Book Review: Two Volumes on Greek Prepositions Part III

Two Volumes on Greek Prepositions Part I

Two Volumes on Greek Prepositions Part II

Pietro Bortone’s Greek prepositions is an expansion and revision of his doctoral thesis carried out at Oxford and completed in 2000. As we noted previously, he is primarily focused on the history of Greek prepositions. He seeks to provide linguistic data and analysis that is useful both for the Greek linguist/grammarian, as well as the more general linguist interested in broader issues of human cognition, grammaticalization, language history, and semantic theory. As a whole, the book is essentially divided into two parts. The first providing the theoretical background for the second, which consists of the research proper.

Chapter one asks what the focus of the study should be. This involves, cross-linguistically, the functional parallels between adpositions[1] and case inflections, the combination of case inflections with adpositions in some languages (including Greek), the use of special adverbs with adpositions, and lastly, the traditional distinction between “proper” and “improper.” The semantic and relational parallels between these different inflectional and lexical items drives the end conclusion that the traditional proper-improper distinction is less than useful for the study of prepositions.[2] This discussion continues in chapter two with the focus on the study of cases and prepositions and the relationship between them. Does the polysemy of prepositions and cases demonstrate that these forms are semantically empty? Bortone says no—rightly in my view—and demonstrates this by showing that the large and varying meanings of prepositions are principled and organized. On this Bortone agree with Luraghi that the semantics of prepositions involve clear relationships between various semantic roles such as locative, comitative, and instrumental¸ for example. Bortone positions himself firmly in the tradition of cognitive linguistics in this respect. Chapter 2 also includes an extended discussion of prototype theory and represents what is probably one of the most useful introductions/summaries of how cognitive linguistics deals with semantics available for those whose primary field is classics or biblical studies.

The third and final chapter of part one examines the historical development of adpositions, cross-linguistically. Here, Bortone looks the different ways that prepositions develop in language: from verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, full phrases, and other sources. He shows that while the data is rather scattered, the evidence for a localist view of meaning is relatively clear: abstract semantic meaning and abstract prepositions derive from spatial and “literal” expressions. Concrete meanings come first and abstract meanings follow.[3] The problem is that evidence is fragmentary and scattered across multiple languages. This problem is the driving force behind Bortone’s study. A diachronic examination of Greek from the earliest texts[4] through today provides an incredible 3200 years of virtually uninterrupted text and language usage. Thus, it is clear that Bortone’s central interest is how the study of Greek prepositions can make a contribution to the broader field of linguistics rather than on making a fresh contribution to the Hellenist’s ability to interpret texts.[5]

Part two of the book takes this theoretical background as its base and examines the development of prepositions up to today. Bortone emphasizes that while we cannot go back to see the beginning of Greek prepositions (though he attempt to reconstruct their origins from Linear B, Homer and Proto-Indo-European as best he can), we can still see evidence for the localist hypothesis in the development of the so-called “improper” prepositions, which originate from adverbs and are consistently spatial in the meaning and only later develop other abstract semantics. Chapter 4 examines this data for classical and pre-classical Greek. Chapter 5 continues with the Hellenistic Koine; chapter 6 looks and Medieval and chapter 7 Modern Greek. Those primarily interested in Hellenistic and Early Roman Greek will likely be disappointed to find that Bortone spends the least amount of space on this time period than any of the others.

As a whole, Bortone’s biggest contribution is to linguistic and semantic theory rather than language description. The Classicist will likely find a more useful language description in Luraghi (2003) and Horrocks (1981) and those interested in the Hellenistic period still lack a contemporary descriptive study of Greek prepositions—though scholars with an interest in the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint (as well as the New Testament) and other will find his brief discussion of their relationship helpful. The Medieval and Modern Greek scholars, though will likely view Bortone as an incredibly useful contribution to both theory and description with little to no previous research done on this subject for Medieval Greek and the largest amount of space Bortone devoted to Modern Greek.

Despite this descriptive gap, even the student of Hellenistic Greek will find that Bortone provides an essential framework understanding how prepositions work in language and a sure footing for a part of speech that has often been difficult and complex with its seemingly varied and unrelated meanings. He also provides an extremely useful discussion of improper prepositions, which tend to be largely ignored in the classroom and the textbook. For these two points, Bortone provides an extremely accessible and useful explanation of how the seemingly arbitrary meanings of prepositions and their cases are organized in highly principled manner.

In terms of its bibliography, at some points, the fact that Greek prepositions is a revision of Bortone’s 2000 doctoral thesis. Overall, the number of reference in his bibliography dated after 2000 is noticeably lower than those from other decades. For example, despite being published in 2010, Bortone only cites the 1996 Italian edition of Silvia Luraghi’s book, Studi su casi e preposizioni nel Greco antico.[6] This creates the unique situation where these two authors had access to each other research, albeit an earlier version in both cases. And both Bortone and Luraghi speak well of the other’s work in the editions here.

