GREEK 101:READING GREEK
ABOUT THE GREEK
Source: J.A.C.T. Greek Course: Reading Greek: An Independent Study Guide to Reading Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp. 3-8 (adapted and expanded).
1. The Subject and Object of the Verb
Dikaiopolis sees Athens.
The VERB in a sentence tells us what
is happening. Here it is sees. Who is doing the
seeing? Obviously, Dikaiopolis is doing the seeing.
We call the doer the SUBJECT of the sentence.
What is the SUBJECT and what is the OBJECT in the following sentences?
The poet sings a song.
In English the order of the words usually tells us what is the subject and what is the object. "The Athenians defeat the enemy" is very different from "The enemy defeat the Athenians."
Greek, on the other hand, shows the difference by changing the endings of its words. You will be learning the different endings during the course. But for the moment, let us use English letters and say that, if the Athenians are the subject (i. e. if they are doing the defeating) they are Athenai-oi, while if they are the object (i.e. if the enemy are defeating them) they are Athenai-ous.
So in Greek the different endings show us the different jobs the words have to do in the sentence. The order the words come in does not alter the basic meaning of what they are saying (though it can alter the emphasis). So the vital thing is to look at the endings of Greek words.
We have names for the various jobs which nouns perform in a Greek sentence. We call them CASES.
The nominative case is the case of the SUBJECT.
(There is another case called the vocative -- this is the case by which you address someone: for example, "Be careful, son!")
We still have some different case-endings in English:
The teacher saw the girl working. He praised her.
He is the subject and is therefore in the nominative; her is the object and is therefore in the accusative. Try filling in the gaps in these sentences:
The boy sees his mother. ____ calls _____.
In what cases are she, him, her, we, he, and us?
Note that in "his mother" and "her son", his and her are used as the genitive case: "the mother of him" and "the son of her."
But to return to subjects and objects, look and see what is wrong with the words in black in the following sentences:
She took my wife and I out to lunch.
In English we usually make a SINGULAR word PLURAL by adding an "s" to it: for example: "apple" = singular, but "apples" = plural. But Greek plurals are more complicated than this because they fall into several different patterns, and they have separate endings for the different cases.
Most English words do not have gender.
Third person singular pronouns are exceptions: "she," "he,"
"it," "her," and "him" are inflected in English to indicate
not only case and number, but also GENDER.
In Greek, every noun has a gender. Sometimes this is intuitively evident: the Greek word for "woman" (gynê), for example, is feminine, as in English; we derive the term "gynecologist" from it. Likewise, the Greek word for "man," "husband" (andr-), as in English, is masculine; the English word "androgyne" combines both Greek terms and means "a man/woman."
More often, however, the gender of a Greek word will not be obvious, although there are certain principles of word-formation which will help you to guess them. The Greek word for "general" (stratêgos), for example, is masculine; but the Greek word for "army" (stratia) is feminine.
The GENDER of a Greek word is
indicated by the gender of the definite article ("the") that
you learn along with the word.
Cases show how a word fits in with the overall meaning of a sentence. There is another way in which they are used, which should not cause much difficulty for English speakers. This is when prepositions (words such as "above", "below", "under", "by", "for", "in", "on") are used. They are always followed by nouns or pronouns in a case other than the nominative.
Thus, in English, we have
He was below her in the examinations.
Every time you learn a preposition in Greek, you must be careful to learn what case follows it (or what case it takes, as we tend to say). There are some common factors which make this less difficult. For example, prepositions which express an idea of moving towards a place take the accusative case, prepositions which express moving away from a place take the genitive, and prepositions which express staying in a place tke the dative.
A COMPLETE DESCRIPTION OF A NOUN, ADJECTIVE, OR PRONOUN IN GREEK INCLUDES CASE, NUMBER, AND GENDER:
While it is certainly true that Greek words alter much more than English ones to show what job they are doing in a sentence, most English verbs do change their ending when we want to show that an action happened in the past (for example "talk", "talked"; "follow", "followed"' "pour", "poured"; "end", "ended"). But many others change quite dramatically in their past tenses, for exmple, "go", "went". What is the past tense of : "see", "sit", "spit", "seek", "buy", "do", "make"?
