The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek

by Robert S. D. Crellin (University of Cambridge)

trps_oc_mockup1_Layout 1The semantics of the Ancient Greek perfect active, morphologically directly inherited from the Proto-Indo-European form of the same name, has long been a matter of scholarly contention. What makes this verb form semantically so interesting is that for most of the duration of Ancient Greek it seems to combine several tense-aspect and diathetical features, namely anteriority, resultativity, stativity, and detransitivisation in causative predicates, which are in many languages conveyed by separate morphological means. To put this in concrete terms, in Ancient Greek you would use a perfect active form to render both English ‘I have made a chair’ and ‘I stand’. This has led to a variety of approaches to analysing the perfect’s semantics, to varying degrees either positing lexicalisation of apparently aberrant readings, or generalising a particular aspect of the semantic behaviour of the perfect, but beyond what the data as a whole can support.

My recent monograph, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, seeks to address the question of the semantic description of the Greek perfect head-on, on the basis of the plentiful but understudied corpus of literary post-Classical Greek (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). After some theoretical preliminaries, the study first assesses the full range of behaviours of the perfect in this corpus according to verb and predicate type, before building up a semantic description of the perfect from which the perfect’s diverse interactions with different predicate-types can be derived. This is achieved by adopting insights inter alia from Tenny’s Aspectual Interface Hypothesis (Tenny 1994) as well as the generative tradition, to provide an account of the perfect’s semantics which thoroughly integrates its argument structure relations with its tense-aspect denotations. It is demonstrated that it is possible to formulate a semantic description by which one may predict, with a predicate of known semantic properties, how the perfect will be read. Specifically, the perfect derives a homogeneous atelic eventuality from the predicate which it heads.

The simplest case is that in predicates which are themselves homogeneous and atelic, such as states, the perfect may simply derive another state from the predicate:

trépetai katà stenōpòn ēremēkóta
turn.PRS.IND.N-ACT.3SG PTCL down corridor.M.ACC.SG be_quiet.PRF.PART.ACT.M.ACC.SG
‘He turned down a quiet narrow passage…’ (Jos. AJ 19.104, monograph p. 50)

However, since the negative of a state may also be said to have the same event structural properties, a cancelled state is also a valid reading of the perfect, e.g.:

Phregéllai… pólis… tàs pollàs tôn
Phregellai city.F.NOM.SG ART.F.ACC.PL many.F.ACC.PL ART.GEN.PL
árti lekhtheîsōn perioikídas próteron eskhēkuîa
just_now say.AOR.PART.N-ACT.GEN.PL dependent_town.F.ACC.PL previously have.PRF.PART.ACT.F.NOM.SG 
‘Phregellai… a city… which previously had the majority of the places just mentioned as dependent towns.’ (Strabo 5.3.10, monograph p. 236)

Indeed, it may be said more generally that the negative of any eventuality is homogeneous and atelic (see e.g. de Swart 1996: 229 who, following Verkuyl 1993, takes such predicates as states). This allows the perfect to derive such an eventuality from predicates where the subject is not presented as entering into a state, by instantiating the predicate and locating the subject in the homogeneous and atelic post-situation e.g.:

hóper kagṑ nûn pepoíēka
REL.N.ACC.SG and_I.NOM.SG now do.PRF.IND.ACT.1SG
‘… which is exactly what I have now done.’ (Jos. AJ 12.213, monograph p. 17)

The relationship between argument structure and tense-aspect denotation becomes clear in labile change-of-state predicates. Here the perfect active may have resultative or anterior semantics according to its syntax. Read as detransitivising, the perfect is read as resultative, whereas when the predicate is transitive, it reads as an anterior. In each case, the perfect is seen to derive a homogeneous atelic eventuality and predicates this of the subject:

heistḗkei dè… hupestalkṑs tôi skótōi.
set_up.PRF.PST.IND.ACT.3SG PTCL hide.PRF.PART.ACT.M.NOM.SG ART.DAT.M.SG darkness.DAT.M.SG
‘[Claudius] had stood… taking cover in the darkness there.’ (Jos. AJ 19.216, monograph p. 190)
ho Phílippos… hupó tina lóphon
ART.M.NOM.SG PTCL Philip.M.NOM.SG under INDEF.MF.ACC.SG hill.M.ACC.SG
hupestálkei toùs Illurioùs…
hide.PRF.PST.IND.ACT.3SG ART.M.ACC.PL Illyrian.M.ACC.PL
‘But Philip… had sheltered the Illyrians behind a hill…’ (Plb. 5.13.5, monograph p. 190)

