John Lee's Basics of Greek Accents was released today. Here are some first impressions.


First Impressions of John Lee’s Accents Book and more...

First Impressions of John Lee’s Accents Book

John Lee’s Basics of Greek Accents was released today. Here are some first impressions.

Like D. A. Carson’s 1985 book Greek Accents: A Student’s Manual, Lee’s new book (based on notes from a class he taught at Macquarie University) is designed to backfill knowledge of Greek accents for those students whose beginning Greek skipped over them.

At least since Wenham’s Elements of New Testament Greek, there has been a trend in beginning New Testament Greek (and perhaps Classical Greek) textbooks to do away with instruction about accentuation. I haven’t investigated, but I suspect this correlates with a reduction in English-to-Greek exercises in textbooks too.

Lee, like Carson before him, considers an understanding of accents to be vital to learning Greek. The book, published by Zondervan, is clearly (in name and cover design) intended by them to fill the gap left by Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek.

Lee’s book is small—110 pages and about the size of a 5 x 7 photograph. It’s compact but lucid nevertheless. The modern typography makes for more pleasant reading that both Carson book and Probert’s 2003 New Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek.

It’s a gentler introduction than either Carson or Probert. There are eight chapters or “lessons” and each has two sets of exercises (marked as “In Class” and “Homework”). All exercises involve adding accents to unaccented text. Examples and exercises are NT focused but not exclusively and the book would be more than suitable for Classical Greek students as well.

As is understandable given its goals, there are no theoretical underpinnings given and little historical explanation.

I’ve found a few places where, given it’s for beginners (albeit those who know some Greek), I wish Lee had been a little more explicit. For example he says that “Aorist active infinitives in -σαι accent on second last” but never explains when one might expect an acute versus a circumflex. A one line rule with several examples is typical. But it is rare that all the edge cases are covered.

After saying that the verb is generally recessive, he gives various forms of λύω including the subjunctive λυθῶ. He gives contraction as the reason for this one deviant form, but that is the last thing he says about subjunctives other than a remark a couple of pages later about ἀποδῷ being the pattern for compound -μι verbs.

While Lee is a gentler introduction, one thing I like about Carson’s book on accents is he’ll often be a little more exploratory, considering a new form and whether previous rules are adequate to cover the evidence, and only once motivated, introduce a new rule. In doing this, students are encouraged to think a little more about how the rules interact. In a way, Carson’s approach is more like what I’ve been trying to do with my morphology blog posts.

While there’s much to commend it as a first introduction to accents, I do find Lee often misses the forest and instead just catalogs the trees. There’s little view of the whole as a system, how the parts interact. I understand why you don’t start with that, but I feel you need to get to it eventually.

As an example, I recently summarised the first and second declension noun accents as follows:

  • by default the accent is persistent
  • however, if the ending is a different length than in the base form (nominative singular), the law of limitation may require an accent change (e.g. X́XS -> XX́L, L̃S -> ĹL, ĹL -> L̃S)
  • if the base form is oxytone, it becomes perispomenon (X́->L̃) in oblique cases (genitive and dative)
  • in the 1st declension, the genitive plural is always perispomenon -ῶν (even if the base is not oxytone)

I gave examples of contrasting pairs for every accentuation and syllable length combination in both the first and second declension, and highlighted various things like the importance of building an intuition for the L̃S ~ ĹL alternation (the σωτῆρα rule). I also pointed out that the oblique case perispomenon (XL̃) is only possible because all oblique case endings are long.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is sufficient—it needs a certain amount of unpacking and is jargon heavy. But this, or something similar, makes a nice summary that ties multiple things together in explaining the first and second declension. It covers the fact that persistence and the law of limitation might be in conflict and how that gets resolved. It explains what happens to oxytones in the oblique cases, and gives the exception of 1st declension genitive plural, pointing out this is not limited just to the oxytones like the previous rule.

In contrast, Lee covers the relevant rules but never brings them together in the context of a single paradigm (other than θεός which hardly demonstrates most of the points). The statement about the genitive plural is 28 pages later than the statement about circumflexes in the oblique when the base form is oxytone. His examples of the law of limitation do cover a couple of direct~oblique alternations but that is isolated from the chapter on noun accentuation and is never explained in the context of vowel length patterns in the noun endings.

