Diachronic and Synchronic Explanations of Verbs (was Re: diachronic explanation of 1st/2nd aorist)
B. Ward Powers
bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
Tue May 28 20:50:00 EDT 2002
Greek verbs: the question at issue is: how can we best understand them?
With a second, consequent question (a very important one, in my
estimation), "how can we best teach them to the next generation?" I reckon
just about everyone on b-greek is concerned with one or other of these
issues. So this thread is a pretty basic one, going to the root of
Carl and I are trying to get to grips with this, from partly similar and
partly differing perspectives, and laying out our thoughts so that others
can look in on this thinking, if they wish.
At 02:05 PM 020527 -0400, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
[with a lot of his comments snipped]
>Ward's perspective is wholly "synchronic," focused, that is, quite
>strictly upon the Koine Greek of the New Testament without regard to
>the historical emergence of the elements (which he terms "morphs") and
>morphoparadigms (my own coinage, so far as I know) with an underlying
>assumption that the language thus described is stable and essentially
>uniform. My own perspective, on the other hand, is DIACHRONIC, focused
>upon the linguistic history of the morphoparadigms and their formative
>elements with an underlying assumption that the Greek language of the NT
>is IN FLUX--in a process of change from older standard forms and usage to
>other forms and usage that are in part simpler and in part more complex
>than the older forms and usage. These perspectives should not be viewed as
>competing against each other as if one were valid and the other invalid,
>or even as if one were more valid than the other.
This is an insightful assessment of our perspectives. I recognize, of
course, that koine Greek is indeed in a state of flux, and as we study it
we are constantly reminded of this. So that the Greek New Testament is a
photograph, as it were, of a point in time of an ongoing flow of
(linguistic) events. Carl is interested in that entire flow. Fair enough. I
am interested in that photograph itself, to be able to understand it and
explain it to others. I am concerned with PRIOR events in the flow TO THE
EXTENT THAT understanding them is helpful in understanding that photograph
(i.e., the teaching and meaning of the Greek New Testament).
I reckon this should be the approach to teaching New Testament Greek to
beginners. Advanced students will wish to look into the historical issues
which are raised by Carl (and Alex Hopkins and Carlton Winbery in their
postings). But for the most part these historical matters are irrelevant
for the learning and understanding of koine Greek and to that extent should
be left out of our analysis of NT Greek as it is.
>It just may possible be that both Ward and I exaggerate the way we
>describe the facts about NT Greek from our different perspectives: Ward
>emphasizes and underscores the regularity and intelligibility of NT Greek
>verb morphology, while I emphasize and underscore the anomalies and
>curiosities of the NT Greek verb morphology.
I reckon Greek must be one of the most regular and intelligible languages
on the face of the earth - and I want to show that to people. It will help
them learn it if they can see it. I am concerned with explaining what is
there now (i.e., in the Greek NT). I wouldn't call that "exaggeration".
>These irregularities can be explained only from a DIACHRONIC perspective.
>In the period during which the GNT was being written the verb AFIHMI was
>in the process of assimilation from the -MI conjugation to the -W conjugation
So, we explain the First Conjugation (using LUW) and the Third Conjugation
(using hISTHMI), getting students to learn these patterns, and then show
them how various verbs are in the process of changing from one pattern to
the other. No great shakes to do this. Easily understood by everybody. And
(in my judgement), to a large extent best done at the point where you
encounter these change-overs taking place while working with the text. If
students are familiar with the two patterns, understanding this is no great
hassle for them. Make that THREE patterns - there is also the Second
Conjugation (EBALON), numbers of verbs of which can also be detected making
changes in the direction of the First Conjugation.
>Or there's the curious fact that the verb PARADIDWMI appears 7x in the 3d
>pl. aorist active indicative in the GNT: 6x in the textbook form to be
>expected from a presentation of Ward's "third-conjugation" verbs:
>PAREDWKAN, but 1x only in the form standard in older Attic, PAREDOSAN.
>It's hardly surprising that this is in the Lucan prologue (Lk 1:2) where the
>author is deliberately imitating the style of classical Greek
All part of the above-mentioned changing-over.
