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Review of  Ancient Greek

Reviewer: Anne Mahoney
Book Title: Ancient Greek
Book Author: Silvia Luragi
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Greek, Ancient
Issue Number: 17.1392

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AUTHOR: Luraghi, Silvia
TITLE: Ancient Greek
SERIES: Languages of the World/Materials 213
YEAR: 2005

Anne Mahoney, Department of Classics, Tufts University

This small volume (just 101 pages) gives a description of the Greek
language as it was used in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Its
intended audience is linguists who want typological information about
Ancient Greek, or who will be reading papers by Hellenists, but who
are not deeply familiar with the language. All the Greek examples are
given in the Roman alphabet. After some introductory remarks, the
chapters cover phonology, morphological processes, morphosyntax,
and syntax. A short bibliography includes the basic references.

Although Silvia Luraghi is the major author, Anna Pompei and Stavros
Skopeteas are also credited, working on the sections on subordination
and on phonology and morphology, respectively.

Any description of Ancient Greek is complicated by the need to
determine exactly what variants of the language will be included. The
language is first attested as early as the 12th century BC, in a variety
called Mycenaean Greek and written in a syllabary conventionally
called Linear B (see p. 10). The canonical works of archaic and
classical Greek literature date from roughly the 8th century BC to the
first two centuries AD. Many important prose works are written in
Attic, the dialect of Athens, while others are in Ionic, a dialect very
similar to Attic, originally used in the Greek cities of the coast of Asia
Minor. Dramatic verse is in Attic Greek, while lyric verse
conventionally uses two or three other dialects. Inscriptions from the
Greek world attest all these dialects and others besides (p. 8-12; see
further Buck 1955, Meiggs and Lewis 1969).

As Alexander the Great and his successors spread Greek
administration through the eastern Mediterranean, during the third
century BC, a ''common'' variety (in Greek, ''koine'') came into use, and
this is the main ancestor of Medieval and Modern Greek (p. 8; see
further Horrocks 1995).

Luraghi sensibly restricts herself to the language of classical prose
and drama, Attic Greek of the fifth and fourth centuries, but
occasionally compares other varieties, particularly as used by Homer
and Herodotus.

The first chapter, on phonology, details the vowels and consonants,
syllable structure, and accentuation. Linguists who primarily work on
living languages may be surprised at the amount of detail available
about the sound system of a language that has had no native
speakers for over 2,000 years. Evidence for reconstructing Ancient
Greek phonology comes from the writings of native-speaker
grammarians, from spelling variation in ancient texts, from loan words
to and from other languages (particularly Latin but others as well), and
from comparison with other Indo-European languages and with later
stages of Greek. The standard reference is Allen (1968).

The next chapter is a brief review of the available morphological
processes: affixation, reduplication, apophony (or ablaut), and accent
movement. There is also a section on derivational morphology and
compounding. Luraghi points out that ''the general property of the
Ancient Greek affixes is their highly fusional character'' (p. 23):
internal sandhi and other phonological processes can make it
impossible to say where one morpheme ends and the next begins. As
a result, the examples in the book are not segmented into
morphemes, though the glosses do account for all of the morphemes.

Chapter 3, ''Parts of Speech and Grammatical Categories --
Morphosyntax,'' is the longest in the book at 45 pages. Luraghi
covers the formation and use of the five noun cases (nominative,
genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative), with three genders
(masculine, feminine, neuter) and three numbers (singular, plural, and
a dual that is becoming obsolete by the period of interest). The
definite article, pronouns, and adjectives come next, with discussion of
agreement rules. Numerals appear as a separate class; cardinal
numbers behave like adjectives but only ''1'' through ''4,''
hundreds, ''1000,'' and ''10000'' have case forms. Ordinal numbers
(''first, second,'' and so on) are simple adjectives. Ancient Greek also
has productive numeral adverbs (''six times'' and the like) and a variety
of other derived number words (''fourfold,'' ''four times as many,'' and
so on), for which see p. 47.

General adverbs and adpositions are discussed next. In Greek almost
all adpositions are prepositions, and in the earliest stages of the
language these words could be prepositions, preverbs, or adverbs.

The largest section of the chapter discusses the luxuriant
morphological system of the Ancient Greek verb. Finite verb forms
have person and number to agree with their subjects, tense (seven
possibilities), mood (four finite moods), and voice (three possibilities),
though not all of the conceivable combinations of these categories
exist in the language. Non-finite verb forms include infinitives and
participles, plus some derived adjectives. These forms are created by
means of suffixes, as many as four for a given form, and in some
instances also prefixes. The chart on p. 52 gives a useful overview of
how verb forms are made, showing the order in which suffixes appear
and the ways they are combined.

As in other Indo-European languages, in Ancient Greek tense, aspect,
and mood are closely linked. Forms from the present system, the ''first
principal part'' of a verb in standard lexica and grammars, have
imperfective aspect; forms from the aorist system have punctual or
perfective aspect. The perfect system is stative or resultative, and
forms in the future system usually do not distinguish aspect at all
(details p. 55 and following). In classical Greek, past indicative forms
are marked by a prefix, called the ''augment,'' just as in Sanskrit; this
prefix is not used in other moods, and was not consistently used in
Mycenaean or Homeric Greek. Luraghi's examples here are well
chosen to demonstrate the contrasts between forms.

