Category Archives: Greek

Journal of Greek Linguistics

Journal of Greek Linguistics: Volume 14, Issue 2, 2014

Not free, of course, but always worth keeping track of.



Challenges in language analysis: thesis prefatory material

I apologize: this post is both far longer and more rambling than I imagined. Nevertheless, the information is still fairly important, well, at least it is to me.

Before I had even determined what I was going to write my thesis on, I had put a lot of thought into how language analysis in Greek is normally done. Once things had been narrowed to the Greek perfect, more specific issues came to the forefront. Before I officially post my completed thesis online, I wanted to provide some context for what I did and why I did it. That’s the purpose of this post and the next. There have been a number of ways that the Greek perfect has been approached, with a variety of terminology and methods (or lack of methods). Usually, there’s a supposed ‘traditional’ approach to the Greek perfect. But this is a bit of a misnomer because there’s actually a good amount of variation in the old grammars in terms of how the perfect is described. In any case, beyond what is supposedly ‘traditional’, there are a couple distinct perspectives that exist in current approaches to the tense and aspect in Greek in general and with the Greek perfect in particular. I’m not talking about Porter’s ideas about tense (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament) or Campbell’s ideas about the perfect as involving ‘heightened remoteness’ & ‘heightened proximity’ (Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative). Those approaches are worth talking about, but the purpose of my thesis was such that they were not strictly relevant (more on that later). No, the distinct perspectives that I’m talking about are those that exist within the larger linguistic literature itself and have been picked up by a group of us (Steve Runge, Randall Buth, Stephen Carlson, and myself along with a few others who don’t have websites to link to) who have been talking about the Greek verb for about five years now. The most prominent (heh.) piece of secondary literature in that respect is a book by D. N. S. Bhat entitled The Prominence of Tense, Aspect and Mood. Bhat’s book is typologically oriented. He’s interested making generalizations about tense, aspect, and mood across a wide variety of language for the purpose of (among others) being able to write more accurate grammatical descriptions of individual languages. Knowledge of how language works in general with respect to particular phenomenon informs us on individual languages and helps us avoid reading the structure of our own language into the language we’re analyzing*. Bhat’s primary thesis is that there are (at least) three language types.

“Prominence in Bhat’s typology is solely about the structure of the grammatical system, not it’s informational content.”

There are languages that are tense prominent. There are languages that are aspect prominent. There are languages that are mood prominent. The prominence of the given category in the language is determined by a number of factors presented in the table below (Aubrey 2014, 66):

Criteria Some possible realizations
Degree of grammaticalization Auxiliaries vs. Affixes? Inflectional vs. Derivational?
Degree of paradigmaticity Extent to which a category is systematically organized in the morphosyntax.
Degree of Obligatoriness Extent to which a category is grammatically necessary.
Pervasiveness Extent to which a category exists across a given set of forms.

Table 1. Criteria for Grammatical Prominence (summarized from Bhat 1999, 96-7) Also on the basis of these critieria, I can emphastically say that the word “prominence” here does not refer to any sort of discourse prominence, emphasis, to vague exegetical or theological concept. No. Prominence in Bhat’s typology is solely about the structure of the grammatical system, not its informational content. From these criteria and Greek data, we can conclude that Greek is aspect prominent. Aspect morphology is more grammaticalized than tense & mood, it is more systematic in its paradigmaticity, it is more obligatory, and it is more pervasive across the verbal system than either tense or mood. Tense morphology is limited to the indicative mood only and we only find mood morphology in finite clauses. This is a summary, of course, each of these could be looked at in detail for Greek and demonstrated (I do that in my thesis), but for our purposes the summary is sufficient. So Greek is aspect prominent and English is tense prominent. That’s the first piece. Now then, the second piece. My thesis was not strictly on Greek grammar. It is actually first and foremost focused on a problem within a linguistic framework called Role and Reference Grammar (RRG). RRG is a quite useful framework for approach questions of language description and analysis. It isn’t the best. I’m not sure there can be a “best.” Nevertheless, RRG is good for a couple of reasons. First, it takes seriously, the fact that there is significant language variation across human languages. And secondly, it take seriously the fact that all languages, despite that variation, a communicative and cognitive foundation. This is akin to something Steve says it his Discourse Grammar:

“[T]here is a common set of tasks that need to be accomplished across all languages, the task list can inform our description of what the different grammatical choices accomplish. The tasks provide an organizational framework to help us understand the meaningful difference between choosing X versus Y or Z” (Runge 2010, 7).

