Three conjugations?

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Fri May 31 09:41:10 EDT 2002

This is another of these seemingly interminable "Auseinandersetzungen" that
I have been having occasionally with Ward Powers over how best to
understand or at least how best to present the morphoparadigms of the Greek
verb to new students. In the current exchange of perspectives our positions
are reversed from what they were in those earlier discussions about middle
and passive voice paradigms. In the present instance I am defending a more
traditional approach to the characterization of Greek verbal categories
while Ward is presenting/defending what he thinks is a reasonable use of
linguistic terminology which I have called "idiosyncratic." Here I am
myself applying to the charting of the Greek verbal system the proverbial
dictum: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Incidentally--and a propos of
nothing, I LOVE the new AFLAC TV commercial with Yogi Berra in the barber's
chair explaining, regarding insurance reimbursements: "They give you cash,
and that's as good as money.")

At 1:10 PM +1000 5/31/02, B. Ward Powers wrote:
>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.

First let me say that this is once again a matter of HOW a teacher (whether
in the classroom or in a textbook) prefers to set forth the essential facts
about Greek verb morphology. Ward's definition of "conjugation" above: "a
pattern of conjugating verb forms" could be stretched to include a
considerable variety of classifications of the very considerable variety of
patterns in which ancient Greek verbs are conjugated. Ward's own
characterization of his three conjugations, which I cite from page 45,
#3.67 of his textbook, is as follows:

"Families of verbs are called _conjugations._ There are three verb
'families' or conjugations in New Testament Greek. Verbs which possess
second aorist forms comprise the _Second Conjugation_ (C2); verbs which
have third aorist forms and/or a lexical form ending in -MI comprise the
_Third Conjugation_ (C3); all other verbs have first aorist forms,
conjugate their flexions like LUW, and comprise the _First Conjugation_

My objection is not that Ward uses this distinction between his three
"conjugations" inconsistently; it is rather that it isn't, in my opinion,
really very useful.

Ultimately those who successfully learn to read the Greek New Testament
(i.e., without relying upon some sort of "trot" or "interlinear" parsing
guide) are going to have to acquire the ability to recognize verb-forms
that DO NOT follow the comfortable and familiar complete set of
morphoparadigms of LUW or PAIDEUW or whichever vowel-stem verb one chooses
to exemplify what is deemed the "standard" or "normal" pattern of Greek
verb inflection. The problem is precisely that one can hardly read a single
page of the Greek NT without encountering at least one--more likely
several--verb that doesn't conform to that "standard" or "normal"
"pattern." So how is a student to be prepared to recognize the value (or at
least parse correctly so as to be able to resolve the value) of these
non-conforming verb-forms?

The "traditional" primers and reference works (by which I mean those that
make no claim to base their presentation upon 'scientific linguistic'
principles) and even one or more not-so-traditional primers that do take
such principles into consideration (e.g. Funk's _Beginning-Intermediate
Grammar of Hellenistic Greek_) advise students to master or commit to
memory a list of "principal parts of irregular verbs." Thus did I, when I
first began Greek back in 1952, begin learning principal parts of some 50+
verbs that follow a distinct pattern--different from the "standard"
pattern--of conjugation in one or more of the six "systems" of the Greek,
and thus did I advise my own students to do. And I also learned how to
extrapolate from each of those principal parts a verbal stem to be altered
by augment, infixes for tense and mood (including participles and
infinitives and verbal adjectives, although these are not properly "moods")
and voice, sometimes by linking "thematic" vowel (O/E), and personal
endings, infinitive endings, or case-and-number-and-gender endings (for
participles and verbal adjectives). Of course it was necessary to
learn--and teach in turn--the augments, the infixes, the linking vowels,
and the endings in turn. On the other hand, I found for myself and
underscored in my teaching of my own students later, that the only thing
one needs to learn about ALL active participles is that -NT- +
case-number-gender endings are attached to a tense-stem and, provided one
understands the phonetic changes that occur when an -S- is added to an
-NT-, ALL active participles (including "aorist passive" participles) are
formed in a readily-predictable way. Analogous principles govern the
formation of other patterned elements: ALL active primary "thematic" verbs
behave in the same fashion, although in some contractions of A or E or O
with the thematic vowel produce distinctive (but predictable) variations.
Etc., etc.

What I taught my own students about understanding categories of Greek verb
inflection was that they should learn to recognize in the principal parts
as indicated in a good lexicon (which I define as including clear
indication of any irregular principal parts) the following varieties of
verbs (they fall into two main categories: thematic and athematic,
depending on whether or not conjugation employs the linking vowel O/E or
not. I showed my students and urged them to learn to discern the following
categories of verbs:

(a) Regular thematic verbs (wholly predictable)
(b) Contract thematic verbs (one needs to know how A/E/O contracts with the
	thematic vowel O/E in the PRESENT TENSE, and one needs to know the
	characteristic lengthened vowel-form appearing in each type in the
	other five tense-stems)
(c) Athematic of -MI verbs (one needs to know the distinct patterns for primary
	and secondary endings and phonetic principles applying to formation of
	present and imperfect tenses, and one also needs to know how the aorist
	conjugation of those few verbs that have -KA forms work; one needs also
	to know phonetic principles governing alterations of consonant stems
	when consonantal endings are attached; in the other tense-systems these
	verbs are as predictable as LUW)
(d) Liquid Thematic Verbs (one needs to know the phonetic principles governing
	loss of Sigma following L,M,N,R and compensatory lengthening of
	syllable in aorist; one needs also to understand phonetic principles
	governing contract forms of futures which originally had -SE- future
(e) Thematic Second Aorist and Second Perfect (i.e. without -K- tense
	marker--here one confronts no new principles of conjugation: these
	thematic aorists conjugate just like regular thematic imperfects, while
	these "kappa-less" perfects conjugate just like the perfecs that have
	the Kappa tense-marker.
(f) Athematic Second Aorist (or "Third Aorist"; one needs here simply to add
	secondary active endings {N/S/-/MEN/TE/SAN} to the vocalic aorist stem)
(g) Second (Aor. Pass.) Future, Second Passive  (here one need only recognize
	that there is no -Q- voice marker, so that endings are added directly
	to an aorist passive stem in -H- or to a future passive stem in
	-hS-O/E-; this particular verb also has a "second perfect" {-A, not

I am not arguing that the facts about Greek verb morphoparadigms structured
as I have laid them out above are different from the greek verb
morphoparadigms structured as Ward lays them out in his three
"conjugations." I simply would say that the student of Greek needs to
become aware of ALL these variations that may be displayed in Greek verbs
in order to make use of the lexical data--the listing in a lexicon of
principal parts or at least of those parts which do not conform to a
"standard" or "normal" thematic conjugational pattern. I simply do not
think that the process of learning what one must learn about the Greek verb
is significantly or usefully improved by postulating the "three

This is ultimately not a matter of which facts about the conjugation of the
Greek verb need to be learned but rather a matter of HOW they are to be
learned. Personally I don't think that what one calls "irregularities" in
Greek verbal lexis are made easier to learn by grouping the variations of
conjugation into those "three conjugations."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months:: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at OR cwconrad at

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