Lesson 4: Vowel and Consonant Change


080. In mastering the inflectional patterns in Greek and in recognizing derivational forms, it is extremely helpful to know how vowels and consonants in Greek behave. An elementary knowledge of phonology will relieve the tedium of rote memorization of patterns that are otherwise inexplicable and will create a range of expectancy within which phonetic changes will fall. At the early stages of learning, especially, a modest acquaintance with phonology is valuable in identifying words and forms.

Appendix I, §§900-933, is devoted to a schematic presentation of phonetic changes in Greek. The material there is to be used primarily for reference.

081. English is rich in words borrowed from or related to Greek. A number of important New Testament words have been taken over directly by theologians, e.g. agape (ἀγαπή), kerygma (κήρυγμα), somatic (σῶμα, base σωματ-), eucharist (εὐχαριστία). The Greek counterparts of such words are the more readily identified if the student is aware of transliteration equivalencies (§052). Many other English words, especially from technical and scientific language, afford means of recognizing Greek ancestors. Phone, for example, comes from φωνή, sound; phonology, the science which treats sounds, is derived from φωνή + λογία. An ophthalmologist is an eye doctor: ὀφθαλμός, eye. Note the phonetic relationship between the following Greek words and English derivatives (care must be taken, however, in relating meanings; English derivatives do not always mean the same thing as their Greek counterparts): μάρτυς (base μαρτυρ-), martyr; ῥήτωρ, rhetor-ic; ἡγεμών, hegemony; ἔθνος, ethnic; πόλις, Indianapolis; ἐγώ, ego; εἶς (neut. ἕν) and θεός, henotheism, cf. theology.

The student can begin with a considerable working vocabulary if close attention is given to the sounds of Greek words (rather than their written form) in relation to English. In this connection it should be remembered that consonants are more persistent and hence critical than vowels.

Metzger (Part I) provides the student with English derivatives for approximately 45 per cent of the words appearing in the Greek New Testament ten times or more.

082. In addition to Greek words taken over virtually unchanged, even the untrained eye and ear will sense some relation between such phonetically differentiated words as πατήρ (father) and English father (cf. German vater). If the two words are related, Greek π corresponds to English f, and Greek τ corresponds to English th. On the basis of the first (π/f), one might recognize πυρ as a distant cousin of English fire; on the basis of the second (τ/th), τρεις bears some similarity to three.

The regularity of correspondences among consonants was formulated as a phonetic law (or set of laws) by Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and became known as Grimm's law (Cf. Metzger: 73-78). In addition to the relationships π/f and τ/th, κ appeared to correspond to h, δ/t, and γ/k. Thus, καρδία is related to English heart (κ/h, δ/t), ὀδούς (stem, ὀδοντ-) to dental, but also tooth (δ/t, τ/th), γένος to kin (γ/k) . Also compare δύο with two, γινώσκω (stem, γνω-) with know, πληγή with flog.

083. Consonant changes within the Greek language itself sometimes obscure the relationship between words and forms to the untrained eye. The trained eye is one that anticipates, or at least is not surprised by, changes that take place when certain consonants are juxtaposed. Such eye training may here be only exemplified.

083.1 ξ and ψ stand for κσ, γσ, χσ and πσ, βσ, φσ, respectively (§§903.5, 9030.3). This fact makes it readily understandable that κῆρυξ is the nom. sing, of κήρυκος (gen. sing.), base κηρυκ-: the nom. sing, takes the ending -ς (§160). Similarly, ἕξω is the future tense of ἔχω, since the tense formative of the future is σ (§346.2): ἐχ-σ-ω > ἕξω. Analogously, ἔπεμψα (first aorist, tense formative σ, §346.1) has a base πεμπ-, to be observed in the present tense, πέμπω (ε-πεμπ-σα > ἔπεμψα). Cf. γράφω, ἔγραψα (base, γραφ-).

083.2 The lexical form of nouns. One difficulty common to beginners in Greek is ascertaining the dictionary form (nom. sg.) of certain nouns, particularly of the third declension, when they occur in the text in an oblique case (gen., dat., acc.). Suppose one does not know the meaning of σαρκί and wishes to look the word up in a lexicon. We will have to assume that the student knows the declension patterns sufficiently well to identify σαρκί as a dative singular (dative singulars in the third declension regularly end in -ι, §154). The student will also know that the nom. sg., or dictionary form, also often ends in -ς (masc. and fem. nouns, §154). Omitting the dative ending (-ι), the base would be σαρκ-. To this we might add ς: σαρκ-ς > σαρξ. (§083.1), and thus arrive at the correct nominative form. It is sometimes necessary, to be sure, to arrive at the correct form by trial and error.