And that’s what cross-linguistic research and language typology are all about. All languages are different, certainly. And there is always the possibility that we might find something in a language that we have never seen before. No linguist denies that. Nevertheless, that does not mean language analysis is a free for all. In biology, there are certain properties that contribute to classifying a given animal as a mammal or as a bird. The fact that the platypus exists doesn’t mean the biological typology is wrong. It just means we have new data. We do not get to pretend that the platypus doesn’t exist and continue as if that never happened. But nor do we just throw typology out the window simply because an animal did not totally fit our expectations for what a mammal is. But I’m getting off track, this post isn’t an apologetic for the importance of language typology.** Back on topic: Role and Reference Grammar is a framework that takes language description (grammar writing) very seriously. And it challenges the traditional paradigms of how linguistics has traditionally been done, beginning with two questions:

“(1) what would linguistic theory look like if it were based on the analysis of languages with diverse structures such as Lakhota, Tagalog and Dyirbal, rather than on the analysis of English?, and (2) how can the interaction of syntax, semantics and pragmatics in different grammatical systems best be captured and explained?” (Van Valin 2005, 1).

That first question is an extremely important one to ask. The vast majority of linguistic frameworks/theories—including both Chomskyan ones and (more importantly for the world of NT Greek grammar) Systemic Functional Linguistics—are thoroughly dependent upon English for the majority of their structure. That’s right many of the theoretical concepts put forward in linguistics arise from the study of English rather than the study of other languages. The SFL practitioners in NT Greek might protest at this point and point out that SLF has been used to study a wide variety of languages. And yes, that is kind of true. But that isn’t the point. The point is that the original starting point of most frameworks is English. There are only a handful of frameworks that took from the very beginning of their development a broad coverage of language data. RRG is one. Functional (Discourse) Grammar is another. Basic Linguistic Theory is a third(-ish)***. And there are a few others. I’d say these are the most well known three, however. Because of its broad, foundational focus on a wide variety of languages and language structures, it is one of a handful of frameworks that I really enjoy using. RRG makes is possible to easily examine and compare different languages and it’s terminology is, generally speaking, fairly transparent. So back to tense and aspect. This is where things are slightly more complicated with RRG. While the terminology and framework is in place for the general categories of tense and aspect, the more specific subcategories (e.g. past tense, future tense, perfective aspect, imperfective aspect, progressive aspect, etc.) tend to get the short end of the stick. RRG does not have descriptive apparatus for accounting for the subcategories. RRG deals with the broader, general categories only. Nevertheless, what they do, they do well. So that was the problem I attempted to solve in my thesis. I aimed to fill in the gap: provide an account of the specific realization of tense and aspect within Role and Reference Grammar. And I did so with data from Hellenistic and Early Roman Koine Greek. I think Christopher summarizes the problem with RRG in its current state best:

“So far, there has been little work, in RRG, on the detailed semantics of distinctions within the areas of temporality, aspectuality, modality, and polarity. Rather, a number of fairly broad and quite traditional categories have been proposed, and the main focus has been on showing how these categories behave in relation to the operator projection of the clause and to matters of clause linkage” (Butler 2003, 2:484).

Detailed semantic distinctions. That’s what my thesis is about. At least, for one very, very tiny piece of temporality. Sigh. Well, theses are supposed to be narrow, right? So what does RRG actually do with categories like tense and aspect in its current state? For one, it assume that the detailed semantic distinctions have already been determined. It take those and makes predictions about their realization of the morphosyntax of a given language. RRG takes the position that there is an iconic relationship between morphosyntactic position and meaning. Grammatical categories that affect the semantics of entire clauses are realized the furthest away from the predicate (usually, but not always, the verb), whereas grammatical categories that affect only the predicate itself are realized the closest to the predicate. For RRG, there are three semantic groups: grammatical categories that modify predicates alone, grammatical categories that modify the predicate and its arguments, and grammatical categories that modify the predicate, its arguments, and its non-arguments (i.e. adjuncts/adverbials). This is illustrated in the table below (Aubrey 2014, 10):

Semantic Unit RRG Layer Operator (Grammatical category)
Predicate Nucleus Aspect

Negation (of the predicate)


Predicate +Arguments Core Directionals

Deontic modality

Negation (of an argument)

Predicate +Arguments (+Non-arguments) Clause Status (Epistemic modality)

Tense Negation (of a proposition)


Illocutionary Force

Table 2. Operators and the Layered Structure of the Clause (for a larger discussion of these concepts, I would refer to to Van Valin’s “Summary of Role and Reference Grammar.”

