Diathesis Oppositions and Verb Morphology. Present and Aorist Systems in Ancient and Modern Greek

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Liana Tronci

Diathesis Oppositions and Verb Morphology. Present and Aorist Systems in Ancient and Modern Greek*

1. Preliminaries

1.1. This paper deals with Ancient Greek verb morphosyntax and has two different, but complementary, purposes. The first is to give a detailed description of the relationship between forms and functions in the aorist and present systems of Ancient Greek. The second goal is to propose an analysis of the diachronic changes affecting relevant aspects of verb morphosyntax from Ancient to Modern Greek.

In Ancient Greek both the aorist and the present systems feature two inflectional paradigms that contrast with respect to the syntactic properties of the Subject. On the other hand, in Modern Greek no inflectional contrast is found in the aorist system, but the present system is similar, in this respect, to that of Ancient Greek. This is an important difference between the two stages of the language that may be accounted for in terms of markedness relationships between forms and functions.

For this research, I have taken into account all the constructions in which finite verb forms in the aorist and present occur. They have been collected from the following literary works: Homer’s poems and hymns, Hesiod’s poems, and Herodotus’ Histories (see Appendices (1)-(5) at the end of this paper for an illustration of all the contructions that occur in my corpus: I give only one example for each lexical item).1

1.2. In Ancient Greek, as in other Indo-European languages, finite verb forms agree in person and number with the (grammatical) Subject. This property is illustrated in the following examples from the present (1a-1b) and aorist (2a-2b) systems.2
(1a) ándres mèn hoi pleûnes ekteínonto hypò tôn Perséōn (Hdt. VI 19)3

man-nom.pl so det-nom.pl more-nom.pl slay-ind.impf.3pl.mid by det-gen.pl Persian-gen.pl

‘for the most part of their men were slain by the Persians’

(1b) autoús t’ékteinon […] (Od. XIV 265)

they-acc.pl and slay-ind.impf.3pl.act

‘and [they] killed the men’

(2a) […] atár toi hetaîros apéktato […] (Il. XVII 472)

but you-dat comrade-nom.sg kill-ind.aor.3sg.mid

‘he who was your comrade is slain’

(2b) hēmeîs d’hérma pólēos apéktamen […] (Od. XXIII 121)

we-nom.pl so stay-acc.sg city-gen.sg kill-ind.aor.1pl.act

‘whereas we have been killing the stay of a whole city’

Whereas the (a) examples involve middle inflection, the (b) examples involve active verb forms. This difference concerning verb forms co-occurs with a syntactic difference: clauses in (a) are passive, whereas clauses in (b) are active. As the examples in Appendix 1 show, this co-occurrence is not a matter of chance: inflectional contrast expresses the syntactic difference between passive and active, in both the present and aorist systems.4

Contrary to what we find in the present system, however, the relationship between the passive vs. active contrast and inflectional contrast is not productive in the aorist system. In fact, this relationship is restricted to the morphological classes of thematic aorist (e.g. éskheto ‘was stayed’ and dieprátheto ‘was sacked’) and root aorist (e.g. éblēto ‘has been struck’). From a lexical point of view, these classes are not productive, compared to the so-called sigmatic aorist, whose morpho-lexical productivity is well-known (cf. Willi 2010: 512). This fact is interesting when seen in the light of another property frequently emphasized by scholars: the sigmatic forms do not occur in passive structures (cf. Wackernagel 1926: 137-8, Prévot 1935: 17-8, Schwyzer 1959: 757 and Ambrosini 1996: 21).

1.3. Comparing examples (1)-(2) above and (3)-(4) below reveals another peculiarity of the aorist system. It concerns, once again, the relationship between verb inflection and the syntactic passive vs. active contrast. Along with pairs in which the syntactic contrast correlates with the inflectional difference (see (1)-(2) and Appendix 1), there are pairs of clauses in which active inflection characterizes verb forms occurring in both passive and active constructions (see (3)-(4) and Appendix 2). This correlation between active inflection and passive constructions involves only aorist forms, but not the present system.
(3a) […] etáphē en têisi taphêisi en tôi hirôi (Hdt. III 10)

bury-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act in det-dat.pl tomb-dat.pl det-dat.pl in det-dat.sg temple-dat.sg

‘he was laid in the burial-place built for himself in the temple’

(3b) […] ho dé min éthapse en têi boï̀ taútēi (Hdt. II 131)

he-nom so she-acc bury-ind.aor.3sg.act in det-dat.sg cow-dat.sg this-dat.sg

‘then he buried her in this image of a cow’

(4a) […] hṑs tót’Akhaioì / […] ephóbēthen huph’Héktori kaì Diì patrì (Il. XV 636-7)

even then Achaean-nom.pl strike-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act by Hektor-dat.sg and Zeus-dat.sg father-dat.sg

‘even so were the Achaeans utterly panic-stricken by Hektor and father Zeus’

(4b) […] toùs d’állous Danaoùs ephóbēse Kroníōn (Il. XI 406)

det-acc.pl so other-acc.pl Danaan-acc.pl strike-ind.aor.3sg.act son of Kronos-nom.sg