All in all, however, I think Lee’s book is a good first introduction to Greek accentuation and its presentation is undoubtedly cleaner than that of previous books. My main criticism is that it is incomplete and students would benefit from some consolidation of the principles taught. Some of that criticism may be mitigated in a classroom situation, for which it was originally intended. Students working alone might have more questions than the book answers. I would recommend something like Probert as a follow on (it will also make a better reference). That said, I think Lee achieves his aim in providing the “basics” and (to quote the back cover blurb) “a foundation [students] will use as they continue their studies”.


A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 23

Part twenty-three 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).

Okay, so we want to contrast two forms of the indicative generally referred to as the “present” and “imperfect”.

As we always do with paradigms, we’ll keep certain things constant (in this case, the lexeme, voice and mood) and vary things along along one axis (person / number agreement) and another axis (present vs imperfect).

1SG λύω ἔλυον
2SG λύεις ἔλυες
3SG λύει ἔλυε
1PL λύομεν ἐλύομεν
2PL λύετε ἐλύετε
3PL λύουσι ἔλυον

There are numerous things which should stand out:

  • the imperfect forms all have an initial ἐ-
  • this is then followed by the same λυ root found in the present
  • this is then followed by an ε/ο “theme” vowel
  • the 1SG and 3PL are identical in the imperfect
  • the present and imperfect share the same ending in the 1PL and in the 2PL

There’s another perhaps more subtle thing you may notice:

  • the endings in the imperfect 2SG and 3SG are the same as the present without the ι

Recall also that the -ουσι ending in the present 3PL historically came from -οντι. Without the ι, that would be -οντ and given Greek words can only end in ν, ς, or a vowel, dropping the τ from -οντ would give us the -ον we see.

Furthermore, if we consider the athematic 1SG ending -μι and drop the ι, we get -μ. This is not one of the sounds a Greek word can end in and historically, this was changed to an ν. This gives us the -ον we see in the 1SG.

So it seems that historically the relationship between the two sets of endings has to do with the existence or non-existence of an ι. The only exceptions are the 1PL and 2PL. Interestingly these are the only two-syllable endings (counting the theme vowel).

It could even be stated (at least in the earlier history) as: imperfect has ἐ- but not -ι- and the present has -ι- but not ἐ-, except in the two-syllable ending cases where the only contrast is the existence or absence of ἐ-.

We’ve only looked at λύω / ἔλυον so far, so in the next couple of posts we’ll look to see how the imperfect endings work in other lexemes.


A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 22

Part twenty-two 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).

I’ve deliberated for a while about whether to follow the present with the imperfect or with the aorist. I had recently elected to go with the aorist but as I sketched out what I wanted to say, I realised it would be easier if I’d said some things about the imperfect first.

And so I’ve decided to do a few posts about the imperfect.

We won’t talk about the endings in this post. I want us to start thinking about the imperfect and its relationship to the present not in terms of endings but in terms of the overall paradigm structure.

In previous posts, we saw that the present comes in two voices: an active and a middle (although we haven’t yet touched on the notion of presents coming in both versus just one of these). Within each voice, we looked at six indicative forms (corresponding to patterns of person and number agreement) and an infinitive (which effectively just has no person or number). We haven’t yet covered this, but each present voice also has imperative forms, subjunctive and optative forms, and participles in each of three genders.

The imperfect, in contrast, only has the indicative forms. No infinitive, no participles, no imperative, no subjunctive, and no optative.

We might be tempted to think of this in terms of the imperfect somehow being “defective”, as if we were doing a feature comparison like this:


But another way to think of the imperfect as being part of the “present” family and providing a contrasting set of indicatives.

So we have:

  • indicatives 1 (“present”)
  • indicatives 2 (“imperfect”)
  • infinitives
  • imperatives
  • subjunctives
  • optatives
  • participles

This model suggests that, say, the infinitive or imperatives or participles, are just as much the infinitive, imperatives, or participles of the imperfect as they are of the present.

