Breaking Down the Hellenistic Greek Verb

Let’s start with a root for a verb that takes 1st Aorist morphology (we’ll call them “Verb Class 1” or V1):


V1 verbs have roots that default to imperfective aspect (the “.” marks multiple semantic meanings on a single morpheme; a dash marks morpheme breaks, as seen below). That is to say there is no morphological realization of an imperfective morpheme. Now let’s add the non-past, subject agreement morpheme:


Now, I should note here, that what I’ve marked above technically misses the fact that the connecting vowel is morpho-phonological phenomena and is technically the true marker of Indicative mood. Also, once a label has been used it will be abbreviated hence forth. Here is the past tense imperfective:


Note here that now we have past on two different morphemes. Now there are two options, we can either call this a circumfix (perhaps) or we can accept that Greek has what is called “extended exponence,” where a single morphological category is realized on multiple inflectional morphemes, known as exponents (cf. this article). Choosing between those two options with only this word is difficult. But two points direct us toward the latter analysis: 1) the circumfix analysis wouldn’t apply to nonpast verbs, which only have a suffix and 2) extended exponence is seen explicitly elsewhere. We’ll look at that elsewhere in just a moment, but first, let’s move to add the perfective morpheme to our V1 Class:


Adding the perfective suffix -σ overrides our imperfective root. From now on, when the perfective morpheme appears, I won’t include “imperfective” in the root’s annotation.


This is the traditional Future form. By my interpretation, perfective nonpast verbs are automatically future in meaning (similar to Russian perfectives). Now this form had already existed for centuries and is now grammaticalized as a true Future Tense, but for the sake of simplicity in my own parser, I’ve adopted the analysis you see here, recognizing the rare imperfective future does indeed appear in Hellenistic Greek. And this is where extended exponence comes in explicitly:


Note that previously, the exponent for “” had been ον with the prefix “ἐ-.” But the perfective selects a different morpheme for the agreement inflection. Thus we actually have:




Imperfective aspect appear both as default for the root, but is also realized in the subject agreement along with voice & mood. Likewise, Perfective aspect is realized both in its distinct suffix: and also it’s own perfective subject agreement again with voice & mood.

Now is where we come to the point of this post: why the current terminology isn’t helpful. Thus far we have Past marked on the prefix ἐ- and on the Subject Agreement suffix and Nonpast marked only on the Subject Agreement suffix. Things change in the Non-indicative Moods & Non-finite verbal forms. Consider the two Subjunctive forms below:



The main issue to observer here is that Tense is gone as an inflectional form. This is true in a few of ways. For one, we’ve lost the ἐ- prefix, but also, we’ve lost the distinction between what has been traditionally called the primary endings and the secondary endings, which I have claimed above are the other central Tense marker. Just as importantly, the Future  does not exist in the indicative subjunctive mood.* These two facts make it explicitly clear to us that the category of Tense does not appear outside the Indicative and working through the usages of the non-indicative forms will confirm this. Yet, the first of the forms just above is traditionally labeled Present Subjunctive, when there is nothing “Present” about it.

* Other historical periods of the language, e.g. Byzantine Greek, do indeed have a Future Subjunctive, but that is not relevant to the Hellenistic period. This assumes, of course, that the LXX, Philo, Josephus, the Apostolic Fathers, & the New Testament are representative (Note also, the Future Indicative historically developed from the Aorist Subjunctive).

You might be surprised to hear this, but there actually is very little debate about Greek aspect. There is a debate about this morpheme: ἐ- and whether it marks Tense or Spacial Remoteness. And there is a debate about these two morphemes: [C]ε– & , which mark what is traditionally called the Perfect, but the so-called Aspect/Aktionsart debate is very little of a debate. There’s actually a consistent consensus for the majority of verb forms. Aktionsart is a lexical category marking verbs as States, Achievements, Activities, Accomplishments, & Semelfactives. All languages have these. Aspect is a grammatical category marking verbs with Perfective or Imperfective Aspect. What makes languages unique, aspectually, is how Aktionsart Categories interact with Aspect categories. But all of that will have to wait for another post, another time –- or perhaps a thesis.

But back to morphology. It gets complicated here. Let me explain why. When you look at the interlinear annotations above, you might be wondering something like this:

If imperfective aspect is marked by the subject agreement, why in the world does it need to be marked on the root?