‘for the son of Kronos has struck the rest of the Danaans with panic’
Examples (3b) and (4b) include verb forms that belong to the sigmatic class. From a morphological point of view, the sigmatic affix -s(a)-5 combines with inflectional endings. The relationship between inflection and syntax is trivial: there is active inflection in active constructions, as already observed in examples (1b) and (2b). Examples (3a) and (4a), on the other hand, involve the so-called “passive aorist”. As far as morphology is concerned, these forms (e.g. etáphē and ephóbēthen) are characterized by the combination of the affixes -ē- or -thē- and inflectional endings. From a morpho-syntactic point of view, pairs of clauses such as those in (3)-(4) are different from each other, the first one being passive and the second one active, but they do not contrast with each other by means of verb inflection, as was the case in (1)-(2). Instead, in all the clauses in (3)-(4), verb inflection is invariably active.
1.4. In order to account for this phenomenon, many scholars assume an ontological perspective. They suggest we should study the category of “passive aorist” by itself, without considering that these forms, far from being isolated, belong to a larger verb system and therefore their functional value should be determined with reference to that system as a whole. Comparative linguists often assign a semantic value like “stative” or “fientive” to one of the “passive aorist” affixes, i.e. -ē-, and they suggest that the passive use of these forms developed from the “stative” or “fientive” value of the affixes. In doing so, they follow the traditional idea that passive markers developed late in the prehistory of Indo-European languages, because of the lack of a common passive marker in these languages. They also assume that this alleged origin of the “passive aorist” could also account for the presence of verb forms with active inflection in passive constructions: the relationship between active inflection and passive constructions would be the outcome of a later process and would not concern the reconstructed Indo-European or unattested stages of Ancient Greek. From this perspective, aorist forms with the affixes -ē-/-thē- should be characterized by active inflection because in the oldest ( unattested) stages of Ancient Greek they did not correlate with passive (about this point, see infra).6

The point of view argued here is different. It makes a clean sweep of the semantic interpretations, which have been traditionally attributed to these verb forms, and follows Saussure’s idea that linguistic items have no value by themselves (and therefore do not exist by themselves), but are determined (and created) only through their syntagmatic (or in praesentia) and paradigmatic (in absentia) relationships. Along these lines, I shall try to define the functional values of markers, such as inflection and affixes, that characterize aorist verb forms, particularly “passive aorist” and sigmatic aorist. The outcome will be a picture of the whole aorist system: the functional values of both inflections and affixes could not be accounted for without considering syntactic contrasts such as those illustrated in (2)-(4). The approach suggested here is based on the theoretical and methodological assumptions of La Fauci and Tronci (2009), from which this paper draws its inspiration.7

1.5. The analysis of the Ancient Greek data developed here could shed new light on certain diachronic phenomena involving the aorist system, accounting for some morphosyntactic aspects of Modern Greek as well. The following pairs are extracted (with some small changes) from the Modern Greek grammar edited by Holton et al. (1997) and illustrate once again the passive vs. active contrast. Verb forms occurring in these examples belong to the present (5) and the aorist systems (6), respectively:
(5a) oi politikoí agapiountai apó ton kósmo

det-nom.pl politician-nom.pl appreciate-ind.prs.3pl.mid by det-acc.sg people-acc.sg

‘politicians are appreciated by the people’

(5b) o kósmos agapáei tous politikoús

det-nom.sg people-nom.sg appreciate-ind.prs.3sg.act det-acc.pl politician-acc.pl

‘people appreciates politicians’

(6a) to próto biblío tou Tsomski demosieúteke apó ton ekdotikó oíko Moúton

det-nom.sg first-nom.sg book-nom.sg det-gen.sg Chomsky publish-ind.aor.3sg.act by

det-acc.sg publishing-acc.sg house-acc.sg Mouton

‘the first book by Chomsky was published by the Mouton press’

(6b) o ekdotikós oíkos Moúton demosíeuse to próto biblío tou Tsomski

det-nom.sg publishing-nom.sg house-nom.sg Mouton publish-ind.aor.3sg.act det-acc.sg first-acc.sg book-acc.sg det-gen.sg Chomsky

‘the Mouton press published the first book by Chomsky’
In the present system, inflectional contrast correlates with the syntactic passive vs. active contrast: middle inflection occurs in passive constructions (5a), whereas active inflection characterizes active constructions (5b). Therefore, in this regard there is no difference between Ancient and Modern Greek. However, the aorist system presents a different picture: there is no inflectional opposition, and only active inflection is used in both passive and active constructions. The syntactic difference appears to be expressed by morphemes that linearly precede inflection: the affix -tē(k)- occurs in passive constructions and never occurs in the active ones, in which the sigmatic affix -s- is found, instead.8 From the point of view of form, these affixes are related to Ancient Greek -thē- and -sa- (see above).

With respect to the aorist system, an important difference distinguishes Ancient and Modern Greek. In Ancient Greek the value of inflection is not determined: in some morphological classes, it has contrastive value, but in others it does not. Modern Greek has no inflectional contrast, and verb forms exhibit only active inflection. Is there a relationship between the two systems? How could we account for the differences?

2. Syntactic correlates of inflectional contrast

2.1. As suggested by La Fauci and Tronci (2009), the passive vs. active contrast appears to be an useful operational tool to test the relationship between forms and functions, in particular between verb forms and their syntactic values. The passive vs. active contrast distinguishes structures that are obviously different at various levels of analysis.9 For our purposes here, the relevant level is syntax. Our discussion will feature examples of the active term of constrast drawn only from transitive constructions, in which Subject and Direct Object relations co-occur without any further syntactic process.

In this paper a syntactic structure is conceived as a combination of grammatical relations whose functional value is to be determined according to their syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships. These relationships are expressed by differences concerning case marking, verb inflection, interpretation and so on. In the framework of Relational Grammar (RG)10, grammatical relations, such as Predicate, Subject, Direct Object and Indirect Object, are primitives of the syntactic theory. These relations do not pertain to the clause on the whole, but to syntactic strata (the different levels of representation): the final Subject is the Subject of the final stratum (roughly corresponding to the surface representation in GB theory) the initial Object is the Object of the initial stratum (roughly, the equivalent of the underlying representation in GB), and so on. Each of these strata contains all syntagmatic relationships that are relevant for that syntactic stratum; the sequence of strata allows us to identify the paradigmatic relationships that are relevant for each item of the clause. This analysis of syntactic structure, as sequence of strata, allows us to determine the relationships between grammatical relations and morphosyntactic properties, such as verb morphology, the main topic of this paper.