This also leads to the need for a new name for this entire family. Traditionally it’s referred to as the “present system” because of the shared stems, but as I’ve ranted on this blog before, I think it’s unfortunate to use “present” for both the entire system and for one of the two types of indicatives within it.

For reasons we’ll touch on later, the system could perhaps better be called the “imperfective system”.

But the remainder of posts on the imperfects will focus on their endings and, in particular, the contrast with the other set of indicatives (the “present” indicatives we’ve been talking in about the previous posts).


Conference Time

I’m off for another string of conferences, this time in Copenhagen, Chicago, and New Orleans.

First is a workshop on Original Language Resources for Bible Translation and Education organised by Nicolai Winther-Nielsen of the Global Learning Initiative and Reinier de Blois of the United Bible Societies. David Instone-Brewer put it best when he responded to the workshop invitation with “All the key people in one place with lots of time to talk and plan. How could I miss this?” Perhaps most exciting for me is I finally get to meet Ulrik Sandborg-Petersen for the first time after working together for more than twelve years!

I fly from Copenhagen to Chicago at the end of the week for the annual conference of the American Association of Applied Linguistics. It will be my first time attending the conference and I’m looking forward to learning a lot (although in contrast to the Copenhagen workshop, I’ll know virtually no one).

I have to leave AAAL slightly early though, to go down to New Orleans for the first US VueConf. Vue.JS is an important technology in the Scaife Viewer and DeepReader reading environments. I went to the first European VueConf last year and gave a lightning talk on DeepReader. I had hoped to give a talk on the Scaife Viewer at VueConf US but my talk wasn’t accepted so I’m hoping at least for another lightning talk.


A Tour of Greek Morphology: Part 21

Part twenty-one 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).

I started this series with

I ultimately hope to cover everything that a beginner-intermediate grammar might but in a much more exploratory fashion. I’ll occasionally touch on morphological theory but I mostly want to point out phenomena in the language that students have already seen but perhaps have not thought about in any depth.

(emphasis added)

In short, the primary goal has been (and will continue to be) to take data the reader already is assumed to know and to make observations and construct relationships that the reader perhaps didn’t already realise or know. The secondary goal is to talk a little bit about linguistic theory and historical linguistics in relation to the specific phenomena being discussed.

Now that we’re finished our first pass over (particularly the endings of) the present indicatives and infinitives, I wanted to summarise a few key points we’ve touched on that are of a more conceptual nature.

  • A paradigm is a way of showing related forms next to one another for comparison. We often keep some morphosyntactic properties constant while varying others. We often but, not always, keep the lexeme constant.
  • We can look at paradigms along (at least) three dimensions: (1) we can take one lexeme’s inflection and look at what stays the same and what changes in different cells; (2) we can take a morphosyntactic property set and look at what stays the same and what changes across different lexemes; (3) we can take a subset of morphosyntactic properties and vary them while keeping the rest of the set (and the lexeme) fixed.
  • Greek rarely has a one-to-one mapping between an individual morphosyntactic property and some surface property of the inflected form.
  • There are some cells in a paradigm that are highly predictable and others than are highly predictive.
  • There are relationships between cells which are often more helpful than relationships between a cell and its underlying or historical stem.
  • The primary role of morphology is to discriminate between alternatives, not build up compositional meaning.
  • Ambiguity in morphology can be tolerated if other things (syntax, context) help disambiguate.
  • There is a big difference between looking at patterns in the surface forms and exploring the historical reasons those patterns developed. While the latter is vital for answering “why”, it is not a crucial part of language acquisition. (Native English speakers don’t acquire strong verbs by understanding how Proto-Indo-European ablaut patterns led to Germanic inflectional classes!)

As well as these conceptual points, we’ve talked about the actual endings, inflectional classes, vowel contractions, frequency effects, and which cells might be the best to use as a lemma.

We also spent time actually testing our models against the corpus data with some Python scripts and showed how that uncovered some patterns we hadn’t previously considered.

We haven’t looked at everything to do with the presents, but it’s time to move on, at least for a while, to a different part of the verbal system.

That said, if you have any questions about the previous twenty parts, or any questions you’re hoping will be answered in subsequent posts, just leave a comment (or email me if you want to ask anonymously).