The monograph is a development of my PhD thesis, completed with AHRC funding at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, in 2012, which looked at the same question. The latter, however, is more empirically focused, using large datasets to generalise about the behaviour of the perfect from the macro-perspective. The present work presents a counterpoint to that project, by taking the micro-perspective, and seeking to establish, by delving into the underlying structure of the Greek language in this period, the semantic basis on which this form’s rather idiosyncratic behaviour might be described.


References
Crellin, Robert. 2012. The Greek Perfect Active System: 200 BC – AD 150. PhD Dissertation. University of Cambridge.

Swart, Henriette D. E. de. 1996. Meaning and Use of not … until. Journal of Semantics (13). 221–263.

Tenny, Carol. 1994. Aspectual Roles and the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Verkuyl, Henk. 1993. A Theory of Aspectuality: the Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure. Cambridge: CUP.


Robert Crellin’s book, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, is freely accessible to members of the Philological Society via the Wiley Online Library and their membership number. Members are asked to contact one of the Society’s secretaries with any questions in this regard.

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 3

Dative alternation and dative case syncretism in Greek: the use of dative, accusative and prepositional phrases in documentary papyri

by Joanne Vera Stolk (University of Oslo / Ghent University)

This article explores the evidence for dative case syncretism with personal pronouns in post-Classical Greek based on documentary papyri (300BCE-800CE). Three alternative encodings are examined for the animate goal of transfer verbs: the prepositions prós and eis (with accusative) and the bare accusative case. It is shown that the dative case and the preposition prós are in complementary distribution dependent on the animacy of the object and the conceptualization of the event. The preposition eis is only used for animate goals in the specialized meaning ‘on account of’. The bare accusative case is occasionally found as a replacement for the dative case, but not in the same constructions in which the prepositions are attested. Therefore, based on the encoding of the animate goal in Greek papyrus letters, there is no reason to assume that a change in the use of these prepositions led to the merger of dative and accusative cases.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12098

Finiteness in Greek and Latin, then and now

by Dag Haug (University of Oslo)

Finiteness is a crucial notion in modern theories of grammar.  The concept originates in the work of ancient grammarians on Greek and Latin and it has often been thought to be inadequate for other languages. In my talk, I trace a very brief history of the idea and then show that Greek and Latin themselves actually display a number of phenomena relating to the syntax and semantics of participles and infinitives that challenge this traditional idea of finiteness. Thus, there is still a lot to learn from the grammar of Greek and Latin if one is willing to dig deeper than the traditional descriptions.

A video recording of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 13 January, 4.15pm. The slideshow accompanying the paper is available here.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 3

Analogical Levelling and Optimisation: the Treatment of Pointless Lexical Allomorphy in Greek

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

Ancient Greek verbal morphology involved extensive allomorphy of lexical morphemes, most of which was phonologically and semantically arbitrary, lexically idiosyncratic, and functionally redundant. This was subsequently reduced through analogical levelling, which eliminates alternations in favour of a single phonological expression of underlying meaning. This reduction of arbitrary complexity is often observed in the development of morphological systems, which has inspired a common view of morphological change as being guided by universal preferences, nudging languages along paths which will lead them to a more optimal status. This paper applies data from the history of Greek to two questions about analogical levelling and the role of ‘optimisation’. Firstly, is levelling motivated by a universal preference for a one-to-one alignment of meaning and form? Secondly, is the direction of levelling determined by universal preferences for particular ways of marking morphosyntactic distinctions? I will argue that the answer to both questions is no: the developments observed here are remarkably well predicted by language-specific, formal properties of paradigms, without the need to invoke universal preferences. These facts are best accommodated if speaker competence includes detailed probabilistic information about the predictive structure of paradigms, which has important implications for morphological theory, as well as historical linguistics.