Not all language have all these categories. The only two that we can say are universal with any confidence are Illocutionary Force and Negation. That’s because of the basic communicative tasks that all languages need to perform. All languages need to be able to ask questions (illocutionary force) and all languages need to answer those questions either positively or negatively (negation). And for the most part, these predictions about the relationship between meaning and structure work really well. Thus, for example, in Greek, aspectual marking appears the closest to the root of a given verb (the suffixes: -σ, –κ and the reduplication prefixes: [C]ε-, [C]ι-). And tense marking appears farther away: (the primary and secondary endings and the prefix augment ε- both marking the past vs. non-past tense distinction). The prediction is interesting, especially to linguists who are interested in comparing multiple languages to each other. However, you need to know what is tense and what is aspect and what is modality and so forth. The problem is that if you’re doing language analysis, you need to figure that out first. What morphology refers to what? So my purpose was to suggest a framework and method for doing that. But I wanted to make a proposal that fit RRG, one that maintained the integrity of its design and fit within its stated goals. In the RRG tradition, theoretical claims about the nature of language are always built upon the existing cross-linguistic and typological literature. RRG takes very seriously the existing linguistic tradition when it is grounded in broad-coverage linguistic analysis. For example, clausal semantics are based on the Vendler-Dowty typology of semantic predicate classes (a. k. a. Aktionsart types). RRG’s approach to information structure is derived directly from Lambrecht (1994). It’s approach to complex constructions (e.g. coordination & subordination) comes from Olsen (1991). And it’s explanation of noun phrase syntax & semantics is based on Rijkoff (1990, 2002). For this reason, my own analysis, in order to respect the spirit of RRG, needed to do the same. Now there’s a lot of published literature on tense, aspect, and related categories. However, the vast majority of it is not large scale typological work. I worked through a massive amount of literature, but the approaches that stood out as most important for this project (typological, with detailed semantic distinctions) in addition to the work of Bhat mentioned above is primarily what has become known as the Bybee-Dhal approach (Bybee 1985; Dahl 1985; Bybee & Dahl 1989; Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca 1994; Dahl 2000). As you can see, they have been working on these issues for decades now. Their work epitomizes the concept of detailed semantic distinctions in a manner that few others do.  Dahl summarizes their the approach they take in the following manner:

“The B&D [Bybee & Dahl] approach differs from most other treatments of tense and aspect in that the basic units of description are not ‘the category of tense’ and ‘the category of aspect’ but rather what we call grams, i.e., things like Progressive in English, the Passésimple in French etc. Notions like tense, aspect, and mood are seen as ways of characterizing the semantic content of grams, or domains for which their meanings are chosen, but do not, in a typical case, represent structurally significant entities in grammatical systems” (2000, 7).

But here we have a problem: Bybee & Dahl’s approach disregards the braoder concepts of tense, aspect, and modality (we’ll call them metacategories to distinguish them from individual grams). But Bhat and RRG both place an extremely high value on these metacategories. For RRG, the metacategories are of central importance for the interface between syntax and semantics. And for Bhat, the metacategories define his conception of prototypical language types: aspect prominent, tense prominent, and mood prominent. So that’s an additional problem that I needed to solve. All of this represents my introduction to the theoretical issues of my thesis. In the following post, I will look specifically at the more Greek-oriented challenges. And then after that, I’ll be uploading my thesis to


*Or for that matter any individual language or language family—Robertson, for example, was fairly heavy handed in his reliance on Sanskrit and its affected his analysis. As such, the importance of typology for avoiding reading the structure of one language into another language demonstrates precisely the opposite of what Porter says about the accomplishments of “modern linguistics”:

“If modern linguistics has accomplished anything in its brief tenure in this century, it has made those who discuss language aware of the facts that a language must first of all be understood on its own terms, without recourse to any other language, no matter how closely related” (Porter 1993, 85).

Understanding a language on its own terms is, in and of its self, insufficient. In the first place, if the language in question is not your native tongue, then you always have the influences of your own language to contend with. That can happen in two ways. On the one hand, you might not at all be thinking of how your own language could influence your analysis and you subconsciously interpret your language data through the lens of your native language’s grammatical structure—that’s how things like ‘deponency’ come into being when they have no place in the language’s actual structure. On the other hand, you might be conscious of the fact that your native language can influence the analysis in the other direction. Emphasizing that the language being analyzed is distinct from the language of analysis can cause the opposite to happen. The linguist/grammarian presents the language as being more different from the native tongue than it actually is. In this case the foreignness of the language is given preeminence over and against the shared humanness of the language. Because of both these tendencies, language typology is necessary, holding in tension these two extremes. Yes, languages are all distinct from each other. But they’re not alien to each other. They share a commonality in the same way that trees, whether oaks, or maples, or douglas firs, share commonalities. Even trees of the same species are both extremely similar and also unpredictably different from every other.

**If anyone is interested in that, I’ve written about it in chapter 6 of a forthcoming volume from Lexham Press (Aubrey 2015).

***BLT is more complicated because it’s essentially a grab bag of whatever any given linguist doing the analysis thinks is best from the larger tradition of grammatical analysis. Obviously the founders have their specific ideas, but the basic deal of the approach does not lend itself to uniformity across practitioners. Even still. It sounds nice as an idea (cf. Dryer’s essay, “What is Basic Linguistic Theory?” Anyway, there are things about BLT that make me ever so slightly uncomfortable.

Works Cited:

Aubrey, Michael G. 2014. The Greek perfect and the categorization of tense and aspect: Toward a descriptive apparatus for operators in Role and Reference Grammar. M.A. Thesis. Trinity Western University.