Let us begin with some simple syntactic structures, such as the transitive constructions in all the (b) clauses of (1)-(6). Besides the Predicate, these structures contain two grammatical relations: Subject and Direct Object. These relations are marked in Ancient Greek by the following morphosyntactic properties, whose value is correlative:

  1. verb agreement (with the Subject and not with the Direct Object);

  2. case marking (nominative for the Subject, accusative for the Direct Object11);

  3. interpretation (active, e.g. ‘those which slew’, ‘those which killed’ for the Subject of (1b), (2b); passive, e.g. ‘those which were slain’, ‘that who was killed’ for the Direct Object of the same constructions).

Passive constructions contain only one grammatical relation: the Subject. It is marked by nominative case and triggers verb agreement, just like the Subject of the transitive structures. However, passive Subjects have a different interpretation from the Subject of transitive structures, e.g. ‘those which were slain’ (vs. ‘those which slew’) and ‘that who was killed’ (vs. ‘those which killed’). This means that the Subject of passive structures has an interpretation which is comparable to that of the Direct Object of the transitive constructions (cf. Rosen 1984). With respect to Subject-verb agreement morphology, there is an important difference between (1a)-(2a) and (1b)-(2b): verb inflection is active in the (a) examples case, but middle in the (b) examples. This difference correlates with the different interpretation of the Subject relation.

The framework of RG allows us to capture and formalize this difference. Compared with the Subject of transitive structures in (1b)-(2b), the Subject of (1a)-(2a) has a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object: this relationship accounts for the interpretations as ‘those which were slain’, ‘that who was killed’, i.e. the same interpretations of the Direct Object of the transitive structures in (1b)-(2b). Passive clauses, which have a more complex syntactic structure than transitive clauses, involve a sequence of strata.12 The initial syntactic stratum of passive structures is transitive: it is reflected in the interpretation, hypò tôn Perséōn in (1a) having the same interpretation ‘those which slew’ than the Subject of the transitive construction in (1b). The final stratum is an intransitive stratum, because of the advancement of the initial Direct Object to Subject and the “Chômeur Condition”, which says that

if some nominal, Na, bears a given term [= predicate, subject, direct and indirect object] relation in a given stratum, Si, and some other nominal, Nb, bears the same term relation in the following stratum, Si+1, then Na bears the chômeur relation in Si+1 (Perlmutter and Postal 1983: 20).
The diagrams in (7) represent clauses (1a)-(2a) and (1b)-(2b) and are to be read from bottom to top. The symbols mean: P = Predicate, 1 = Subject, 2 = Direct Object, 3 = Indirect Object, F = Fossil (= Chômeur). Horizontal rows represent the strata, that is the syntagmatic relationships of each stratum. Vertical columns represent the paradigmatic relationships of each item.
(7) Diagram
The correlation between inflectional contrast and the passive vs. active contrast illustrates that, in both the present and aorist systems, verb inflection expresses the property of final subjecthood, which may or may not be in a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object. Middle inflection co-occurs with Subjects having this relationship; active inflection, instead, with Subjects not having this relationship.
2.2. Let us turn now to the aorist system. It has been already highlighted that sigmatic verb forms do not occur in passive structures. This does not mean that inflectional contrast is not relevant for the sigmatic aorist class, as the following examples and Appendix 3 illustrate.13
(8a) krēdémnōi d’ephúperthe kalúpsato dîa theáōn (Il. XIV 184)

veil-dat.sg so over cover-ind.aor.3sg.mid divine-nom.sg goddess-gen.pl

‘and with a veil over all did the fair goddess veil herself’

(8b) pardaléēi mèn prôta metáfrenon eurù kálupse / poikílēi […] (Il. X 29-30)

leopard’s skin-dat.sg so first shoulder-acc.sg broad-acc.sg cover-ind.aor.3sg.act


‘with a leopard’s skin first he covered his broad shoulders’
(9a) kaì nûn mèn phílon huiòn elúsao [...] (Il. XXIV 685)

and now so beloved-acc.sg son-acc.sg ransom-ind.aor.2sg.mid

‘now you have ransomed your son’

(9b) [...] hóti Héktora dîon élusa / patrì phílôi [...] (Il. XXIV 593-4)

that Hektor-acc.sg noble-acc.sg ransom-ind.aor.1sg.act father-dat.sg beloved-dat.sg

‘that I have given back noble Hector to his dear father’

(10a) têmos sphêi aretêi Danaoì rhḗxanto phálaggas (Il. XI 90)

then their-dat.sg valour-dat.sg Danaan-nom.pl break-ind.aor.3pl.mid battalion-acc.pl

‘even then the Danaans by their valour brake the battalions’

(10b) Aías dè prôtos Telamṓnios hérkos Akhaiôn / Trṓōn rhêxe phálagga [...] (Il. VI 5-6)

Aias-nom.sg so first-nom.sg son of Telamon-nom.sg bulwark-nom.sg Achaean-gen.pl Trojan-gen.pl break-ind.aor.3sg.act battalion-acc.sg

‘Aias, son of Telamon, bulwark of the Achaeans, was first to break a battalion of the Trojans’

Verb forms in the (a) clauses are marked by middle inflection, whereas those in the (b) clauses are marked by active inflection. The comparison between (a) and (b) shows, once more, that inflectional contrast reflects a syntactic difference. There is no doubt that all clauses in (b) are transitive. By contrast, examples in (a) are different from each other, and scholars have tried to describe the different constructions on the basis of the different interpretations. According to these interpretations, there has been a proliferation of entities (and labels), that are supposed to be essential in order to account for middle inflection to occur: for instance, Allan (2003) lists, among others, “Spontaneous Process Middle”, “Mental Process Middle”, “Body Motion Middle”, “Collective Motion Middle” and so on. The approach I suggest in this paper does not take into account these different labels, and instead tries to identify the common syntactic feature of the corresponding constructions, while still recognizing the differences (which are reflected in the different interpretations).

