Explaining the Greek Verb System

B. Ward Powers bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
Thu May 30 23:10:00 EDT 2002

Re explaining the Greek verb, and related matters:

At 09:16 AM 020530 -0400, Carl W. Conrad wrote:

(shortened by omission of quite a bit of material)

>I personally question the utility of categorizing a "First," "Second," and
>"Third" Conjugation for Greek; I think it is quite enough to be aware of
>the very important differences between "Omega verbs" and "MI-verbs"--and
>for my part I think this is easier to keep straight if one has a clear
>accounting of the function of the thematic vowel (O/E) as a link between a
>verb stem and any infixes and personal endings.

I accept the description that the meaning of "conjugation" is "a pattern of 
conjugating verb forms". This definition can be used in the case of many 
languages. It can be applied to Greek, and on the basis of this definition 
it is a simple fact of language that there are three Conjugations in Greek, 
the descriptions First Conjugation, Second Conjugation, Third Conjugation 
being a convenient term (in each case) for referring en bloc to a set of 
features characterizing each such Conjugation.

>I did in fact buy a copy of Ward's textbook from him several years ago and 
>looked carefully through it then with some dismay. As I have readily 
>admitted publicly in this forum, I don't doubt that this textbook and this 
>system can work with a class of beginning Greek students.
>But I know that I couldn't use it unless I had learned Greek in that
>fashion in the first place. It purports to be based upon modern principles
>of descriptive linguistics--nor do I doubt that--,

Just for the record, I took my B.A. at the University of Sydney with a 
major in Classical Greek and a minor in Linguistics, and have a Master's 
from the University of Reading in Linguistic Science.

>but although I have
>certainly learned some useful things from some who espouse it (my hat
>is--figuratively, since I don't wear one--off to several colleagues of
>b-greek), my experience is that "descriptive linguistics" means somewhat
>different things to different persons. At any rate, while the method and
>arrangement of "Learn to Read the Greek New Testament" are clear and
>consistent, the system and terminology adopted seem to me very
>idiosyncratic. I guess what disturbs me most about it is that there are too
>many points where it uses a descriptive terminology and accounting that 
>are at odds with the terminology and accounting more or less standard in 
>other textbooks for beginning Koine Greek.

"Learn To Read the Greek NT" uses about a dozen standard linguistic terms 
in describing linguistic features. Those familiar with linguistics will 
recognize numbers of such terms, in situations here where they are applied 
to Greek. Those not familiar with linguistics do not in practice have any 
difficulty in picking up such terms (which are always explained when 

>At any rate, I did pull "Learn to Read New Testament Greek" off my shelf
>and found the table to which Ward refers on page 191. I am sure that it is
>meant to be illuminating: an array of pictures in what looks like the
>instrument panel of an airplane or fancy sports car cockpit: dials with
>3-position switches, dials with 20-position switches, on-off buttons, a
>digital indicator for GNT verb roots, etc. It is very clever, and it may be
>a fine way of illustrating for some beginning students the full range of
>elements entering into the construction of any or every Greek verb in any
>or every morphoparadigm. This may make it appealing to some or many
>B-Greekers, but it is not to my taste and seems, frankly, "gimmicky," and
>certainly idiosyncratic.

It is idiosyncratic to the extent that it is not found elsewhere. Feedback 
from users (teachers and students both) indicates that not a few users have 
found this diagram helpful in envisaging how the Greek verb actually functions.

>Although I would account for almost all the same elements as does Ward, I
>would analyze the form a bit differently and, instead of speaking of
>"slots" in particular sequence to be filled or not filled, I would offer
>the following accounting (or expect it from my students as part of a
>thorough parsing of the verb: EK-LU-QH-S-O-NTAI, wherein EK is the
>adverbial prefix, LU is the verb root, QH is the voice-marker (which may
>take the form QE and which carries the semantic value of middle or passive 
>or even intransitive although it's traditionally called "passive"), S is a 
>future-tense marker, O is the form of the thematic linking vowel O/E which 
>is omicron before the nasal personal ending, and finally NTAI is the
>primary middle(-passive) personal ending.

Carl, you and I are in complete agreement in this analysis. The linguistic 
concept of "slots" (I did not invent it - it is a basic linguistics 
concept) simply identifies the positions and order of the various "bits" 
(the linguistic term for which is "morphs") of which a verb form is 
comprised. Except that I do not use the term "thematic vowel", for 
"thematic" seems to me to have no meaning. What is the "theme" of "O/E" to 
which it refers? This morph occupies the "slot" (or "position") in a word 
form which in Aorist and perfect active forms is occupied by punctiliar and 
perfective morphs respectively. Example: ELUOMEN, ELUSAMEN, LELUKAMEN. 
These three "information bits" are alternative morphs in this position in 
these three words. The "O/E" indicates "no change", whereas each of the 
others (the
-SA- and -KA-) signals a change. Its appearance in the future is basically 
similar: "no change". (I accept that the future verb form is aspectless.) A 
form in which it occurs remains indicative. (Again, "no change" if one 
accepts that the indicative is the base form.) It lengthens to give us the 
subjunctive: LUOMEN, LUWMEN.

>[Carl next discusses DEDEKATWTAI (Heb 7:9). On my analysis this verb form 
>falls neatly into verb slots. Allowing for the difference in methodology, 
>there is no basic disagreement between Carl and me here.]

>But enough. My intention here was not to engage in continued debate with
>Ward over preference for synchronic or diachronic perspective in teaching
>Biblical Greek so much as to illustrate what I mean by a diachronic
>perspective on teaching Biblical Greek. So far as EKLUQHSONTAI and
>DEDEKATWTAI are concerned, both these forms could as readily appear in
>classical Attic as in Koine, and EKLUQHSONTAI might conceivably be found 
>even in Homer, although the -QH- middle-passive forms are considerably 
>rarer there than they later become.

Carl's familiarity with classical Attic and Homer, and with the history of 
the language, is a lot greater than mine. And we shall continue to differ 
as to the relative significance to be given to synchronic and diachronic 
factors in koine Greek. We are both agreed as to the importance of the next 
generation of students becoming well familiar with koine Greek. I will 
continue to focus on the importance of explaining just what it is that we 
have in the GNT, introducing diachronic factors only when they have a 
necessary role in explaining what is found in the GNT, and in applying 
linguistic analysis to the words of the GNT. In all this, we have 
identified some differences between Carl's approach and mine (actually, not 
all that many differences - sometimes it is just a variance in descriptive 
terminology). Even so, I have immense respect for Carl's knowledge and what 
he has achieved and is still doing.



Rev Dr B. Ward Powers        Phone (International): 61-2-8714-7255
259A Trafalgar Street          Phone (Australia): (02) 8714-7255
PETERSHAM  NSW  2049      email: bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
AUSTRALIA.                         Director, Tyndale College

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