Aubrey, Michael G. 2015. The value of linguistically informed exegesis. Linguistics and biblical exegesis (LINK). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press.

Bhat, D. N. S. 1999. The prominence of tense, aspect, and mood. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Butler, Christopher S. 2003. Structure and function: A guide to three major structural-functional theories. 2 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan, and Osten Dahl. 1989. “The creation of tense and aspect systems in the languages of the world.” Studies in language 13: 51-103.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, Constantine. 2007. Verbal aspect, the indicative mood, and narrative. New York: Peter Lang.

Dahl, Östen. 1985. Tense and aspect systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Dahl, Östen, ed. 2000. Tense and aspect in the languages of Europe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, Michael L. 1981. Barai clause junctures: Toward a function theory of interclausal relations. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University.

Porter, Stanley E. 1989. Verbal aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with reference to tense and mood. New York: Peter Lang.

Porter, Stanley E. 1993. An introduction to other topics in Biblical Greek language and linguistics. Biblical Greek language and linguistics: open questions in current research. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Rijkoff, Jan. 2002. The noun phrase. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Runge, Steven E. 2010. Discourse grammar of the Greek New Testament: A practical introduction for teaching and exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Van Valin Jr. Robert D. 2005. Exploring the syntax-semantics interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valin Valin Jr. Robert D. n. d.  Summary of Role and Reference Grammar.

On the PIE Desiderative & the Greek Future

Natural logic and the Greek moods
Natural logic and the Greek moods

I came across an interesting quote from David Lightfoot in  Natural Logic and the Greek Moods:

Greek has desiderative stems (as opposed to the σείω system) which serve as presents and are bases for conjugations: ἀλέξω, νίσομαι. Equally, Latin has desiderative presents: quaeso against quaero, viso against video. However, it is generally supposed that the role of the desiderative in Greek is essentially to form the future. One sees the original desiderative value of the future in ἧλθε . . . λυσόμενος . . .  θύγατρα (Iliad I, 12) and then 17 lines later τὴν δ’ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω. Many old futures have ε vocalism and these take middle endings, which might itself point to a desiderative value: πείσομαι: πασχω, χείσομαι:  χανδάνω. . . .

. . .

If our interpretation is correct, it would make no sense to posit a desiderative source for the form of what we are calling the existential future. Indeed there is not much evidence for this traditional view, although I have nothing better to suggest. However, given that the future indicative and the aorist subjunctive forms are so often interchangeable, I should want to relate the sigma of the future to that of the aorist, but I can find no convincing evidence for this hypothesis either.

A few more forthcoming books of note

Relative clauses In catching up on this blog and trying staying afoot with the advancement of Greek language scholarship, I ought to point out a few new monographs that are soon to be released. As usual, they probably aren’t within the budget of the average student or scholar.

Early Greek Relative Clauses by Philomen Probert

Some of you might already know Probert from her important monograph on Greek accentuation patterns. And her shorter guide to accents, probably the best practical volume on the subject to date. I’ll be looking forward to perusing her work on relative clauses. We need more of these sorts of narrowly define syntactic studies. Fewer people should be writing on aspect (granted, I’ve written a lot on aspect…) and more should be choosing an understudied piece of the language and giving us something new.

Publisher’s description:

Early Greek Relative Clauses contributes to an old debate currently enjoying a revival: should we expect languages spoken a few thousand years ago, such as Proto-Indo-European, to be less well-equipped than modern languages when it comes to subordinate clauses? Early Greek relative clauses provide a test case for this problem. Early Greek uses several kinds of relative clause, but all these are usually thought to come from one, or at most two, prehistoric types. In a new look at the evidence, this book finds that a rich variety of relative clause types has been in place for a considerable time.

The reconstruction of prehistoric linguistic stages requires detailed work on the individual languages descending from them. A substantial part of the book is therefore devoted to a new look at the relative clause systems found in a wide variety of early Greek texts. It emerges that the same basic system is in use across all these texts. Different kinds of relative clause predominate in different kinds of text, however, because relative clause syntax and semantics interact with the needs of different kinds of text.

Considering material as diverse as the Homeric poems, laws inscribed in stone on the island of Crete, and the philosophical prose of Heraclitus, the discussion remains clear and straightforward as Probert considers the uses and histories of different relative clause types.