Let us start with the pair in (8), focusing on the grammatical relations. The Predicate relation is borne by the same lexical item. Besides the Predicate, in (8a) there is only one other grammatical relation (the Subject), whereas in (8b) we find two argumental relations (Subject and Direct Object). This means that the final stratum of these constructions is intransitive in (8a) and transitive in (8b). The interpretations associated with these grammatical relations indicate that the initial stratum of both constructions is transitive. The initial stratum of (8a) is transitive, as in (8b). In the initial stratum both the Subject and Direct Object relations are borne by the same item in (8a), whereas they are borne by two different items in (8b). The diagrams in (11) show the corresponding representations: a direct reflexive structure in (8a), and the corresponding transitive structure in (8b). The syntactic configuration in (8a), where one nominal bears two grammatical relations in the same stratum (in our example, Subject and Direct Object), is called multiattachment. The notion of multiattachment was introduced by Rosen (1988 [1981]: 43) in her analysis of reflexive clauses in Italian and accounts for several other morphosyntactic phenomena in the Romance languages, as Rosen (1988 [1981]), La Fauci (1984), (1988) and Perlmutter (1989) have discussed. Benedetti (2005) also uses multiattachment in her analysis of Ancient Greek constructions such as those discussed here:

(11) Diagram
Multiattachment also accounts for cases such as (9a) and (10a), which involve indirect reflexive and antipassive constructions14, in contrast with the transitive constructions in (9b) and (10b). Their syntactic configuration may be represented as in following diagrams:
(12) Diagram

(13) Diagram

Both syntactic structures in (9a) and (10a) involve a process of detransitivization: the final stratum of these structures is intransitive, in spite of the presence of a noun in accusative case (phílon huión, phálangas).15 The syntactic test to verify if an argument is a Direct Object or not is, obviously, passivization, but there is no passive structure related to (9a) or (10a). Hence, in the final stratum of (9a) and (10a) there is no Direct Object relation. I shall not dwell on this point again (for a discussion, see La Fauci 1988 and Rosen 1988 [1981]; for an account of these constructions in Ancient Greek, see Benedetti 2005 and Tronci 2005).

To sum up. The various morphological classes of aorist show some differences as far as the inflection contrast is concerned. The sigmatic class is particularly interesting because the inflection contrast does not correlate with the passive vs. active contrast, contrary to what may be observed in the thematic and root classes. However, inflectional contrast is relevant for the sigmatic aorist as well: middle inflection occurs in various kinds of constructions. All of these structures involve a final Subject that bears the Object relation in a syntactic stratum in a 1, 2 multiattachment configuration.

The correlation between middle inflection and multiattachment does not involve only the sigmatic forms. It is also found in the other aorist forms (i.e. thematic and root), and in the present system, as shown by the following pairs:
(14a) amphì d’ ár’ ṓmoisin bálet’ aigída thussanóessan (Il. V 738)

around so then shoulder-dat.pl cast-ind.aor.3sg.mid aegis-acc.sg tasselled-acc.sg

‘around her shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis, fraught with terror’

(14b) amphì dé min phâros kalòn bálon ēdè khitôna (Il. XXIV 588)

around so he-acc.sg cloak-acc.sg fair-acc.sg cast-ind.aor.3pl.act and tunic-acc.sg

‘and had cast about it a fair cloak and a tunic’

(15a) heíleto dè skêptron patrṓïon áphthiton aieì (Il. II 46)

grasp-ind.aor.3sg.mid so sceptre-acc.sg paternal-acc.sg imperishable-acc.sg ever

‘and he grasped the sceptre of his fathers, imperishable ever’

(15b) […] sákos heîle tetugménon huîos heoîo (Il. XIV 9)

shield-acc.sg grasp-ind.aor.3sg.act build-ptcp.pf.mid.acc.sg son-gen.sg his-gen.sg

‘and he grasped the shield of his son’

(16a) thápsantes dè hoi Skúthai kathaírontai trópōi toiôide (Hdt. IV 73)

bury-ptcp.aor.act.nom.pl so det-nom.pl Scythian-nom.pl cleanse-ind.prs.3pl.mid way-dat.sg that-dat.sg

‘after the burial the Scythians cleanse themselves that way’

(16b) autàr épeita thrónous perikalléas ēdè trapézas / […] káthairon (Od. XXII 452-3)

but after seat-acc.pl very nice-acc.pl and table-acc.pl clean-ind.prs.3pl.act

‘When they had done this, they cleaned all the tables and seats’

(17a) mḕ dḗ pō hup’ ókhesphi luṓmetha mṓnukhas híppous (Il. XXIII 7)

not then yet from chariot-loc.pl loose-subj.prs.1pl.mid single-hoofed-acc.pl horse-acc.pl

‘let us not yet loose our single-hoofed horses from their chariots’

(17b) híppous d’Eurumédōn therápōn lúe toîo gérontos / ex okhéōn [...] (Il. XI 620-1)

horse-acc.pl so Eurymedon-nom.sg attendant-nom.sg loose-ind.impf.3sg.act det-gen.sg

old-gen.sg from chariot-gen.pl

‘and Eurymedon the attendant loosed old Nestor’s horses from the chariot’