>Another point at which I have found myself at odds with Ward's explanation
>of the verbal system has to do with his analysis of "stems" and "aspect
>morphs" as related to personal (pronominal) endings.
>At 8:04 PM +1000 5/26/02, B. Ward Powers wrote:
> >3. The term "stem" refers to the whole of a word except the bit that
> >changes in a particular paradigm, which is the "ending". The "stem"
> can >be described by what it means. Thus in EKLUQHSONTAI (Mark
> 8:3), >EKLUQHSO- is the future passive stem, and -NTAI is the ending
> (third >person plural).
> From my preference for the diachronic perspective, I would rather say that
>the "stem" in the future passive 3d pl. indicative EKLUQHSONTAI is
>EKLUQHS- and that this stem is regularly followed by an alternating
>thematic vowel O/E, O when the personal (pronominal) ending originally
>began with a nasal (-MEN,-NT), E in every other case. Ward explains rather
>that the "aspect morph" is -SO- and argues that in a form like
>EKLUQHSESQE, the O of the stem EKLUQHSO- is "elided" before an ending
>-ESQE. From my historical perspective I want to protest that there never
>was such a form as EKLUQHSOESQE and that, if there had been, the result
>would have been a contracted form, namely EKLUQHSOUSQE.
Carl, you have rarely misunderstood me, but this time you have got me
wrong. Pull down your copy of "Learn To Read the Greek New Testament" from
your shelves, and take another look at the explanatory chart on page 191.
In EKLUQHSONTAI, the -O- is the aspect morph (in Slot 7, the "aspect morph
slot") - it means "no change in the aspect of this word", and so I call it
the "neutral morph". The -S- here is the future morph (Slot 6), not an
aspect morph (the future tense stands outside the aspect system and has no
In the form EKLUQHSESQE the -E- (between sigmas) is the "neutral morph"
(definitely not part of the ending), and the -S- before it is the future
morph, and in this form nothing has elided.
When either of the other two aspect morphs -SA- (in the aorist) and -KA-
(in the perfect active) occur in a word, they REPLACE the "neutral morph"
("no change in the aspect of this word") and they DO change the word's
aspect, to (respectively) punctiliar aspect or perfective aspect. This can
be clearly seen by comparing such First Conjugation indicative active
LUETE (present): root inherently durative, neutral morph leaves unchanged
LUSETE (future): future morph -S- switches to future, which is aspectless
ELUETE Imperfect): past time morph E- switches time frame to past; but
neutral morph -E- leaves aspect unchanged as durative
ELUSATE (aorist): when punctiliar morph -SA- replaces neutral morph, the
word's aspect is thereby switched to punctiliar
LELUKATE (perfect): when perfective morph -KA- replaces neutral morph, the
word's aspect is thereby switched to perfective (also reduplication)
In the Second Conjugation, the verb root is inherently punctiliar, so in
the form EBALETE the neutral morph -E- means "no change in the aspect of
this word", so it is punctiliar aspect. In contrast, in the form EBALLETE
the extra lambda is a durative infix which overrides the neutral morph and
switches the aspect to durative (i.e., imperfect tense).
> >6. All aspect morphs are elision morphs. This applies not only to the
> >punctiliar -SA-, but also to the -o-/-e- in the present/imperfect and the
> >Second Aorist, and the -KA- perfective aspect morph This means that
> >wherever the morph that is appended to the aspect morph commences >with
> a vowel, the vowel of the aspect morph elides. This occurs in the >third
> person singular form (imperfect, aorist and perfect tenses;
> thus >LELUKEN); throughout the aorist subjunctive active and middle
> (e.g., >LUSWMEQA), the pluperfect active (e.g., ELELUKEIMEN), and some
> other individual forms (e.g., LUSON). I don't see any exceptions.
> From my preference for a diachronic perspective, I find Ward's #6 above
> very objectionable. I don't believe that there ever was a form compounded
> of LELUKA + a personal (pronominal) ending -E(N) with an "elided" A, nor
> was there ever a form compounded of LUSA- and -WMEQA (LUSAWMEQA) with an
> "elided" A.