Greek Alphabet

The Textualization of the Greek Alphabet by Roger Woodard

Woodard is a seasoned Greek scholar that  I would expect not many NT students/scholars have heard of. His focus in historical linguistics and Proto-Indo-European, so perhaps that’s why. Nevertheless, those interested in the Koine should have a greater awareness of PIE research than they currently do. From the publisher:

In this book, Roger D. Woodard argues that when the Greeks first began to use the alphabet, they viewed themselves as participants in a performance phenomenon conceptually modeled on the performances of the oral poets. Since a time older than Greek antiquity, the oral poets of Indo-European tradition had been called “weavers of words” – their extemporaneous performance of poetry was “word weaving.” With the arrival of the new technology of the alphabet and the onset of Greek literacy, the very act of producing written symbols was interpreted as a comparable performance activity, albeit one in which almost everyone could participate, not only the select few. It was this new conceptualization of and participation in performance activity by the masses that eventually, or perhaps quickly, resulted in the demise of oral composition in performance in Greece. In conjunction with this investigation, Woodard analyzes a set of copper plaques inscribed with repeated alphabetic series and a line of what he interprets to be text, which attests to this archaic Greek conceptualization of the performance of symbol crafting

New Testament Verbs of Communication: A Case Frame and Exegetical Study (The Library of New Testament Studies) by Paul DanoveVerbs of Communication

Paul Danove is a good friend and his work is always erudite, detailed, comprehensive, and thoughtful. I had the pleasure of working as his research assistant on this book and I eagerly look forward to reading the final version. From the publisher:

Paul Danove builds on his previous work in the field of biblical linguistics to provide a refinement of the Case Frame Analysis method as applied to the Greek of the New Testament. He shows how the method can be used in clarifying elements of Greek grammar, interpretation, and translation.

In particular Danove distinguishes the semantic implications of active, middle, and passive usages of verbs. He establishes a rigorous basis for distinguishing semantic synonyms and near-synonyms and for clarifying their implications for interpretation and translation. A heuristic feature model for relating distinct usages of verbs and deriving their various connotations is determined, and the conceptual and grammatical differences of verbs of oral and non-oral communication are clarified.

Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament

I’m way behind on using this website to record and document ongoing publications that interface Greek and linguistics. This post is part of my renewed efforts for correct that.

This morning in the mail I received a copy of Douglas Huffman’s Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament, volume 16 in the Studies in Biblical Greek series published by Peter Lang. Beyond perusing the table of contents, I haven’t had a chance to really dig into it yet.

I’m going to try to give the book a fair hearing, though I need to say that any publication on Koine Greek that uses the phrase “Verbal Aspect Theory” in its title has already raises my suspicions. In linguistics, we don’t normally say “verbal aspect theory.” The phrase “verbal aspect” is fine, but normally we really just say, “Aspect.” Typically, unless we’re contrasting it with nominal aspect (yes, that’s a thing), that it is verbal goes without saying. And it isn’t a theory. It’s semantic/conceptual category that languages simply have. That isn’t to say there are no theories of aspect. Verkuyl (A Theory of Aspectuality) has his own theory of aspectuality that differs from, say, Carlota Smith’s theory (The Parameter of Aspect)–they didn’t agree. Anyway, it isn’t at all clear clear that that’s how the phrase “verbal aspect theory” is being used by New Testament people. The vast majority of the time, they seem to be just talking about the semantic category…which isn’t a theory, as I said. Occasionally, the phrase seems to be used to refer to Porter’s view of the Greek verb, but technically that isn’t a theory of aspect either. That’s actually a theory of tense (or rather, a theory of the supposed lack of tense). But now I’m rambling…

To get back on topic, we’ll see how it goes. I hope to crack it open at some point in the next week. You’ll probably hear from me again on the subject. Amazon links below:

Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament (Hardcover)
Verbal Aspect Theory and the Prohibitions in the Greek New Testament (Paperback)

Now if only Peter Lang will improve the quality of their bindings…

By the way…

For those who skipped over the nonsensically long post before this one, I successfully defended my thesis on August 26th and passed pending the correction of my excessive typos…which I then fixed correctly. No other revisions. I will be uploading it to at some point this fall once I finish my current blog series on linguistic adequacy and Greek grammars.

The official title is:


The unofficial title that I wish I had used, but didn’t think of in time is:


I’d say that’s much more accurate description of what I’m actually doing in my thesis. Anyway. It’s finally done.

Linguistic adequacy & Robertson’s ‘Big Grammar’

Just to recap on this series, since I’ve been so busy with so many other things and so lazy about my blog, you may want to get a refresher at what we’re discussing in the introductory post here: Linguistic adequacy and Greek grammars and here: Linguistic adequacy and BDF. I really need to finish this series, because I need to write at least two blog posts as prefatory material for sharing my thesis.

Of course, Robertson’s ‘Big Grammar’ refers to his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Logos) (Amazon).[1] The primary challenge in discussing examples form Robertson’s grammar arises from the great difficulty of finding excerpts that are both complete in their discussion of a topic while also being fairly brief in nature. One of the shorter sections for this purpose is Robertson’s discussion of οὐ in the indicative mood and in main clauses. Nevertheless, the discussion is nearly 1500 words long.[2] Often times, it feels as if Robertson’s larger discussions create more questions than they answer. Before looking at the content itself, the structure of this excerpt is interesting. Robertson’s structure here is very well thought out. The sections flow nicely from one to the next: origin to history and then meaning to usage.