2.3. All the examples given so far illustrate La Fauci and Tronci’s (2009) claim that inflectional contrast correlates with the syntactic difference between structures in which the Subject stands “in a commutative [i.e. paradigmatic, lt] relationship with the Object relation (regardless of whether this Object relation enters into any combinatory [i.e. syntagmatic, lt] relationships)” and structures in which the Subject does not have any paradigmatic relationship with the Object relation. Consequently, inflectional contrast depends on the difference between (structures with) middle Subject and (structures with) non-middle Subject, whose syntactic determination was first proposed by La Fauci (1988).16 In his framework middle and active (or better non-middle) are contrastive features of the functional opposition between two different (final) Subject relations:17
In regard to the relational properties of subjects: we say that a contrast between middle and active is registered in any phenomenon (case marking, conjugation, agreement, word order) that distinguishes between the following two classes: (i) final subjects which bear the direct object relation in some stratum (i.e. final subjects of clauses containing a passive, an unaccusative initial stratum, a reflexive or reciprocal multiattachment, an antipassive etc.) and (ii) final subjects which do not bear the direct object relation in any stratum (La Fauci 1994 [1988]: 34).
This is true for the Ancient Greek present system, and the aorist system as well, provided that the sigmatic forms are taken into account. It is true that inflectional contrast marks the syntactic middle vs. non-middle contrast in sigmatic forms too. Nevertheless, this correlation does not account specifically for the distribution of inflectional contrast in sigmatic forms, in particular for the lack of middle sigmatic forms in passive structures. The passive vs. non-passive contrast, which depends on the middle term of the contrast, accounts for this peculiarity of the sigmatic aorist (see table A):

(18) Table A

3. The so-called “passive aorist”

3.1. In the aorist system the correlation between passive constructions and middle inflection is restricted to root and thematic verb forms, which are not productive from a morpho-lexical point of view (see examples in (2) above). As a rule, passive clauses exhibit verb forms belonging to the so-called “passive aorist” (see examples in (3a), (4a) above). Morphological markers of this class are the affixes -ē- or -thē-, always combined with active inflection.18 In spite of this, the syntactic passive vs. active contrast is still manifested by verb morphology. In passive structures, inflection is always combined with the affixes -ē- or -thē-. By contrast, in active structures inflection is never combined with the affixes -ē-/-thē-: it may be combined with an affix, such as the sigmatic affix in (3b) and (4b) above and (19b) below, but this is not necessarily the case, as in (20b), where a root aorist occurs.

(19a) [...] hoì dḕ polées dámen Héktori díōi (Il. XVIII 103)

det-nom.pl then many-acc.pl slay-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act Hektor-dat.sg noble-dat.sg

‘those many have been slain by goodly Hector’

(19b) khersìn Akhillḗos dámase glaukôpis Athḗnē (Il. XXII 446)

hand-dat.pl Achilles-gen.sg slay-ind.aor.3sg.act owl-eye-nom.sg Athena-nom.sg

‘flashing-eyed Athene had vanquished him at the hands of Achilles’

(20a) […] hétaroi dè katéktathen hoùs sù metallâis (Il. XIII 780)

comrade-nom.pl so slay-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act rel-acc.pl you-nom ask for-ind.prs.2sg.act

‘but the comrades of whom you ask were slain’

(20b) [...] hóte dîon Ereuthalíōna katéktan (Il. IV 318-319)

when noble-acc.sg Ereuthalion-acc.sg slay-ind.aor.1sg.act

‘when I slew goodly Ereuthalion’
As we can see in the (a) examples in pairs (21)-(22), the “passive aorist” does not occur exclusively in passive clauses. In fact, these clauses are intransitive, as shown by the comparison with the corresponding transitive clauses in (b) (see Appendix 4 as well):
(21a) énth’ephánē méga sêma [...] (Il. II 308)

then show-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act great-nom.sg portent-nom.sg

‘then appeared a great portent’

(21b) hēmîn mèn tód’ éphēne téras méga mētíeta Zeùs (Il. II 324)

we-dat so this-acc.sg show-ind.aor.3sg.act sign-acc.sg great-acc.sg counselor-nom.sg


‘To us has Zeus the counselor showed this great sign’

(22a) […] takhées d’hippêes ágerthen (Il. XXIII 287)

swift-nom.pl so charioteer-nom.pl gather-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act

‘and the swift charioteers gathered together’

(22b) enthád’ aph’humetérōn políōn ḗgeira hékaston (Il. XVII 222)

meanwhile from your-gen.pl city-gen.pl gather-ind.aor.1sg.act each-acc.sg

‘[...] did I gather each man of you here from your cities’

3.2. La Fauci and Tronci (2009) propose a syntactic analysis of these constructions. The (active) inflection of the “passive aorist” differs from the active inflection of all the other verb forms dealt with here. In the latter active inflection has contrastive value (in opposition to middle inflection). On the other hand, inflection in the “passive aorist” has no contrastive value because only active inflection may combine with the affixes -ē-/-thē-.19 This means that in “passive aorist” forms active inflection is a combinatorial variant that depends on the affixes -ē-/-thē-. Active inflection of “passive aorist” only registers person and number agreement with the final Subject and does not correlate with the property of being a final Subject in a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object relation. The same principle operates in (21a) and (22a). Here the Subject relation has the same interpretation as the Direct Object relation of the corresponding transitive constructions in (21b) and (22b). This follows from the “Unaccusative Hypothesis”, whereby “Certain intransitive clauses have an initial 2 but no initial 1” (Perlmutter 1978: 160). According to Perlmutter (1978), initially unaccusative constructions contain two strata: in the initial stratum the argument bears the Direct Object relation in the initial (unaccusative) stratum and the Subject relation in the final (unergative) stratum. Benedetti (2005) uses this hypothesis to describe Ancient Greek intransitive clauses whose verb forms have middle inflection (in opposition to those whose verb forms have active inflection) or -ē-/-thē- affixes.

In both passive and initially unaccusative constructions the final Subject is in a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object relation. The difference is that this Object relation belongs to a transitive stratum in passive constructions, but to an unaccusative stratum in (initially) unaccusative constructions. The diagrams in (23) illustrate the syntactic structures of both passive and (initially) unaccusative constructions.

