Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 3 (Patterns)

OK Greek students, what do the following words have in common?

ἀνθρώποισι, λόγῳ, βουλῇσι, σαρκί, δίκῃ, φλεψί, τίσι, θεᾷ

To give you time to ponder it, I present an uplifting video:

Any ideas?  If you said they are all datives, you are correct.  But there’s another important thing that they all have in common:  they all end in iota. With a form like σαρκί, this is an obvious fact.   But with λόγῳ or θεᾷ, it’s not so apparent, especially for beginning Greeklings who tend to ignore iota subscripts.  Remember, if these words were written in capitals, they would be ΛΟΓΩΙ and ΘΕΑΙ.  The iota subscript is not an afterthought, nor is it a diacritic.  It is an integral part of the spelling of the word and cannot be ignored.  If you thought these words ended in omega and alpha, then you are wrong.

ἀνθρώποισι may not be familiar if your first exposure to Greek is Attic, but it is a common form of the dative plural in Homeric.  In Attic the final iota drops out, and we end up with ἀνθρώποις, but I like to remember the Homeric form. βουλῇσι is also a Homeric dative plural form, but feminine.  Again, the iota drops out in Attic, but also the eta-iota combo ends up turning into alpha-iota, and in our Attic textbook we have βουλαῖς.  So with a little historical investigation, you can see that the dative forms all fit a pattern.  Iota is the marker of the dative.

Let’s try another batch:

λόγον, πολίτην, αἶγα, χάριν, ἀργυρᾶν

These words may look quite different, but they are all accusative singulars, and they all have one other thing in common:  they all end in nu.  Wait a minute, you say. αἶγα ends in alpha!  Well, yes it does, except that alpha often shows up where a nu used to be.  This is called a vocalic nu, but it really just means that the nu was hard to pronounce and became “sonant”.  It may be best to remember nu and alpha as alternate endings for the accusative singular in the third declension, but I just remember them as different shades of the same sound.

The point I am making is that it is important to hunt for patterns if you ever want to remember declensions and conjugations.  Rote has its place, but you need to go beyond rote if you don’t want to be utterly confused by the myriad of forms.  The textbooks follow one particular pattern in presenting noun forms:  declensional patterns.  They list all the cases for nouns in a particular declension, but they list the declensions separately.  The textbooks do a horrible job of showing patterns that span declensions, however.

Here’s an unconventional suggestion:  take a few pieces of paper and group forms in ways that the textbooks don’t.  Write down every genitive form, no matter the declension or number, on a single sheet of paper.  Then on another sheet, write down just plurals, as many as you can find, regardless of case.  Do it with verbs too.  Write down all of the second person singulars on a single sheet, no matter the tense, mood, or voice.  Then write down all the passives.  Group forms in any way you can think of that the textbook authors haven’t.  Look for patterns, and even if you don’t see any, seeing all the forms of a particular type together on one sheet of paper will bond them together in your memory.  Add to this a little time with Smyth or Mounce hunting for history on why the forms look the way they do, and you’ll do yourself a huge favor in remembering forms.

6 thoughts on “Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 3 (Patterns)

  1. Awesome, meticulous and wittily presented! I love the Russian vowels video!

    As with any pattern, though, beware. Here are some Greek words that end at iota but are not datives:

    τιμᾷ, τιθῇ, διδάσκει, ἄνθρωποι

    And here are some forms ending at ν but are not accusative singulars:

    λύειν, τιμᾶν, ἄγαν

    So, it is a good idea to accumulate some forms and knowledge of what they are before you begin to search for patterns. I think that’s why the textbooks don’t mention the patterns that span over declensions and conjugations. Like the endings, these patterns emerge from the pile of forms you’ve learned, and when this happens, it’s a glorious moment. Be patient!

    1. Yes, very true. I would say that with any pattern, you have to take into account the totality of the circumstances. That’s one of the reasons I love to write down forms on separate sheets of paper in different groupings. You can see what patterns work, which ones are troublesome, and you can see similar forms grouped together in a variety of ways.

    1. I was adding a new post with the WordPress iPad app and it wiped out the damn post. I managed to find the old post in a Google cache and revert it. That app was a piece of garbage.

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