1. The Objective Οὐ and its Compounds

(a) Origin. This is unknown. Hübschmann4 sees a connection with the Latin haud as do other scholars.5 Fowler6 takes it as an original intensive particle like pas in the French ne pas and -χί(Indo-Ger. -g̑hi) in οὐ-χί. The Zend ava is also noted and the Latin au (au-fero).7 But there is no doubt that οὐ in the Greek took the place of the Sanskrit , Latin nĕ- (ne-que, ne-scio; the relation of nē nē-quidem, nē-quam to this is not known), Gothic ni. The use of the Greek οὐ corresponds to the Sanskrit .

(b) History. As far back as Greek goes we find οὐ, but οὐ did not hold its own with μή in the progress of the language. Within the past century οὐ has become obsolete in modern Greek outside of a few proverbs save in the Laconian and the Pontic dialects.1 The Pontic dialect uses κί from Old Ionic οὐκί. But modern Greek has οὐδέ and οὔτε (Thumb, Handb., p. 200). In the Bœotian dialect, it may be noted, οὐ never did gain a place. We have seen οὐδέν used as an adverb, an idiom that goes back to Homer.2 Jannaris3 explains that the vernacular came to use οὐδέν and μηδέν for emphasis and then on a par with οὐ and μή. Then οὐδέν dropped οὐ and μηδέν lost δέν, leaving δέν and μή for the modern Greek. At any rate this is the outcome. Δέν is the negative of the ind. in modern Greek except after νά and final clauses when we find νὰ μή (Thumb, Handb., p. 200). And δέν is the regular negative in the protasis of conditional sentences both with ind. and subj.4 The distinction between οὐ and μή did become more or less blurred in the course of time, but in the N. T., as in the κοινή generally, the old Greek idiom is very well preserved in the main. Buttmann5 even thinks that the N. T. idiom here conforms more exactly to the old literary style than in any other point. Δέν may represent μηδέν (Rendel Harris, Exp., Feb., 1914, p. 163).

(c) Meaning. Οὐ denies the reality of an alleged fact. It is the clear-cut, point-blank negative, objective, final.6 Jannaris7 compares οὐ to ὅτι and μή to ἵνα, while Blass8 compares οὐ to the indicative mode and μή to the other modes. But these analogies are not wholly true. Sometimes, indeed, οὐ coalesces with the word as in οὔ φημι=not merely ‘I do not say,’ but ‘I deny.’ So οὐκ ἐάω (Ac. 16:7)=‘I forbid.’ Cf. οὐ θέλω (Mk. 9:30); οὐκ ἔχω (Mt. 13:12); οὐκ ἀγνοέω (2 Cor. 2:11). See also τὸν οὐ λαόν in Ro. 9:25 (LXX) where οὐ has the effect of an adjective or a prefix. Delbrück9 thinks that this use of οὐ with verbs like the Latin ne-scio was the original one in Greek. In the LXX οὐ translates לֹא.

(d) Uses. Here it will be sufficient to make a brief summary, since the separate uses (pp. 917 f., 929 f., etc.) are discussed in detail in the proper places. The point here is to show how all the varied uses of οὐ are in harmony with the true meaning of the particle.

(i) The Indicative. We meet οὐ with the indicative in both independent and dependent clauses.

(α) Independent Sentences. Here the negative οὐ is universal with the indicative in declarative sentences. The force of οὐ (οὐκ before vowels, οὐχ before aspirate) is sometimes very powerful, like the heavy thud of a blow. Cf. οὐκ ἐδώκατε, οὐκ ἐποτίσατε, οὐ συνηγάγετε, οὐ περιεβάλετε, οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθε (Mt. 25:42 f.). The force of all these negatives is gathered up in the one οὐ in verse 44. In verse 45 οὐ and οὐδέ are balanced over against each other. See οὐκ ἔπεσεν in Mt. 7:25. Cf. οὐ παρέλαβον in Jo. 1:11. In Mt. 21:29 see the contrast between ἐγώ, κύριε and οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν. Note the progressive bluntness of the Baptist’s denials till οὔ comes out flat at the last (>Jo. 1:21 f.). In the N. T. οὐ alone occurs with the future indicative used as a prohibition, though the classic idiom sometimes had μή. Cf. οὐ φονεύσεις (Mt. 5:21); οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταί (6:5), etc. Still, Blass1 quotes μηδένα μισήσετε in Clem., Hom., III, 69. The volitive subjective nature of this construction well suits μή, but οὐ is more emphatic and suits the indicative. In Mt. 16:22, οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο, we have οὐ μή in the prohibitive sense. When οὐ occurs alone=‘no,’ as at the end of a clause, it is written οὔ as in οὔ, μή ποτε (Mt. 13:29); τὸ Οὔ οὔ (2 Cor. 1:17).