(23) Diagram


hoi dê polees


Hektori diôi


mega sêma



















With respect to the middle vs. non-middle contrast, “passive aorist” correlates with middle. This relationship accounts for the distribution of “passive aorist”, which differs from that of verb forms having active inflection (without affixes -ē-/-thē-, obviously) and coincides with the distribution of verb forms having middle inflection (see examples in Appendix 5). The distributional differences are obvious when we compare constructions in (c) below with the (a) examples in § 3.1 above, repeated below for convenience.20

(19a) [...] hoì dḕ polées dámen Héktori díōi (Il. XVIII 103)

det-nom.pl then many-acc.pl slay-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act Hektor-dat.sg noble-dat.sg

‘[...] those many have been slain by goodly Hector’

(19c) hṑs ára puknà karḗath’huph’Héktori dàmnato laôn (Il. XI 309)

just so many-nom.pl head-nom.pl by Hektor-dat.sg slay-ind.impf.3sg.mid people-gen.pl

‘just so many heads of men were laid low by Hector’

(20a) […] hétaroi dè katéktathen hoùs sù metallâis (Il. XIII 780)

comrade-nom.pl so slay-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act rel-acc.pl you-nom ask for-ind.prs-2sg.act

‘but the comrades of whom you ask were slain’

(20c) [...] allá poth’ hôde kataktenéesthe kaì húmmes (Il. XIV 481)
but then that way slay-ind.fut.2pl.mid and you-nom

‘but some day in like manner you too will be slain’

(21a) énth’ephànē méga sêma [...] (Il. II 308)

then show-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act great-nom.sg portent-nom.sg

‘then appeared a great portent: a serpent, blood-red on its back, terrible’

(21c) [...] hékathen dé te phaínetai augḗ (Il. II 456)

from afar so and show-ind.prs.3sg.mid glare-nom.sg

‘and from afar can the glare be seen’

(22a) […] takhées d’hippêes ágerthen (Il. XXIII 287)

swift-nom.pl so charioteer-nom.pl gather-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act

‘and the swift charioteers gathered together’

(22c) allà prìn epì éthneageíreto muría nekrôn (Od. XI 632)

but before there people-nom.pl gather-ind.impf.3sg.mid thousand-nom.pl ghost-gen.pl

‘but so many thousands of ghosts gathered and uttered such appalling cries’

3.3. Let us consider now the relationship between forms and functions in the most productive classes of the Ancient Greek aorist system, that is, “passive aorist” and sigmatic aorist. Both the “passive aorist” and the sigmatic aorist correlate with the middle term of the middle vs. non-middle constrast. Nevertheless, this relationship is expressed by means of different markers: the affixes in the “passive aorist”, and inflectional endings in the sigmatic aorist.

Although it is true that both verb forms correlate with the middle (vs. non-middle), it is also true that they do not occur in the same constructions, as argued by Benedetti (2005) and Tronci (2005). Both verb forms correlate with a Subject relation that is in a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object relation. Nevertheless, this paradigmatic relationship involves different syntactic processes: the Subject relation occurring with the sigmatic aorist combines with the Direct Object relation in a multiattachment-stratum, whereas no multiattachment is involved in constructions having the “passive aorist”.

Nevertheless, the “passive aorist” and the sigmatic aorist appear to occur as free variants in a small group of clauses, as illustrated in examples (24)-(25).21
(24a) kaì tóte dḕ perì kêri Poseidáōn ekholṓthē (Il. XIII 206)
and then so at heart-dat.sg Poseidon-nom.sg move to rage-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act

‘And then it was that Poseidon grew furious at heart’

(24b) [...] potamòs dè kholṓsato kēróthi mâllon (Il. XXI 136)

river-nom.sg so move to rage-ind.aor.3sg.mid heart-loc.sg still

‘and the river grew still more angry within’

(25a) dḕ tóte koimḗthēmen epì rhēgmîni thalássēs (Od. IX 559)

so then get to sleep-ind.aor.afx.1pl.act upon beach-dat.sg sea-gen.sg

‘we camped upon the beach’

(25b) hoi mèn koimḗsanto katà mégara skióenta (Od. X 479)

they-nom so get to sleep-ind.aor.3pl.mid in cloister-acc.pl covered-acc.pl

‘the men laid themselves down to sleep in the covered cloisters’

A comparison with the corresponding transitive constructions in (24c) and (25c) below reveals that both (a) and (b) clauses in (24)-(25) are initially unaccusative constructions.
(24c) hōs emè nûn ekhólōsen ánax andrôn Agamémnōn (Il. XVIII 111)

just I-acc now move to rage-ind.aor.3sg.act lord-nom.sg man-gen.pl Agamemnon-nom.sg

‘just as but now the lord of men, Agamemnon, moved me to rage’

(25c) tòn d’ autoû koímēse Gerḗnios hippóta Néstōr / Tēlémakhon, [...] (Od. III 397-8)

he-acc so there get to sleep-ind.aor.3sg.act Nestor-nom.sg Telemachus-acc.sg

‘but the horseman, Nestor of Gerenia, put Telemachus to sleep [in the room]’

We noted earlier that the distribution of the “passive aorist” and middle sigmatic aorist is not haphazard, but ruled by syntactic conditions concerning the final Subject relation. How, then, may we account for clauses (a)-(b) in (24)-(25)? Previous analyses account for this property by means of metrics (cf. Allan 2003: 148-169). Although I do not rule out the possibility that the choice between the two forms could be determined by metrics, such an analysis does not explain why this choice is restricted to unaccusative structures. If the constructions in (24a)-(25a) and (24b)-(25b) are all unaccusative, how may this (apparently) free alternation be explained? What are the syntactic conditions that correlate with the two verb forms?

