Review: The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek–Part I

A Review of The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek: A Functional Analysis of the Order and Articulation of NP Constituent in Herodotus by Stephanie Bakker.[1]

  • Hardcover: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Brill (2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9004177221
  • ISBN-13: 978-9004177222
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 0.9 inches
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Part I this review provides a summary of the book as a whole and Part II provides critique and praise of the volume’s strengths and weaknesses.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy of this incredibly important volume. It was easily one of the best books I have read in 2010.

1. Introduction

Stephanie Bakker’s The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek is a revision of her doctoral thesis completed at the University of Groningen in 2007. It is easily one of the most important volumes on Ancient Greek syntax in at least the past ten years, probably more.[2] So far as I am aware, there is no other comprehensive analysis of the Ancient Greek noun phrase (NP) in existence. There are several articles and a few book chapters, but no other book length study.[3] Part of this is due to the fact that the idea of a phrase as an abstract syntactic category that can be analyzed is relatively new. The old grammars did not talk about syntax in this way and few new grammars have been written. For this reason, Bakker’s volume fills a much needed gap in the grammatical literature on Ancient Greek.

As a whole the volume covers two main issues: NP word order (Part 1) and articulation (Part 2). These two topics, in many ways, are quite distinct from each other and could very easily have been dissertation topics on their own. At the same time, there is significant overlap. Word order cannot be discussed without reference to the Greek article and the Greek article cannot be examined without a full knowledge of how Greek NPs order themselves. A large part of this reality arises from the fact that Greek NPs allow for double articulation both on the head noun and also on modifiers.

1.1 Summary of Part 1

Part 1 of Bakker’s work focuses on the question of word order in the NP. Her basic contention is that “since [Helma] Dik (1995, 1997, and 2007) proved that word order in Greek … is determined by pragmatic factors, we can no longer ignore word order variations in the NPO, even if these variations cannot be expressed in translation.[4] This is followed by a survey of the different hypotheses for explaining NP ordering variation: style, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.[5] The pragmatic view wins out. And it is this pragmatic approach that Bakker’s builds upon in her own analysis.

The theoretical starting point for her approach is the work done in Functional (Discourse) Grammar by Jan Rijkhoff on the NP on its internal organization from a typological perspective.[6] Unfortunately, Bakker’s finds much of Rijkhoff’s presentation of NP structure problematic for Greek. I say unfortunately because, in my view, Bakker’s misunderstood a key component of the purpose and goals of Rijkhoff’s approach which led her to disregard a larger portion of his semantic analysis of noun phrase structure.[7] Thus, instead of viewing the Greek NP as consisting of semantics and pragmatics interacting with each other, Bakker takes a nearly completely pragmatic analysis.

The other major component of Bakker’s analysis is the concept of saliency. She distinguishes saliency from information structure on the basis that information structure (and the term Focus, in particular) relates to the information status of a proposition’s participants. Since noun phrases cannot be viewed as propositions by themselves, information structure is not necessarily helpful.

“That focus is not useful to describe the information structure within the NP is not only apparent from this theoretical objection, but is also supposed by examples like (23) and (24). The fact that the complete NP belongs to the focus of a sentence seems to confirm that the information structure within the NP cannot possibility be described in terms of focus:

(23) Q: What did you buy? A: I bought some blue socks.

(24) Q: What did she do yesterday afternoon?
A: She went to the new city center to buy a wonderful present for my little brother.”[8]

Bakker, on this basis, replaces Focus with the term “Salience,” which she considers more useful for the NP because salience is a gradual concept. Modifiers on an NP can be treated as increasing or decreasing based on their information status and position in their phrase. This concept of salience guides her entire analysis of word ordering within the NP along with the “Heaviness Principle,”[9] both in single modifier noun phrases (chapter 3) and multiple modifier noun phrases (chapter 4).

Each chapter, helpfully, present an overview of the data in Herodotus based on part-of-speech. Thus we find discussions of adjectives, postpositive possessives, demonstratives, relative clauses, and dependent constituents in chapter 3. Chapter 4 provides discussions the different types of multiple modifier phrases: multiple prenominal modifiers, multiple postnominals, and combinations of both. They conclude with a discussion of the set of exceptions to her claims. Her honesty in dealing with residue data is extremely commendable and a notable aspect of her work as a scholar that deserves recognition.

1.2 Summary of Part 2

The second part of Bakker’s work, chapters 5-6, is a breath-of-fresh-air analysis of the Greek article and its usage. She observes that the standard grammars have a horrible tendency to over-categorize uses of the article: their habit of providing a more or less helpful explanation of the article’s significance and then proceed to not only categorize those instances which do not fit the definition, but strangely, also those that do.[10] This is followed by a look at the more recent studies and an examination of the concept and significance of definiteness in the broader linguistic literature. The central conclusion is that definiteness deals with the identifiability of a given referent.