Conclusion: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Two Volumes

As noted previously, these two volumes are so dramatically different and yet so incredibly similar that it is difficult to say which volume would be the more useful for the Koine Greek scholar. Bortone’s extensive and detailed introduction is likely the most accessible and useful introduction to cognitive linguistics that the traditional philologist or scholar focusing on a particular period of Greek’s history could ask for. And for that reason alone, his book is definitely worth its price. And while the following content is top quality, the form of its presentation makes it more useful to the historical linguist interested in the nature of semantic change than the person interested in the Greek of an extremely particular historical period. But even then, anyone who is involved in teaching Greek should make part one of Bortone required reading for their students. While I have already said it a couple times before, his extensive discussion of semantic theory is unmatched in both clarity and detail for the non-linguist.

But when it comes to actual description of prepositions, particularly with reference to the Classical period (and to some extent the Hellenistic period), Luraghi’s work is likely more useful. And that would seem to be precisely its aim. For a descriptive account her book is the more useful one, especially considering that her analysis has an equally strong theoretical foundation as that of Bortone. It is just unfortunate that she does not deal with the so-called “improper” prepositions, which Bortone does discuss—if only briefly for each historical period. Perhaps the ideal world would have a study like Luraghi’s for each general period of the language. Luraghi covers the Homer and the Classical era extremely well. To have such a thorough study for the Hellenistic period, as well as the Roman period, Byzantine period, Medieval and Modern periods deserve to be done as well. In such an idea world, Bortone’s research would then provide an excellent unifying thread for the history of Greek prepositions.

As it stands, though, these are still two volumes that every scholar should have access to through their university library, at least. Both Luraghi and Bortone have provided distinct and useful perspectives on Greek prepositions in a way that compliments the other, while also demonstrating a theoretical unity and consensus on numerous issues involve in the study of prepositions in general and Greek prepositions in particular. They have made important contributions to closing the gap between the fields of Ancient Greek and contemporary linguistics. Hopefully in the near future similar work will be completed for other periods of the language to complement these two excellent volumes.

Works cited

Bortone, Pietro (2000). Aspects of the history of Greek prepositions. Hilary Term: University of Oxford.

_________. (2010). Greek prepositions from antiquity to the present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danove, Paul (2001). Linguistics and exegesis in the Gospel of Mark: Applications of a case frame analysis and lexicon. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

_________. (2009). A grammatical and exegetical study of New Testament verbs of transference: A case frame guide to interpretation and translation. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk (2010). Theories of lexical semantics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin (2003). “The geometry of grammatical meaning: Semantic maps and cross-linguistic comparison.” In M. Tomasello (Ed.), The new psychology of language, Vol. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Horrocks, Geoffrey (1981). Space and time in Homer. Prepositional and Adverbial Particles in the Greek Epic. New York, Arno Press.

Lakoff, George (1977). “Linguistic gestalts.” Pages 236-287. In Papers from the Thirteenth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society

_________. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Langacker, Ronald (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Theoretical prerequisites. Vol. 1. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

_________. (1991). Concept, image, and symbol. Berline: Mouton de Gruyter.

Luraghi, Silvia (1996). Studi su casi e preposizioni nel Greco antico. Milano: F. Angeli.

_________. (2003). On the meaning of prepositions and cases: Semantic roles in Ancient Greek. Studies in language companion series 67. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nikiforidou, Kiki (1991). “The meaning of the genitive.” Cognitive linguistics, 2(2): 149-205.

Porter, Stanley (1999). Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Edition. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.

Porter, Stanley and Andrew Pitts (2008). “New Testament Greek linguistics in recent research.” Currents in biblical research, 6.2: 214-255.

Wong, Simon (1997). A classification of semantic case relations in the Pauline Epistles. Studies in Biblical Greek 9. New York: Peter Lang.


[1] Adpositions subsume both prepositions and also postpositions.

[2] The only place where such a distinction continues to be useful is with pre-verbs where “improper” prepositions are not prefixed to verbs, but this issue is less than relevant for the study of prepositions and prepositional phrases.

[3] This concept is central to cognitive linguistics and, in many ways, builds on the research of 19th century comparative linguistics and philology (see esp. Geeraerts 2010).

[4] Bortone does make discuss the preposition data from Mycenaean Greek to some extent, but essentially begins his study with Homeric Greek. He states, “Mycenaean often seems less archaic than Homer, because Homer is part of a very ancient tradition: Mycenaean has traits in common with Classical Greek while Homer has traits of Indo-European lost to Mycenaean (cf. Horrocks 1981: 143)” (Bortone 123).

[5] This does not, however, mean that Bortone’s work is as a result not useful for such research, but only that this is not his goal.

[6] Luraghi (1996). It is unclear tome whether the lack of reference to Luraghi’s 2003 English edition is a result of Bortone not being aware of it while preparing his dissertation for publication or because there simply was not enough substantial difference between the English and Italian editions. I do not have access to the Italian edition to check. The lack of references to Luraghi’s (rather substantial) work on Greek prepositions post-1996 might suggest the former.

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