My hypothesis is that the “passive aorist” and the middle sigmatic aorist signal a syntactic difference even in constructions which appear to be similar to each other, such as those in (24a-b) and (25a-b). This difference may be accounted for in terms of the presence vs. absence of multiattachment involving the domain of middle structures. Both (a) and (b) in (24)-(25) contain an initially unaccusative stratum: for this reason, they show the same interpretation. The difference involves the syntactic processes affecting the initial Direct Object relation and the final Subject relation: whereas in (24b) and (25b) there is multiattachment (with the same nominal bearing both the Subject and Object relations), in (24a) and (25a) there is no multiattachment. The diagrams in (26) illustrate the contrast in structure:

(26) Diagram
This hypothesis explains the presence of different verb forms in constructions that appear to be similar while at the same time allowing us to account for data that would otherwise appear to be excluded from the analysis. Moreover, the analysis allows us to see the morphological contrast associated with the presence or absence of multiattachment in Ancient Greek as yet another example of an interlinguistic phenomenon found also in Modern and Old Italian (Rosen 1982, Rosen 1988 [1981]: 21-25, La Fauci 2004).22

My analysis suggests that syntactic processes in Ancient Greek are independent from semantics. In fact, the analysis shows that morphosyntactic phenomena such as those involving verb mophology are associated with syntactic processes that sometimes do not have any semantic correlates.23 The analysis is also interesting from a crosslinguistic perspective because it captures important functional similarities between Ancient Greek and Italian morphosyntax in spite of the obvious differences in form.

4. Synchronic relationships and diachronic change

4.1. Let us now move from Ancient to Modern Greek. As already noted above, the expression of the passive vs. active contrast correlates with inflectional contrast in the present system, whereas in the aorist system it is marked by the affixes -tê(k)- and -sa-, respectively. These affixes developed from the Ancient Greek affixes -thē- and -sa-. The affix -tē(k)- is found in verb forms that occur not only in passive constructions, but also in other kinds of middle constructions, such as initially unaccusative and reflexive structures, as shown by clauses in (27a) and (28a). The examples in (27b) and (28b) show the corresponding transitive constructions.24

(27a) ki afoú oi thiakoí monosunákhtēkan ki óloi mazí bréthēkan (Od. II 9)

now when det-nom.pl Ithacan-nom.pl assemble-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act and all together


‘now when they were assembled and met together’

(27b) ki ekeínoi élegan ti tous ḗthelan kai tous monosunáxan (Od. III 140)

and those-nom.pl say-ind.impf.3pl.act why they-acc want-ind.aor.3pl.act and they-acc assemble-ind.aor.3pl.act

‘and they said their say, and told why they had gathered the host together’

(28a) […] diplopálama metá me ládi aleíphtē / euōdiastó, theikó […] (Il. XIV 171-172)

with two hands after with oil-acc.sg anoint-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act soft-acc.sg ambrosial-acc.sg

‘she anointed herself richly with oil, ambrosial, soft’

(28b) […] kai t’áleipse me ládi ploúsia […] (Od. XIX 505)

and he-acc anoint-ind.aor.3sg.act with oil-acc.sg richly

‘and she anointed him richly with oil’

Let us compare the pair in (28) with their Ancient Greek counterparts in (29):
(29a) […] aleípsato dè líp’elaíōi / ambrosíōi hedanôi (Il. XIV 171-2)

anoint-ind.aor.3pl.mid so richly oil-dat.sg ambrosial-dat.sg soft-dat.sg

‘she anointed herself richly with oil, ambrosial, soft’

(29b) […] kaì ḗleipsen líp’elaíōi (Od. XIX 505)

and anoint-ind.aor.3sg.act richly oil-dat.sg

‘and she anointed him richly with oil’

The examples in (28a) and in (29a) differ from each other with respect to the verb morphology: active inflection combined with affix -tē(k)- in Modern Greek vs. middle inflection (combined with affix -sa-) in Ancient Greek. Verb forms belonging to the Modern Greek aorist system are characterized by affixes -tē(k)- and -sa-, always combined with active inflection. The distribution of verb forms featuring affixes -tē(k)- and -sa- correlates approximately with the syntactic middle vs. non-middle contrast.25 This contrast is reflected in the different affixes, whereas inflection only registers agreement in person and number with the Subject, as already noted with reference to the “passive aorist” in Ancient Greek. In this respect, the present and aorist systems of Modern Greek differ from each other more than the present and aorist systems of Ancient Greek. A sketch of the relevant Modern Greek morphology is given in table B:
(30) Table B
A question arises at this point concerning diachronic change: What is the relationship between the aorist system of Ancient Greek and that of Modern Greek? And how may it be accounted for?
4.2. As we have repeatedly noted, in Ancient Greek the “passive aorist” correlates with the middle (vs. non-middle). However, this relationship does not capture the particular value of the “passive aorist”. The syntactic notion of middle (vs. non-middle) is not the minimal functional feature accounting for the distribution of the “passive aorist”. In fact, the “passive aorist” does not occur in all kinds of middle constructions, but only in constructions whose Subject relation has a paradigmatic relationship with the Direct Object relation, without any multiattached stratum (i.e. passive and initially unaccusative constructions).

This functional relationship with middle is marked by the affixes -ē-/-thē-, which (as we have already seen) are always combined with active inflection. Obviously, the value of the active inflection found in these verb forms is different from the active inflection which is found in other verb forms and which contrasts with middle inflection. Since the opposition between middle and active inflection correlates with a syntactic difference, active inflection has contrastive value. On the other hand, active inflection that occurs in combination with the affixes -ē-/-thē- has not contrastive value, because it does not contrast with middle inflection. In this case, inflection registers agreement in person and number with the Subject, and does not express other properties of the Subject. Therefore, in the “passive aorist” the relationship between function and form, as far as the affix and the inflection are concerned, is reversed in comparison to the sigmatic aorist, which otherwise seems to be morphologically similar to the “passive aorist”. In both classes, indeed, inflection combines with an affix. The difference is that the affixes -ē-/-thē- have contrastive value: the verb forms that exhibit them occur in syntactic structures that are middle [without multiattachment] and do not occur in both active and middle [multiattachment] constructions. By contrast, the affix -sa- does not have any contrastive value: verb forms that exhibit this affix may occur in both active and middle [multiattachment] constructions, this functional difference being manifested by inflectional contrast .

