does not use a verb at all. For example, in Mark 12:26, we see:

  • Ἐγὼ ὁ θεὸς Ἀβραὰμ
    I [am] the God of Abraham.

Greek non-verbal predicates express a extra meanings as well that English does not, such as possession, where the author uses the dative case, as in Luke 7:41:

  • δύο χρεοφειλέται ἦσαν δανιστῇ τινι
    To a certain money-lender was two debtors.**

Now if we assume that meaning implies structure, then we should ask what the difference between these two types of non-verbal predicates is. What is the difference in meaning between the non-verbal predicates that have an overt copula and those that lack a verb entirely?

About two years ago I wrote a paper on verbal ellipsis in Paul’s letters. The paper originated from my frustration with conflicting statements made by scholars regarding the relationship between Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22. The main problem is that when scholars arrive at verse 22 the first question they ask is, “What verb form should we be inserting here?” rather than “What is the significance of Paul not using a verb here?” Ellipsis has its own pragmatic significance, which I examined and articulated in that paper.***

Essentially, I argued that the purpose of ellipsis was to highlight and emphasize new information in relation to previous known information (a good example is 2 Cor. 1:7, where ; that ellipsis in Greek is, in a sense, didactic, or at least it lends itself quite easily to teaching, while is a major reason we see it so often in Paul’s letters.

But Greek’s verbless clause version of non-verbal predicates are a different animal than ellipsis, something I’ve emphasized before. This is clearly seen distributionally. Clauses with elided verbs cannot begin new sections of a discourse, whether sentences or paragraphs. They are always subordinate to another clause.  But our verbless non-verbal predicates can begin new sentences simply because they are not necessary subordinate to any other clause.

Because of this difference, elided clauses and clauses with non-verbal predicates must also be distinguished from a discourse-pragmatic perspective. While they both share a similar function of highlighting information, they do some in vastly different ways to vastly different degrees. Elision has a function of highlighting new or prominent information in a complex argument. But non-verbal predicates do not. They make an assertion, as all clauses do, but relevant information of that assertion does not carry that same sort of weight or prominence in the larger discourse.

*I’m using the definition used by the SIL Glossary of Linguistic terms.

**This sort of possessive construction isn’t uncommon, even if we don’t have it in English. In fact this is the normal way of expression possession in Russian as well. As far as I know, Russian has no verb with the meaning “to have” as in “I have a hat.” Interestingly enough, these sorts of constructions are places where all translations cease to be literal in any way (though the KJV’s relative pronoun agreement in this verse is fascinating).

***I wrote the paper before I began my linguistic studies, thus my description of the pragmatic significance of ellipsis is somewhat inexact in a number of ways, though I still believe that my basic generalizations are correct. Presently, I’m revising the paper by adding some additional information, making the examples more and introducing a more precise set of terminology.

5 thoughts on “Greek Non-Verbal Predicates

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  1. Hey Mike,
    I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for your work. I am beginning studies under Cynthia Miller-Naude in Hebrew Linguistics and have been working on a lexical semantic approach to the copula (the semantics of the whole predicate, not the copula itself….which would be a very short study :). I am also relying heavily upon universal typological studies done on the copula. I’m not officially beginning my studies until January, so I’m very early in my research. I was wondering if you’ve found any updated research on what you’ve written here. Have there been any linguistic approaches to the presence and/or absence of a copula (from pragmatics, semantics, discouse..etc) in Greek that you’ve found particularly helpful?

    1. Hi Daniel, my own studies on the subject were pretty limited and I honestly haven’t looked into the literature since 2006 and at that point in time I didn’t do much with the linguistic literature. I’m not sure that I can really help you…

      Uhm, this book might gives you some direction: The Typology of Adjectival Predication by Wetzer and there’s a good discussion/suvrey of non-verbal predicates in volume one of Timothy Shopen’s Language typology and syntactic description (2nd edition).

      That’s the best I can do…

      I look forward to hearing more about your research though. It’s an important field of study that hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention in biblical languages.

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