The answer is simple: we have another verbal inflection class. Actually we have four or five, but that’s another story. For now, we’ll call this second class Verb Class 2 (V2), what is traditionally called the 2nd Aorist forms. This is an unproductive inflectional system and during the Hellenistic period is disappearing. Thus a number of historically V2 verbs are receiving V1 inflection in at least part of the inflectional system. Consider the following examples, beginning with the root:



The basic root for the verb we traditionally give the lexical entry λαμβάνω this time doesn’t have a default imperfective basis. Rather it’s default is perfective then with an imperfective stem derived from it. Some of the verbs in this unproductive class maintain their perfective root in the Future and/or Perfect verb forms, but many of them have simply taken over the basic V1 inflection system for everything else.

And then there’s voice, but we’ll leave that for another post.

15 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Hellenistic Greek Verb

Add yours

  1. You have λύ-ῃ identified as
    destroy.imperfv-subjunctive.imperfv.2sg.act.ind —
    (do you really mean “subjunctive & ind”?

    but it isn’t; this is a 3sg. act. ind. (or 2sg. m/p ind or 2sg. m/p subj.)

    1. I posted it and then proof-read it and correct that and a few other typos. I think you read it while I was doing that — but now I also see that my chart I copied from was out of order too!

  2. I note that you’re still clinging to the view that the -σ- future marker is identical with the aorist -σ- marker. That’s a long-standing notion, but it is questioned by some, certainly by Andrew Sihler, who thinks it’s an old desiderative infix.

    1. Carl, do you have any other suggestions for where Sihler’s view is discussed? His own discussion isn’t terribly long and doesn’t give much argumentation. My chief frustration with his volume is that he never seems to actually cite anyone for anything. The information is always good and interesting, but the references are terrible. I’m quite curious about this approach, but I’ve only heard about it from you and now Sihler.

      I found this review — but apparently the author of the book meekly argues against the desiderative origin.

      1. I agree that there’s little in Sihler §500; there’s more on the desiderative infix at Sihler §457. But I have also checked in Meillet-Vendryès §322 (in agreement) and in Chantraine (Morphologie historique du grec) §§293ff. Chantraine makes the telling point that futures such as ἄξω, ἐλεύσομαι, πείσομαι, θήσω correspond to aorists ἤγαγον, ἦλθον, ἔπαθον, ἔθηκα — where there’s no question of the futures being aorist short-vowel subjunctives. Sihler, Meillet-Vendryès, and Chantraine all understand the future marker as derivative from a PIE desiderative marker.

    2. For further evidence that future ≠ aorist, see the liquid verbs: future τενῶ, aorist ἔτεινα. That was the example that convinced Herodian (2nd century AD) that these two stems are distinct. (The future -s- had a variant *-es- which the aorist didn’t: fut. *ten-es-o: > tene-o: > ten-o:, aor. *ten-s-o: > te:n-o: .) I summarised the argument in my paper on the Byzantine passive future subjunctive; contact me off-list if you want to see it.

      Most of the time the future and aorist stems coincide, and they were already getting semantically conflated, but I agree the conflation is overhasty.

    1. Spanish & Russian, I can get by in (Russian with a dictionary). French, Italian, German, Dutch, well, we’re working on it.

      One of my favorite quotes in Robertson’s grammar is this one:

      “From one point of view a grammar of the Greek New Testament is an impossible task, if one has to be a specialist in the whole Greek language, in Latin, in Sanskrit, in Hebrew and the other Semitic tongues, in Church History, in the Talmud, in English, in psychology, in exegesis. I certainly lay no claim to omniscience. I am a linguist by profession and by love also, but I am not a specialist in the Semitic tongues, though I have a working knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, but not of Syriac and Arabic. The Coptic and the Sanskrit I can use. The Latin and the Greek, the French and German and Anglo-Saxon complete my modest linguistic equipment. I have, besides, a smattering of Assyrian, Dutch, Gothic and Italian” (Robertson, vii).

  3. Thanks for this post, Mike. I am looking forward to a similar one on voice.

    We were exposed to the basic problems of “tense” terminology in intermediate grammar, but tearing it all apart like you did is helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: