Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 4 (Consonants)

Of all the posts in this series, this one is by far the most important.  Consonantal change is rampant in Greek, and you absolutely must understand it if you want to make sense of this language.  If you continue studying Greek without learning how consonants change, your frustration will go from a gentle simmer to a boil.  Your spouse will leave you, your kids will hate you, you’ll lose your house, and eventually you’ll end up a drug-addicted prostitute on the streets of Bangkok.  I’m not exaggerating at all.

There are two keys to understanding consonantal change in Greek:  (1) Know the square of stops.  (2) Know a few simple rules.  First, the square of stops:

Voiceless Voiced Aspirate + =
Velar κ γ χ σ ξ
Labial π β φ σ ψ
Dental τ δ θ σ σ

This chart shows several important Greek consonants.  (Yes, it’s a rectangle, not a square…  Remove the last two columns and the headers and you have your square.)  Vertically, we see that there are three categories:  velar, labial, and dental.  A velar sound is one made with the soft palette towards the back of the throat.  A labial is a sound made with the lips.  A dental, obviously, is made with the teeth.  Think of each of the sounds in a row as a continuum, not as individual sounds.  They are all related, and a sound can move between the different versions on the continuum.

Each sound (velar, labial, dental) can be either voiceless, voiced, or aspirated.  You can feel the difference by making each sound with your hand against your throat.  When you say κ, π, or τ, there is no sound in the throat.  When you say γ, β, or δ, there is.  Finally, the sound can be aspirated, that is, said with an outburst of air.  You can feel this by putting your hand in front of your lips.

This chart should be memorized, and it’s easy to do, because it’s simple and logical.  With this chart in mind, here are some important rules.

Combination with sigma

When I was bored in class during high school, I used to entertain myself by writing that this or that person “sux” in the margins of my notebook.  The lack of eloquence is embarrassing, but more importantly, it shows how early I was thinking like a Greek.  If a Greek word has a kappa (σαρκ-), and that  kappa is combined with a sigma (σάρκς), the Greeks did not write the letters separately, but combined them, like in “sux”.  Thus σάρκς becomes σάρξ.  The important thing to note is that any letter in a row in the table above yields the same double consonant when combining with sigma. This makes sense because each letter in a row is a variation on the same sound.  So, αἶγς becomes αἶξ, and φλέβς turns into φλέψ.

It should be pretty obvious what’s happening in the first two rows.  The sound, when combined with sigma, yields a double-consonant.  The last row is less clear.  When a dental combines with sigma, it yields sigma.  This is because a dental drops out before a sigma, sort of like our word “tsunami”.  A dental, the letter “t”, precedes the “s”, but the sound is not pronounced.


When a letter in the table is followed by a rough breathing, it picks up the aspiration.  It moves on the continuum.  Take τὸ ὅπλον.  Because two vowels occur in a row, the omicron in to drops out and you have τ᾿ ὅπλον.  But because the tau is followed by a rough breathing, it becomes theta:  θ᾿ ὅπλον.


The Greeks didn’t like two aspirated sounds right next to each other, so when that happens for some reason, the first one loses its aspiration.  Take the verb τίθημι.  τίθημι has a stem of θη-, but it’s hidden in the present because of reduplication.  The theta is reduplicated, so we get θίθημι.  But the because the thetas are aspirates, and right next to each other, the first one loses its aspiration and becomes tau.  It’s a move on the continuum.

Other changes

In his book The Morphology of Biblical Greek, Bill Mounce lists a number of different consonantal changes that can take place.  I can’t list them all here, but with an understanding of the square of stops, they become obvious.

An example

Take a look at this form:


How can we parse it?  Well, the –μένη ending looks like a middle/passive participle ending.  If we drop it, we are stuck with κεχαριτω-.  If you look it up in the lexicon, however, you won’t find a form resembling this.  If you don’t know your square of stops, and the continuums of sounds it presents, you’re going to be stumped.   But if you know the square, and you know about de-aspriation, you’ll know that this form probably started out as χεχαριτωμένη.  The first chi lost its aspiration and made a move on the continuum.  This tells you the stem is χαριτ- (in fact, χαριτο-), and that the form is a perfect.

I found that learning the square of stops was easy and greatly beneficial to learning forms.  As always, I recommend Mounce’s MBG, which lists many more rules for consonants.  Nevertheless, if you learn the square and just a couple rules, you will be in far better shape demystify strange looking Greek forms.


7 thoughts on “Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 4 (Consonants)

  1. You think exactly like Mounce, that’s why you like him so much:)

    It’s funny how education works. Whenever an educator decides to “bury” info – out of worry, perhaps, that the students will drop out – there will always be students who go and unearth the corpse. Those who don’t do so but decide to become educators themselves – well, the whole cycle is repeated, resulting in an incredible thinning of info.

    And if one thinks that students should have access to all info there is, some students rebel and say that the extra info is not in the textbook.

    And no matter how many times one tells students that the recommended linear approach to reading is inferior to the logical one, they still do whatever the textbook says.

    The tyranny of (text)books:)

    1. Well, I wouldn’t say “exactly” like Mounce. I love his explanation of morphology, but I disagree vehemently with some of his theological views, and I loathe the sparseness of syntax in his works. His focus is exclusively on forms. As I’ve said before, I would hate to have Mounce as an introductory textbook. I also don’t like his approach of leaving verbs out until the second half of the book.
      That said, what I like about him is that the information he presents about forms, which is considered “advanced” by so many other authors, is presented as basic information you need to know, and is presented so clearly that is no longer seems advanced. And he discourages rote, and encourages pattern recognition. The way he approaches forms is much like the way you approach vocabulary. You both know that cramming facts into your head without understanding is hopeless, and that this approach just compounds student frustration.

      1. Maybe he thought that syntax was covered already in Wallace’s excellent Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. I love this book, and I also love Woodcock’s New Latin Syntax. One of these days, we should have a Greek course with Wallace’s textbook, huh – it will be interesting to review his interpretations.

        1. Yes, but I still don’t like the approach. Leave out syntax in the first-year book, and then have a second-year book full of syntax. (And Wallace explicitly claims his book is a second year textbook.) I don’t even consider Wallace a textbook so much as a reference grammar. I think Mastronarde and H&Q have the best mix of syntax and forms, but they don’t quite get into Mounce’s detail on the workings of forms.

          1. You are one picky student:) Did you have all these requirements when you first started with Greek?

            OK, let me tell you what works for me. Today, as I was picking those cords ad infinitum at a time, I realized that unless I come up with some song to hum while I pick, I’ll explode. The half-notes sequences would have inspired me if I could already play them fast, but so far I am mostly fumbling. I keep returning to the cursed guitar though, because it sounds divine, no matter how badly I pluck those cords.

            1. The important thing is that you continue to be a student. You don’t just act like, “oh, I have a Ph.D. from Berkeley, I don’t need to learn anything anymore.” The fact that you keep learning is what gives you the ability to identify with your students!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s