I am not asserting that some such forms existed in past history. I am
describing (using linguistic analysis) the way Greek functions in the New
>In fact, I would prefer to retain the term "elision" ONLY where the
>final vowel of a lexeme is suppressed before a following vowel; that's
>exactly what happens in the case of disyllabic prepositions ending in -A
>before pronouns (e.g. PAR' EMOU for PARA EMOU) or in the case of
>disyllabic adverbial prefixes that suppress the final vowel before an
>augment or before an initial vowel in a verb stem (e.g. PAR-E-QHKEN for
>PARA-E-QHKEN or PAREIMI for PARA-EIMI). But here we know that the -A- was
>indeed originally an element in an adverb that has come to be used as an
>additive to a verb-stem; and the evidence is ready to hand in the fact
>that the prefix must precede the augment (one writes PAR-E-QHKEN, never
My point is that the behaviour in the language of the neutral morph -O/E-,
the punciliar morph -SA- and the perfective active morph -KA- is completely
explained if one recognizes that they behave EXACTLY THE SAME as the
preposition morph in Slot 1. In fact, I am not aware of a single exception
to this statement about aspect morphs in the entire New Testament corpus.
(Now that is what is called in linguistics a powerful explanation. Most
"rules" in all languages have some "exceptions".) An alternative way of
saying exactly the same thing is that the punctiliar morph is -SA- when
occurring in front of a consonant or when form final (as in ELUSA), and -S-
when occurring in front of a vowel. (And this covers every possibility - it
has to occur either in front of a consonant or of a vowel, or else be form
final.) And similarly for the neutral morph and the perfective active morph.
I am describing what is to be seen in word forms, so I refer to both what
happens with prepositions (Slot 1) and aspect morphs (Slot 7) as "elision"
and I call these two Slots "elision slots". It gives a clear, simple, and
accurate description of what is to be observed.
>Although I would like to reject as "fictions" that are historically
>inaccurate Ward's explanation of verb forms in terms of "stems" and
>"aspect morphs" and "elision", I can't do it, because his analysis "works"
>descriptively with sufficient success to be pedagogically viable with
>learners of NT Greek. What one wants, after all, is an understanding of the
>verbal system which enables a reader to recognize and parse correctly the
>verb forms he or she confronts when reading the GNT.
Carl, this is a very gracious comment. And it is true: it does work. I have
been teaching Greek for pretty well all my adult life, and the
"behind-the-scenes-with-Greek" linguistic explanations in my "Learn To Read
the Greek New Testament" have helped quite a few students to understand the
actual functioning of Greek to an extent they would not without these
>Nevertheless, I persist in my view that if one is going to endeavor to
>understand the Greek language as something more than the language in which
>the New Testament was originally composed, one needs to approach the
>language, at least in part, from a diachronic perspective. In fact I am
>personally convinced that one is not likely to understand even the
>language of the GNT without looking at some forms and usages in diachronic
Carl, we are in complete agreement as to this. That is why (for example) I
include coverage of digamma verbs (pages 255ff. of my book) - I consider
students need to know this historical information to understand these
verbs' forms in the GNT. Where we differ is in regard to the EXTENT to
which beginning students are to be taught diachronic information, while
they are beginners. My view is that there is enough grammar which cannot be
avoided: if something is not needed in order to begin reading the Greek NT
with understanding, leave it out for beginners. Interested students can
pursue questions of historical interest at a later stage of their life, if
they want to. And analysis of koine Greek should focus on what is THERE
(i.e., the word forms in the GNT) rather than what USED TO BE THERE in the
If a missionary encountered a new language in (say) the highlands of New
Guinea, and used linguistic techniques to analyze that language
(particularly from a morphological perspective), what meanings would he
identify for particular morphs? How would he see the language functioned
when different morphs interrelated in differing word forms? And - once he
had understood the language - how could he best, most speedily and most
efficiently teach it and explain it to his fellow missionaries coming into
the language area?
That missionary, of course, would have mother-tongue speakers as
informants. We only have the written word to wrestle with. I reckon we must
focus upon a linguistic analysis of what we have in the GNT.
Regards (especially to those to whom this issue is of some importance),
>Carl W. Conrad
>Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
>Most months:: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
>cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad at ioa.com
>B-Greek home page: http://metalab.unc.edu/bgreek
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Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-8714-7255
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AUSTRALIA. Director, Tyndale College
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