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Studies in Greek Language & Linguistics…

Discontinuous Syntax Part VI

This is a continuation of my series examining Devine and Stephen’s book Discontinuous Syntax: Hyperbaton in Greek. Today’s post picks up where we left off, questioning the generalization made by DS & their validity for Hellenistic Greek. See also:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Challenges for DS’ Generalizations?

Now that we have covered the examples which can easily be explained by the generalizations of DS, what shall be done with the rest? Indeed, the majority of instances of Weak Focus Y­2 Hyperbaton do not , at face value, align themselves to their description. These must be discussed and explained below, either by showing how they fit within the already stated generalization or by adapting and expanding the generalization so that all the data can be explained.

Every other example of weak focus discontinuous phrases in our sample consists of non-subject constituents with transitive, non-existential or occurrence verbs. There are twenty-five such examples, and of these, eight use the exact same verb: ἔχω.[1] A few representative examples are provided below.

(1) Ἢ τίς γυνὴ δραχμὰς ἔχουσα δέκα
Or there was a woman who had ten drachmas. Luke 15:8

(2) ὅτι ἐν ἐλαχίστῳ πιστὸς ἐγένου, ἴσθι ἐξουσίαν ἔχων ἐπάνω δέκα πόλεων.
Since you were trustworthy with what is small, you will have authority over ten cities. Luke 19:17

(3) Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἵνα εἰδῆτε ὅτι ζωὴν ἔχετε αἰώνιον
This, I write to you that you might know you have eternal life. 1 John 5:13

Of these three examples, only the first one is presentational. It is also the only example with an adjectival participle as the verb in the discontinuous phrase among these three. This was also the case with Matt 12:10 discussed in the previous post and indeed all presentational examples in our corpus that use ἔχω.[2] In each one, a new participant is introduced and then described: “There was an X who/what had a YZ.”[3]

But how should the other two examples be analyzed? Not only are they not only non-presentational, but they also do not fit the generalizations proposed by DS. Like the others that do conform to DS’ generalization, these examples are also clearly instances of Weak Focus Y2 Hyperbaton, but they are all transitive, non-existential, and non-occurrence verbs. This suggests that there is no definite way of generalizing these examples beyond the fact that they all convey the Discourse Function of Weak Focus, specifically across the entire clause.[4] There is no restriction upon the context in which they appear beyond that. For this reason we must conclude that for Hellenistic Greek, the claims made by DS do not hold true.[5]

Now then, if we are to accept that DS’ generalizations do not fit Hellenistic Greek, then we are still left to explain the correlation between the work of DS and a large chunk of our data. The most likely explanation is simply that Y2 Hyperbaton provides an excellent syntactic structure for Sentential Focus where it is necessary to give extra saliency to a particular constituent in the clause, clearly seen below.

(4) ἄφνω δὲ σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας
Suddenly there was a great earthquake. Acts 16:26

In this example, we have a presentational clause and thus every single constituent consists of completely new information. This is Sentential Focus. And because it is presentational, it is also Weak Focus. There is no implicit or explicit contrast between this great earth quake and some other earthquake of lesser strength. The function of the discontinuous structure, in this case, is to mark with higher salience the suddenness of the earthquake. It could perhaps be paraphrase as, “But suddenly, EARTHQUAKE![6]

But how can we determine this with confidence? Helpfully, σεισμὸς μέγας (great earthquake) is a relatively common phrase for presentational clauses, which makes it possible to provide the syntactic equivalent of Contrast in Analogous Environments.[7] Examples (5-8) provide a variety of contexts where σεισμὸς μέγας appears in different syntactic constructions.[8] Two of these are continuous noun phrases and the final one is another occurrence of Y2 Hyperbaton.

(5) Καὶ ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐγένετο σεισμὸς μέγας
And at that hour, there was a great earthquake. Rev 11:13

(6) καὶ ἰδοὺ σεισμὸς μέγας ἐγένετο ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ
And look, a great storm occurred on the lake. Matt 8:24

(7) καὶ ἰδοὺ σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας·
And look, a great earthquake began! Matt 28:2

(8) ἄφνω δὲ σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας
Suddenly there was a great earthquake. Acts 16:26

All three of these are presentational clauses introducing a new event and they all use the same basic set of words for their predicate and core argument. [9] They are all presentational and their propositional content is nearly identical.[10] The first differs by its use of a temporal prepositional phrase (καὶ ἐν ἐκείνῃ) framing the event and the clause final position of the Subject, σεισμὸς μέγας (great earthquake). The second and third both are both introduce the forward pointing device, καὶ ἰδοὺ (and look). But where Matt 8:23 fonts the Subject, σεισμὸς μέγας (great earthquake), before the verb and concludes with a locative prepositional phrase, ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ (on the lake), the example (7) uses the Y2 Hyperbaton only. Finally (8) is our example from above with the clause initial adverb, ἄφνω (suddenly) and the development marking conjunction δέ.