But in interrogative (independent) sentences οὐ always expects the answer ‘yes.’ The Greek here draws a distinction between οὐ and μή that is rather difficult to reproduce in English. The use of a negative in the question seems naturally to expect the answer ‘yes,’ since the negative is challenged by the question. This applies to οὐ. We may leave μή till we come to it. Οὐ in questions corresponds to the Latin nonne. Cf. Mt. 7:22, οὐ τῷ σῷ ὀνόματι ἐπροφητεύσαμεν κτλ., where οὐ is the negative of the whole long question, and is not repeated with the other verbs. See further Mt. 13:55; Lu. 17:17; 1 Cor. 14:23. In 1 Cor. 9:1 we have οὐ four times (once οὐχί). The form οὐχί is a bit sharper in tone. Cf. Mt. 13:27; Lu. 12:6. In Lu. 6:39 we have μή with one question, μήτι δύναται τυφλὸς τυφλὸν ὁδηγεῖν; and οὐχί with the other (side by side) οὐχὶ ἀμφότεροι εἰς βόθυνον ἐμπεσοῦνται; There is a tone of impatient indignation in the use of οὐ in Ac. 13:10, οὐ παύσῃ διαστρέφων τὰς ὁδοὺς τοῦ κυρίου τὰς εὐθείας; In Ac. 21:38, οὐκ ἄρα σὺ εἶ ὁ Αἰγύπτιος; the addition of ἄρα means ‘as I supposed, but as I now see denied.’1 In Mk. 14:60 note the measured use of οὐ and οὐδέν in both question, οὐκ ἀποκρίνῃ οὐδέν; and the description of Christ’s silence, καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίνατο οὐδέν. In Lu. 18:7, οὐ μὴ ποιήσῃ—καὶ μακροθυμεῖ ἐπʼ αὐτοῖς; we come near having οὐ μή in a question with the present indicative as well as with the aorist subjunctive. In a question like μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν; (1 Cor. 9:4) οὐ is the negative of the verb, while μή is the negative of the sentence. Cf. Ro. 10:18, 19. In 1 Cor. 9:8 we have μή in one part of the question and οὐ in the other, μὴ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ταῦτα λαλῶ, ἢ καὶ ὁ νόμος ταῦτα οὐ λέγει; In Mt. 22:17 (Lu. 20:22; Mk. 12:14) we have ἢ οὔ; as the alternative question, and Mark adds ἢ μή. Babbitt2 holds that “οὐ is used in questions of fact, while in other questions (e.g. questions of possibility) μή is used.” I doubt the correctness of this interpretation.

In declarative sentences the position of οὐ is to be noted when for emphasis or contrast it comes first. Cf. οὐ and ἀλλά in Ro. 9:8. So οὐ γάρ—ἀλλʼ ὄ in 7:15. In 7:18 f. note οὔ• οὐ side by side. Cf. also position of οὐ in Ac. 1:5; 2:15; Ro. 11:18 (οὐ σύ—ἀλλά). So ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐγώ in 1 Cor. 6:12.

The general pattern seems to be this: the more Robertson says on a topic, the more unanswered questions appear. To his credit, Robertson, in terms of actual descriptive content (as opposed to simply observations of data points), is far superior to BDF. At the same time, Robertson has a tendency to trade useful descriptive statements for rhetorical flourishes that are not overtly meaningful. Consider: “Here the negative οὐ is universal with the indicative in declarative sentences. The force of οὐ (οὐκ before vowels, οὐχ before aspirate) is sometimes very powerful, like the heavy thud of a blow.” If οὐ is essentially universal in indicative declarative sentences, then is it οὐ in and of itself that is so “very powerful, like the heavy thud of a blow”? Could it simply be the larger context of the negation? In the case of this particular quote here, I am not convinced that the references backing up the claim. They all seem to be simply negated statements of fact.

This is, in fact, a common problem. Later on Robertson writes: “The form οὐχί is a bit sharper in tone. Cf. Mt. 13:27; Lu. 12:6” and also, “There is a tone of impatient indignation in the use of οὐ in Ac. 13:10, οὐ παύσῃ διαστρέφων τὰς ὁδοὺς τοῦ κυρίου τὰς εὐθείας.” In these cases, the claims about the tone of the statements (whether “sharper” or “impatient indignation” are ambiguous. Is Robertson making a claim about the negator? Or is he making a claim about the context in which the negator is used? Whichever it is, we are given no account for it one way or the other.[3]

On other occasions, Robertson’s discussions are more compelling.[4] Consider the following portion:

In the N. T. οὐ alone occurs with the future indicative used as a prohibition, though the classic idiom sometimes had μή. Cf. οὐ φονεύσεις (Mt. 5:21); οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταί (6:5), etc. Still, Blass1 quotes μηδένα μισήσετε in Clem., Hom., III, 69. The volitive subjective nature of this construction well suits μή, but οὐ is more emphatic and suits the indicative. In Mt. 16:22, οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο, we have οὐ μή in the prohibitive sense.