Bakker argues that Ancient Greek, like English, uses the article to mark the referent of an NP as identifiable, which she defines as marking a given NP as “unequivocally relatable to an available cognitive structure.”[11] This, then, involves five refinements on the basis of her data from Herodotus delineated below:[12]

1. A classifying genitive cannot function as the anchor of a relatable entity.

2. A fixed adverbial expression is always bare (i.e. does not receive an article).[13]

3. A relatable subject of a copular verb can be bare, even if it is identifiable.

4. In coordination one or more elements can lack an article if the coordinate entities are depicted as one whole concept.[14]

5. An NP with distributive force is always definite, irrespective of the identifiability of the referent.

The rest of chapter five continues this analysis for several classes of NPs: Referential NPs, Non-referential NPs, and Generic NPs. Bakker does an excellent job showing how her model for the Greek article fits the data extremely well. All of this is then followed by her presentation of the impressively few problematic cases: 247 out of 6,481 noun phrases in books two and seven of Herodotus. As noted before Bakker’s honesty about where her analysis does not work is extremely commendable.

Chapter six builds on the claims of chapter five by applying them to the articulation of noun phrase and their modifiers. Here she deals with a number of important questions, such as the distinction between attributive and predicative adjectives, which she rightly rejects. Bakker also examines the issue of Greek’s “double articulation,” where not only does the head noun receive an article, but also its adjective modifiers.

The book ends with chapter seven, which function as a general conclusion for the entire volume, surveying and summarizing the content of both major sections of the volume and its general claims and conclusions. With the caveats about Bakker’s approach to explaining word order delineated below, I have every intention of using the information in chapter seven in teaching students about noun phrase word order in Greek. Her insights provide a solid basis for further study for both Classical Greek and Hellenistic Greek. As far as I can see, there has not been significant change in the noun phrase between these two historical periods of the language.


[1] Stephanie J. Bakker, The Noun Phrase in Ancient Greek: A Functional Analysis of the Order and Articulation of NP Constituent in Herodotus (ASCP 15 Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[2] Indeed, the Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology has consistently shown itself to publish important and ground breaking working in Ancient Greek Grammar. Bakker’s work is one more volume that adds to its already impressive reputation. I can only hope that some point, we will see a series of similar caliber coming from the pens of Hellenistic linguists.

[3] There are, however, a number of book length studies on noun phrases for other languages as well as on language in general (both typologically and theoretically).

[4] Bakker, 10. It should be noted that while Dik’s work on clause level word order was extremely significant. She was not the first to put forward such an idea. The application of pragmatics to Greek word order goes at least as far back as Stephen H. Levinsohn’s Textual Connections in Acts (SBLMS 31; Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1987), which focused on the information status of pre-verbal constituents and their relationship to Greek’s various clausal connectives—primarily καί and δέ. The work of Levinsohn in both biblical and classical studies continues to be underappreciated. Readers should refer to his Discourse Features of New Testament Greek (2nd Ed.; Dallas, Tex.: SIL, 2002) for his more recent work. A third edition is currently forthcoming.

[5] The citation of Rijksbaron (1994) on page 19 representing the pragmatic view does not does not appear in the bibliography—or it may be that Bakker intend “1991.”

[6] Jan Rijkhoff, The Noun Phrase (OST; Oxford, University Press: 2002). The use of typology is one of several defining traits of Functional Grammar.

[7] The key element Bakker misses is Rijkhoff’s parameters for his research. This, significantly, parallels my other major criticism of the work. See section 4.1 below for references and discussion of this issue.

[8] Bakker, 30. The example numbers are hers. It should be noted that she does recognize that it is possible for a modifier in an NP to function as at the focus of assertion at the level of the proposition. However, she appears to argue that does not influence ordering separately from the issues of salience in the NP (31).

[9] The Heaviness Principle “predicts that heavy (i.e. complex or long) constituents tend to be expressed at the end of the NP and may be even displaced to a position later in the sentence” (297). The other parameter she at times allows as a possible explanation is Wackernagel’s Rule, though she argues that it clearly applies inconsistently and perhaps could be explain in some other manner (73-75). My own view is that Wackernagel’s Rule is not a solely syntactic rule, but rather a result of the phonology-syntax interface.

[10] 146.

[11] 162.

[12] These five refinements are adapted from page 182. The parentheses in them are my own.

[13] For Bakker, these always involve adjunct prepositional phrases (i.e. PPs not required by the argument structure of the verb). This usage is similar to Canadian English’s use of non-articular NPs, as in, “Charles was taken to hospital.” A parallel American English example would be the phrase “I am going to bed,” where the NP, “bed” is clearly identifiable and specific even without the article. Since Bakker only examines Herodotus, who wrote in the Ionic dialect, such comparisons with other dialects is not possible, though it would likely be highly enlightening to see whether there are variations in terms of how different Greek dialects treat these types of PPs.

[14] It is unfortunate that Daniel Wallace’s dissertation, Granville Sharp’s Canon and Its Kin (SBG 14; New York: Peter Lang, 2009), was published so closely that they could not refer to each other. However, the parallels between Bakker’s fourth refinement and Wallace’s own work reflect significant overlap confirming the validity of both their observations.

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