Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 2 (Contractions)

Any woman who’s given birth will tell you contractions are painful.  It’s no different with Greek.  Attic and Koine use a complex system of contractions that can leave students…frustrated.  The reason for the frustration lies in how contractions are taught.  Hansen and Quinn, for example, give you a table for each contract vowel (alpha, epsilon, omicron) used in a verb stem.  The table for each vowel is presented separately from the other vowels’ tables, so you conveniently cannot see any patterns that spread across vowels.  The tables show the result of the major combinations of vowels, like this: αει > ᾳ.  The motivated student can turn to the back of the book and look at the massive full table of contractions, and will do what any student does when he sees a large table he knows he should memorize:  ignore it.

In reality, contractions aren’t that complicated if you look for patterns.  You need the basics, not every possible combination. Here are the main things to remember:

  1. First, remember the weird ones. εε > ει, οο > ου, εο > ου, οε > ου.  That is, epsilon plus itself yields ει;  omicron plus itself or epsilon yields ou.  These don’t seem to make much sense, but they are common.  Just learn them, there aren’t many.
  2. When an “a” or “e” sound combines with another “a” or “e” sound, the sound that comes first gobbles up the second one.  So αε > α, αη > α, εα > η.  Note that because the result of a contraction is always a long vowel, the last contraction I listed does not result in an epsilon, which is short, but an eta, which is simply a long e.
  3. An “o” sound gobbles up anything, with the exception of the contractions mentioned in #1.  So αω > ω, εω > ω, αο > ω.
  4. An iota, when contracted, frequently subscripts. αει > ᾳ, ηοι > ῳ.  Note that the last example (eta omicron iota) combines this rule and rule 3.  (The subscript doesn’t always happen, but focus on the basics and remember that it can happen.)

I’ve seen lists of summary rules like this in books, but I just came up with this on my own by thinking about what I know and looking at a contractions table.  If you can come up with additional patterns, point them out in the combox.

A circumflex is a marker that a contraction might have occurred, but unfortunately an unreliable one.  It shows up when there is no contraction (τῆς), and it sometimes doesn’t show up when there is a contraction (ποίεε > ποίει).  Still, it’s one thing to consider when trying to figure out if you are looking at a contraction.

Here are my tips for dealing with this frustrating aspect of Greek:

  1. Look for patterns, as above, and learn them instead of trying to memorize a contraction table.
  2. Know your vocabulary.  How do I know if ποιεῖται is a contract verb, or perhaps the  nominative plural of some feminine noun?  If you don’t know the verb ποιέω exists and is an epsilon-contract verb, it’ll be tough.
  3. Study the contract verb forms both contracted and uncontracted.  It’s important to be able to reverse a contracted ending, but if you want to sight read Greek, you need to know the endings as you will encounter them.
  4. Make a list of the tricky forms, and review them. τιμᾷ can mean four different things, assuming it’s a verb. ποίει doesn’t look contracted, but it is.
  5. Context is everything.  The aforementioned τιμᾷ could be a subjunctive or an indicative.  If it comes after ἐάν, what do you think it is?

Contractions are one of those things that are horrifying at first, but suddenly just “click” and you get them.  Contractions will always be painful for women, but they will get easier with Greek.

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