This section here, while still not exactly clear in its expression, has a statement of an observable facts, but also provides a motivation for those facts: μή is motivated in Clem., Hom., III, 69 by the volitional nature of the construction, while οὐ is used for future indicative that are prohibitions. Robertson does not say it, but we could extrapolate here that he perhaps believes οὐ prefers deontic modal contexts, while μή prefers epistemic modal contexts. This is a common issue: often his descriptive statements require guessing as to his meaning. Trying to reinterpret Robertson’s statements in contemporary linguistic terminology is often quite difficult. Occasionally while reading Robertson (and in fact, many old grammars), I feel a bit like Blinkin

This situation is also the case in the following quote:

“In a question like μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν; (1 Cor. 9:4) οὐ is the negative of the verb, while μή is the negative of the sentence. Cf. Ro. 10:18, 19. In 1 Cor. 9:8 we have μή in one part of the question and οὐ in the other, μὴ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ταῦτα λαλῶ, ἢ καὶ ὁ νόμος ταῦτα οὐ λέγει.”

This appears to be an observation about to the scope of the negation? But what is the actual claim being made? Is Roberson saying that there a consistent division of the scope of negation between οὐ and μή in general (where μή is used for sentence negation and οὐ is not)? Or is he only talking about negation scope situations where the two negators appear together (μὴ οὐ)? And if the latter, is it just true for questions or true in general? Or is this simply a one off instance that Robertson thought worth noting in passing? It is not even clear how such a claim could be tested, especially if it is limited solely to instances of οὐ and μή together in polar questions.


Overall, I would say that Robertson is an improvement to BDF. He certainly provides more meaningful information. Nevertheless, the fact that Robertson’s grammar was written in an era when formal or technical terminology was just nascent for grammar/linguistics causes significant problems. It often feels like while Robertson clearly knows what he wants to communicate conceptually, he does not know how to communicate it. This leaves us as readers with fairly common subjective statements about meaning with little to no real substance or justification. The formalization of grammatical terminology at this point in history only existed for a handful of grammatical categories and for the rest, grammarians were left grasping for the right words to communicate.

[1] That’s the edition that Logos Bible Software digitized. It’s the 3th edition. I also have a physical 1923 4th edition printed by Hodder & Stoughton. The two editions are essentially identical in their text, as far as I have found.

[2] Note indented footnotes below are the original footnotes & numbering from Robertson. Each page begins afresh with footnote 1. For convenience, my own footnotes are formatted differently than Robertson’s.

4 Cf. Das indoger. Vokal-System, p. 191.

5 Cf. Gildersl., Am. Jour. of Philol., XVIII, pp. 4, 123 f.; Horton-Smith, ib., pp. 43 ff.; Brug., Griech. Gr., p. 528.

6 The Negatives of the Indo-Europ. Lang., 1896. Cf. Delbrück, Grundr., IV, p. 519.

7 But Draeger (Hist. Synt., p. 133) says that this connection with the Lat. haud cannot be shown.

1 Farrar, Gk. Synt., p. 182; Jann., Hist. Gk. Gr., p. 425.

2 Monro, Hom. Gr., p. 259.

3 Hist. Gk. Gr., p. 426.

4 Thumb, Handb., p. 194 f.; Jebb, in V. and D., p. 339.

5 Gr. of the N. T. Gk., Thayer’s Transl., p. 344.

6 Cf. Thouvemin, Les Négations dans le N. T., Revue de Philol., 1894, p. 229.

7 Hist. Gk. Gr., p. 427.

8 Gr. of N. T. Gk., p. 253.

9 Synt. Forsch., IV, p. 147.

1 Gr. N. T. Gr., p. 254.

1 W.-Th., p. 511.

2 Harv., Stu. in Class. Philol., 1901, The Use of Μή in Questions, p. 307.

[3] Not to mention the fact that the so-called tone is not necessarily itself even clear from the examples themselves!

[4] At least in appearance anyway—this discussion is not interested in evaluating the strength of the claims themselves, but only the clarity of the claims and the extent to which the grammar justifies or explains them.

1 Gr. N. T. Gr., p. 25.

Defining the Art of Grammar

Really, the only thing I love more than an ancient language is an ancient grammarian writing about an ancient language. And to that end, the most recent issue of Bryn Mawr Classical Review caught my eye.

Minna Seppänen, Defining the Art of Grammar: Ancient Perceptions of γραμματική and grammatica. Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, B 379.   Turku:  University of Turku, 2014.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 9789512956715.  €15.00 (pb).  

Even better, the dissertation that this monograph is based on is freely available online:

The abstract looks fascinating and I’m looking forward to digging into it later on this fall.