After sections on conjunctions and negation, the third chapter ends
with a discussion of one of the most characteristic features of Ancient
Greek, the ''big number of discourse particles, that serve text cohesion
and interclause linkage'' (p. 69; the standard reference is Denniston
1959). Idiomatic Greek prose uses one or more particles at the start
of nearly every sentence to indicate its logical connection with
previous sentences. While at one level these particles are easy, since
they do not have inflectional forms, they do not govern other words,
and they do not entail particular forms for the verbs in the clauses
where they appear, they are nonetheless difficult because the choice
of particle can make fairly subtle differences in the meaning of a

Chapter 4 is on syntax. Ancient Greek has free word order (p. 73-75)
and allows omission of subjects (p. 75). Subordination can be
expressed with various kinds of clauses containing finite verbs and
introduced by subordinating conjunctions, or with phrases using
participles or infinitives (p. 80 and following). The sections of this
chapter treat sentence types, parts of the simple sentence,
interclausal coordination, and subordination. Although some of the
more arcane details are necessarily left out, this brief overview covers
all the major constructions and sentence structures.


This is a succinct, efficient introduction to Ancient Greek which should
serve its intended audience (non-classicist linguists) very well. It will
also be useful for beginning graduate students in classical philology,
who know Greek and are learning to approach it as linguistics.

Several of the explanations and charts are particularly good, and I
expect to use them as supplements even in beginning Greek classes.
The chart showing the possible morphemes in a verb form and their
order (p. 52) is elegant. The summary of conditional sentences (p. 89-
90) nicely shows the major types, imposing order on what is too often
presented as a list of arbitrary rules to be memorized. The overview of
word order (p. 73-75), with particular attention to the position of verbs,
is a good introduction.

The bibliography includes pretty much all the standard works, with
entries in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. The only
arguably significant omission is the work of A. M. Devine and L. D.
Stephens (for example 1994). After working through the present
volume, readers could continue with Rijksbaron (2002) or Horrocks
(1997), depending on their particular interests or needs.

A few small errors or infelicities should be noted. First, there is a long-
standing tradition in classics of referring to authors and works by
standard abbreviations and citation schemes, as ''Ar. Lys. 714,'' ''Th.
8.44.1,'' or ''Hes. Th. 22'' (all from p. 33). This efficient system is
universally understood by classicists, but a non-specialist may not
realize that the above examples refer to ''Aristophanes, Lysistrata line
714,'' ''Thucydides book 8, chapter 44, section 1,'' and ''Hesiod,
Theogony line 22'' respectively. See the Oxford Classical Dictionary
(Hornblower and Spawforth, 2003) or the Lexicon of Liddell, Scott,
and Jones (1996) for the key to the abbreviations.

Next, there are occasional typographical errors, though they rarely
interfere with comprehension. One that will cause confusion is on p.
16: ''In the earlier Attic inscriptions a special symbol koppa (*) is used
as an allograph of 'K' before 'O'.'' The symbol is supposed to appear
where I have written an asterisk, but what appears instead is a half-
bracket. Koppa looks something like a lollipop: it is a circle with a
descender, and in the Roman alphabet it develops into the letter ''Q.''
The only other really misleading typo is on p. 86, where the translation
reads ''... for a of miserable man'' and should presumably read
instead ''... for a miserable man'' or ''... for the sake of a miserable

Finally, the translations of the examples are always accurate, and
generally graceful in English, but occasionally so free as not to show
off the grammatical feature being demonstrated. For example, on p.
33, sentence 9 is glossed as ''do not hide a crisis that affects us,'' but
this does not account for the accusative pronoun that is the reason for
quoting this line; a gloss like ''do not hide from me an evil that we
suffer'' would make the point clearer. Or on p. 95, example 131 is
glossed as ''to the Euphrates river, the width of which was four
stadia.'' Although this is the best way to express this idea in English, it
does not show how the participle works in the Greek; an
ungraceful ''translationese'' gloss like ''to the Euphrates river, being of
four stadia in respect of its width'' might facilitate understanding the

These are fairly small points, however, and do not detract from the
value of the book. Linguists wanting an overview of Ancient Greek will
find this an excellent starting point.


Allen, W. S. (1968) Vox Graeca: A Guide to the Pronunciation of
Classical Greek. Cambridge U. Press.

Buck, Carl Darling. (1955) The Greek Dialects: Grammar, Selected
Inscriptions, Glossary. U. Chicago Press.

Denniston, J. D. (1959) The Greek Particles, 2nd ed. Oxford U.

Devine, A. M., and Lawrence D. Stephens. (1994) The Prosody of
Greek Speech. Oxford U. Press.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. (2003) The Oxford
Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. revised. Oxford U. Press.

Horrocks, Geoffrey C. (1997) Greek: A History of the Language and
its Speakers. London: Longman.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, revised Sir Henry Stuart
Jones. (1996) A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. with revised
supplement. Oxford U. Press.

Meiggs, Russell, and David Lewis. (1969) A Selection of Greek
Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford U.

Rijksbaron, Albert. (2002) The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in
Classical Greek: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Amsterdam: Gieben.

Anne Mahoney teaches in the classics department at Tufts University.
Her research interests include Greek and Latin meter and poetics,
Indo-European linguistics, and language pedagogy.

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