With this basic survey of the structural differences and similarities in mind, we must now move to asking ourselves how they differ in meaning. Example (5) is rather clearly the most basic structure. It agrees with the expected default constituent order with the verb appearing before the core argument. The context for the clause is also the least salient. The clause appears among a set of narrative clauses summarizing and reporting several events quite briefly using 3rd person Aorist verbs.[11]

This view is also validated by the linguistic principles of information structure. Runge discussion of information structure is helpful here.

By default, focal information is placed as close to the end of the clause as the typology of the language allow, as predicted by the principle of natural information flow. Placing focal information in the P2 position [i.e. Marked Focus Position] represents the choice to take what was already the most important part of the clause (i.e. new and non-established), and to attract even more attention to it by moving it from its default position to a marked one. Linguists refer to this as ‘marked focus.’[12]

In light of this, we see clearly that both example (6) and examples (7-8) are pragmatically marked in their clause. The fronting of the continuous NP in (6) and the fronting of the head nouns of (7-8) mark these clauses with a much higher saliency than example (5) with its post-posed Subject NP.

The pragmatic different of the other examples presents a greater challenge. Matthew 28:2 and Acts 16:26 share the discontinuous NP and should thus be treated as a pair contrasting with Matthew 8:24. The pragmatic differences between them cannot be explained in conjunction with the accompanying adjuncts since all three clauses introduces the even as unexpected and sudden by means of καὶ ἰδοὺ (and look) and ἄφνω δὲ (but suddenly). For this reason, the context in of itself cannot be the deciding factor. Rather, the fact that discontinuous phrases are the marked syntactic structure leads us to conclude that examples (7-8) are marked by a higher level of saliency than example (6).[13]

Conclusions for Weak Focus Y2 Hyperbaton

We have seen that the claims made by DS at the very least appear to hold true for the examples they provide. And it may very well be that this is consistent with Classical Greek as a whole. But their scheme of generalizations does not fit the data we have for the Hellenistic period, neither for the New Testament nor other texts. We suggest, instead, that Y2 Hyperbaton does not necessarily denote Weak Focus on the discontinuous NP, but rather when it appears in Sentential Focused clauses (i.e. information which is asserted rather than presupposed) the Y2 structure marks a higher level of saliency upon the head noun. To validate this, we examined several examples of Y2 Hyperbaton in nearly identical presentational clauses and found a sort of hierarchy of saliency. In such cases, the author of the text determines (likely subconsciously) what syntactic structure sufficiently marks the importance of the event or situation being introduced.


[1] This number doesn’t include the one already mentioned in Matt 12:10.

[2] Cf. Prov 7:10; Herm 67.2 (Herm, Sim. VIII, i, 2); Josephus, Life 1.346

[3] The Greek structure is actually: “There was an X who Y had Z,” where “Y had Z” is the Y2 Hyperbaton.

[4] E.g. Sentential Weak Focus.

[5] This does not necessarily mean that DS is completely wrong because their corpus covers Classical Greek rather than Hellenistic Greek. And as far as their examples show, their generalizations are correct for the Classical Period.

[6] Or perhaps as The Message translates the clause: “Then, without warning, a huge earthquake!”

[7] A term used in Phonology for showing that two similar sounds are distinct phonemes in a given language.

[8] Example (4) is repeated as (8) here.

[9] Storm is one of two senses denoted by the lexeme σεισμός.

[10] There is a similar example fouxnd in Josephus, Antiquities 9.225 as well: μεταξὺ δὲ σεισμὸς ἐκλόνησε τὴν γῆν μέγας (But in the midst of this, a great earthquake shook the ground).

[11] καὶ ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ, καὶ ἐθεώρησαν αὐτοὺς οἱ ἐχθροὶ αὐτῶν. 13 Καὶ ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐγένετο σεισμὸς μέγας καὶ τὸ δέκατον τῆς πόλεως ἔπεσεν καὶ ἀπεκτάνθησαν ἐν τῷ σεισμῷ ὀνόματα ἀνθρώπων χιλιάδες ἑπτὰ καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ ἔμφοβοι ἐγένοντο καὶ ἔδωκαν δόξαν τῷ θεῷ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (And they went up to heaven in a cloud and their enemies watched them and during that hour there was an earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed and the names of men, seven thousand, were killed and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven) Rev 11: 12b-13.

[12] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 9.2.5.

[13] The fact that continuous NP’s are default and discontinuous NP’s are marked is not merely an intuition based on what would seem most likely. Rather the fact is derived the evidence that a continuous NP is not necessarily marked. Example (64), Rev 11:13 is a clear example of this since the NP σεισμὸς μέγας receives no addition salience from being continuous.

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