We have just asked you to consider the past tense of a number of English verbs. You may not have met the word "tense" before. It is used to describe the forms of a verb that indicate the time of the action of the verb as past, present or future.
In English we often put verbs into different tenses by using tenses of the verb "be" and "have" to help out:
Present tense: I stop, I am stopping
You will see from the table above that there are three [four] ways of describing past time.
The Imperfect: conveys the idea that the action was going on for some time.
In what tenses are the following?
You will walk.
In Greek we use single words to express each of these tenses. Thus, in English "I was stopping" is three words, while in Greek it is only one (epauon). You can see the importance of learning the Greek tenses as they are introduced.
Verbs have three "voices", each of which indicates the relation of the subject to the action of the verb:
The Active Voice: denotes that the subject is the agent of the action.
In the sentence, "I stop the car," "I"
am the agent of the action "stopping," which I perform upon
the car. "I stop" in this sentence is in the active
In Greek, there is one set of verb endings for the active voice, another for the middle, and another for the passive. In several tenses, however, the endings for the middle and passive are the same:
Greek Verbs also have five "moods" (or "modes"):
The Indicative Mood: expresses a simple statement or a fact.
Indicative: "I look." "I see the
harbor." "Do you see the harbor?"
In talking about verbs, another useful word is Person.
The first person singular is: I
In English we always use an extra word to show the person:
"He speaks", "You are going", We see".
In Greek it is the verb-ending which shows the person, and the pronoun is added only for emphasis:
In English, the number of the verb (SINGULAR OR PLURAL) is indicated by the pronoun. Some verbs in English inflect differently for singular and plural; for example:
"sees," " does," as in "She sees," "He does" (singular and restricted to the third person)
But most English verbs do not inflect differently for singular and plural; for example:
"I did," "They did," "He went," "We went."
In Greek it is the verb-ending which shows the number, and there are different endings for the singular and plural for each of the three persons (first, second, and third).
A COMPLETE DESCRIPTION OF A VERB IN GREEK INCLUDES TENSE, VOICE, MOOD, PERSON, AND NUMBER:
Greek is rich in "particles," words that affect the tone and/or meaning of a sentence. Some of these are adverbs ("Surely you don't mean that!) and some are conjunctions ("although"), and many are difficult to translate into English except by using cumbersome phrases.
For example, the pair of particles men...de contrast one part of a sentence with the other, and are (clumsily) defined as "on the one hand...on the other hand." The English sentence "Traveling is fun, but expensive" would be rendered in Greek as "Fun men to travel, expensive de. You'll meet the pair men...de early in the first semester, and you'll have many opportunities to experiment with the best form of translation for it.
A number of Greek particles are "postpositive," meaning that they cannot stand as the first word in the Greek sentence; these are usually best translated into English as the first word of the sentence.
For example, the particle gar meaning "for," is postpositive: "For he's a jolly good fellow." In Greek, gar would be the second word in the sentence.
For further discussion of particles, see GVE p.10 #3, p.17 #17, and Reference Grammar G (pp. 292-97).
All the foregoing should have made it very clear that in learning to read Greek it is necessary to learn not only to interpret the new script, but also to look closely at the endings of words. This is something which we do not need to do in English. You will have to train yourself consciously to notice the endings, or you will find that you are making avoidable mistakes in understanding Greek.
You will find more information about the Greek language in GVE pp. 11-17, #4-17.
For a more detailed discussion of the cases of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and of the tenses, voices, and moods of verbs, link here to the online Greek Syntax by Jeffrey A. Rydberg-Cox, on the Perseus Project site.
Tondo of Attic red-figure kylix attributed to Eucharides, 480 BCE, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art MS4842. Source: Perseus Vase Collection.
last revised: 20 August 2000