Therefore, in spite of the morphological similarity, the sigmatic and “passive aorist” classes are very different as far as the relationship between forms and functions is concerned. Inflection that combines with affix -sa- has contrastive value: it correlates with the opposition middle [multiattachment] vs. non-middle. Inflection that combines with affix -thē- has not contrastive value. Table C summarizes the relationship between functional values and inflection:
(31) Table C
As Table C shows, active inflection is the unmarked term of the opposition, because it occurs in both non-middle and middle constructions. Middle inflection, on the other hand, is the marked term of the opposition: it occurs only in middle constructions.

The unmarkedness of active inflection correlates with the non-contrastive value of inflection and, concurrently, with the contrastive value of affixes, as is represented in the first row of Table C. The affixes -sa- and -thē- are markers of the non-middle vs. middle opposition: they have contrastive value.

Seen from this perspective, the loss of verb forms that exhibit middle inflection appears to be a consequence of their markedness. By comparison with other forms in Table C, the middle sigmatic aorist is marked with respect to the relationship between functions and forms. Two morphemes occur in it: the affix -sa- (with non-contrastive value) and the middle inflection (with contrastive value). The unmarkedness of active inflection correlates with its non-contrastive value, whereas the unmarkedness of affixes correlates with their contrastive value. With respect to both these correlations, the middle sigmatic aorist is marked.

These different relationships between forms and functions appear to account for the diachronic changes affecting these verb forms. The loss of the middle inflection in Modern Greek represents the outcome of the clash between the two different systems coexisting in Ancient Greek, that is, a system in which the inflection opposition has contrastive value, and another one in which the affix opposition has contrastive value.

4.3. The analysis proposed above allows us to identify the functional reason for the well-known productivity of sigmatic forms. The sigmatic aorist and the “passive aorist” (with affix -thē-) are the most productive classes of the Ancient Greek aorist system. By contrast, root and thematic aorist classes are absolutely unproductive.26 According to my proposal, productivity does not account for the linguistic changes: instead, productivity is a datum to be accounted for. Let me briefly address this claim.

I do not rule out the possibility that morphological factors may be involved in the process. Such factors may include, for instance, the formal similarity of the sigmatic aorist and the “passive aorist”, both of which combine an affix with inflection:

(32a) […] allà phóbēthen / pántes […] (Il. XVI 659-660)
but drive in rout-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act all-nom.pl

‘but [they] were driven in rout one and all’

(32b) […] bóes hṓs, / hás te léōn ephóbēse […] (Il. XI 172-3)

cow-nom.pl like rel-acc.pl and lion-nom.sg drive in rout-ind.aor.3sg.act

‘like cattle that a lion has driven in rout’

(33a) autàr epeì kósmēthen hám’hēgemónessin hékastoi (Il. III 1)

but when prepare-ind.aor.afx.3pl.act with leader-dat.pl each-nom.pl

‘now when they drew up, the several companies with their leaders […]’

(33b) allá spheas kósmēse Podárkēs ózos Árēos (Il. II 704)

but they-acc prepare-ind.aor.3sg.act Podarces-nom.sg scion-nom.sg Ares-gen sg

‘but Podarces, scion of Ares, marshaled them’

(34a) […]ê méga érgon huperphiálōs etelésthē /Tēlemákhōi hodòs hēde […] (Od. IV 663-4)

indeed great-nom.sg work-nom.sg superbly fulfill-ind.aor.afx.3sg.act Telemachus-dat.sg voyage-nom.sg this-nom.sg

‘this voyage of Telemakhos is a very serious matter’

(34b) […] sù dé hoi nóon ouk etélessas (Il. XXIII 149)

you-nom he-dat intent-acc.sg not fulfill-ind.aor.2sg.act

‘but you did not fulfill for him his intent’

In these classes the neutralization of the contrastive value of inflection is connected with the presence of another morphological marker having contrastive value, that is, the affixes. Actually, in root and thematic aorist classes there is no marker that could have contrastive value. Therefore, it is not the morphological unproductiveness that leads to the loss of root and thematic classes. Rather, the main factor is the unproductiveness that is implied by the interdependency between forms and functions.

The reasons for the diachronic change are to be found in markedness relationships involving the forms and functions of markers, such as inflection and affixes, and their combinations. Consequently, the diachronic process is to be conceived as a neutralization of the contrastive value of inflection whose end result is the loss of forms featured by this contrastive value (i.e. the middle sigmatic forms).

5. Closing remarks

In this paper I have provided a descriptive characterization of the relationship between forms and functions in the aorist and the present systems of Ancient Greek. This description clearly shows that some aspects of the synchronic relationships relevant to the aorist system of Ancient Greek correlate with some diachronic processes leading to the Modern Greek aorist system. The comparison between the two aorist systems points out an important difference: whereas in Ancient Greek there are aorist verb forms that exhibit middle inflection, no aorist verb form characterized by middle inflection is found in Modern Greek. In spite of this difference, the two systems show an evident continuity with respect to form: the most productive aorist classes of Ancient Greek include the affixes -thē- and -sa-, which are in an etymological relationship with the affixes -tê(k)- and -sa- in Modern Greek.

In order to account for the difference in inflectional contrast in the aorist system – a contrast that is relevant to Ancient Greek but not to Modern Greek – I have studied the combinations of various verb markers (inflection and affixes) and the different syntactic structures in which the relevant verb forms occur. More specifically, my analysis has explored the different values of these verb forms (and specifically, of the different markers exhibited by them) in terms of their syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships.

The picture of the Ancient Greek aorist system that emerges from the analysis may account for the diachronic changes affecting this system, changes that may be explained in terms of markedness synchronic relationships between forms and functions.27

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