July 28, 2010 | Greek

Content Warning

This entry contains an explicit discussion of Greek verbs.

I am continuing to read along in Douglas Q. Adams’s Essential Modern Greek Grammar. This book is not for the grammatically faint of heart, and it is not a particularly useful way to learn to speak Greek, but I really like it, as it gives a thorough and responsible overview of the language’s construction.

The author seems like a man with a system. I enjoy his writing, and I bet his sock drawer is well organized.

Read This If You Dare

Read This If You Dare

His chapter on verbs begins with a cautionary note: “To English speakers, the verbs of Modern Greek appear much more complicated than those of their own tongue.” I thought: You don’t scare me, Douglas Q. Adams, and kept right on reading.

But almost immediately my confidence gave way to clammy fear, when I read that verbal phrases in English are often expressed with single words in Greek. An example he offered was “we were being loved,” which has a one-word Greek equivalent, αγαπιόμαστε. That meant, it seemed to me, that Greeks were somehow managing to capture person (“we”), tense (past), passive (“were being loved”), and progressive (“being”) with endings alone.

This was not good news. Learning a ton of different endings is a lot harder than piecing together standard verb forms in a handy mix-and-match system.

I continued reading. More revelations: there is no infinitive in Greek.

Well, that explained a lot. I had been confused for weeks by the apparent absence of them in the sentences Pimsleur had been teaching me.

In the Greek equivalent of “I would like to eat chocolate,” for instance, both the “would like” and the “eat” are first-person forms, meaning you have to think about conjugating two verbs correctly, not just one, as you would do in, say, French or German, where the second verb would be the plain old unvarnished infinitive (manger or essen).

Arabic, however, was another language where I had to conjugate multiple verbs in a row to match the subject. I much prefer a system where all you have to do is conjugate the first one while the rest loiter indolently in the background, in a totally low-maintenance kind of way. So much less work!

Dr. Adams occasionally uses terminology I have never heard before. On page 60, regarding something called aorist passive, I read, “Unlike the present and imperfect, where the passive is distinguished from the active by a separate set of personal endings, the aorist passive is formed by the addition of -θηκ- or -τηκ- to the aorist active stem (with certain modifications), plus the regular active endings common to the imperfect and aorist; there is no augment.”

No joke.

A couple of pages later I learned that “The definite future (both active and passive) is formed with θά and a verb form based on the aorist stem (without the augment). To derive an active definite future the active present or, more commonly, subjective endings…are added to the active aorist stem.”

I think it’s quite sexy when a man talks like that. Not many can.

One thing about Greek verbs that was not unexpected is that there is more than one kind of past. There is imperfect, for ongoing action, which is a familiar concept from other languages—Spanish, for example. Then there is what he referred to as the aorist past, for single or completed actions, as with preterit in Spanish.

What blew my mind, though, is that this type of distinction—i.e., between ongoing and single actions—is preserved in passive, future, and subjunctive. Maybe more, too, but I got brain lock at that point, so I had to stop reading and collect my thoughts.

My god. Having to pick verb forms across multiple tenses, moods, etc., based on whether the verbs describe single or continuing actions complicates one’s language life considerably. How disappointing that I have so little time left for this language. And no wonder some of the Greek speakers I told about this undertaking looked at me at the time with what struck me as a strange combination of condescension and pity.

Comments (4)

Katherine • Posted on Mon, August 16, 2010 - 1:05 pm EST

I have to say, I LOVED reading this post!  Grammar is at the same time frustrating and exciting, it’s a real love hate relationship. I was wondering, do you think you could share your method for remembering grammar?  I too am a flashcard nut when it comes to vocab, nothing can beat that.  Aside from reading grammar books and doing grammar exercises, do you have a method for memorizing grammar rules and irregularities?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, August 24, 2010 - 7:20 pm EST

Katherine - You are asking the language question of the century here, I think. I am going to dedicate a blog entry to it shortly. - Ellen

Katherine • Posted on Tue, August 24, 2010 - 9:53 pm EST

Wow!  I can’t wait!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, August 25, 2010 - 3:42 pm EST

Okay, I’ve tackled it now, in the August 25th entry, “A Philosophy of Grammar Education.”

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