083.3 The problem presented in §083.2 can be further illustrated with reference to other types of phonetic change.

The dative form χάριτι (cf. §083.2) has the base χαριτ-. If we assume this noun is masc. or fem. and add σ to form the nom. sg., the result is χαριτ-ς. However, a dental (τ, δ, θ) disappears before σ (§927.2): χαριτ-ς > χάρις. Cf. ἐλπίς, dat. sg. ἐλπίδι.

083.4 Only certain consonants in Greek can stand at the end of a word: ν, ρ, ς (χ, ψ) (§923). The dative form ὀνόματι would therefore have the base, ὀνοματ-. If this noun were masc. or fem., the nom. sg. would presumably be ονομας (see above).

However, it is neuter, so the nom. sg. has no ending (§154) : ὀνοματ- > ὄνομα.

These examples merely illustrate the way in which a minimal knowledge of phonetic change can be of assistance in locating the dictionary forms of verbs and nouns and in correlating the various forms of the same noun or verb.

084. Word families. The significance of phonetic change can be exemplified in yet another way: the relationship among words belonging to the same word family may not be evident apart from some minimal knowledge of the laws governing phonetic changes.

Observe the family resemblance of the following words:

γράφω, I write
γραφή, -ῆς, ἡ, a writing, scripture
γραπτός, -ή, -όν, written
γράμμα, -ατός, τό, letter (of the alphabet), document, epistle
γραμματεύς, -έως, ὁ, secretary, clerk

The family base is γραφ-, to be observed in γράφω, γραφή. γραπτός (adj.) is comprised of γραφ- plus the adjective suffix -τος; φ before τ is partially assimilated: φτ > πτ (§925.1). γράμμα is made up of γραφ- plus the noun suffix -ματ-; φ before μ is totally assimilated: φμ > μμ (§926.1); since τ cannot stand at the end of a word (§§083.4; 923), and neuter nouns of the third declension have no ending in the nom. sg. (§154) , the dictionary form shows the stem, less τ. γραμματεύς is derived from γράμμα (γραμματ-), plus the noun suffix -ευς (agent).

Compare the English cognates graph, grapheme, graphic, graphite, graphology.

Attention to phonetic change will often make it possible to discern family relationships among words that otherwise may appear unrelated.

085. The behavior of vowels is somewhat less predictable and consequently less stable than the behavior of consonants. In the non-literary papyri, for example, the vowels in words are more commonly misspelled than the consonants. Nevertheless, acquaintance with certain categories of vowel changes will prove indispensable.

085.1 Contraction. Vowels brought together in inflection and word-formation are often contracted. The verb ποιέω appears in the lexicon but not in any text in that form: -έω always contracts to -ῶ. The final stem vowel ε, however, appears in the future tense of the same verb, ποιήσω, where it is lengthened to η before the tense formative σ (-ω is the personal ending in both cases). Contraction is a common phenomenon in Greek. For a schematic summary of contractions, s. §917.

085.2 Quantitative vowel gradation. Vowels in different forms of related words sometimes undergo a change in length (short to long and the reverse). In some first declension nouns, for example, a short final α in the nom. and acc. singulars becomes η in the gen. and dat. singulars: δόξα, δόξαν; δόξης, δoξῃ (s. §132.2). In πατήρ (nom.), the final stem vowel (η) becomes short in the acc. form, πατέρα, and the same vowel disappears altogether in the gen. form, πατρός. In §085.1 it was observed that final ε in ποιέω is lengthened to η before the tense formative σ of the future tense: ποιήσω.

Observe the change from short to long final stem vowel between and among verbs and nouns belonging to the same family:

ποιέω (ποιῶ), I do, make
ποίημα, doing, working
ποίησις, work, creation (of the artist)
ποιητής, poet
νοέω (νοῶ), I perceive, apprehend
νόημα, thought, mind
ἀγαπάω (αγαπῶ), I love
ἀγάπη, love
ἀγαπητός, beloved

Quantitative vowel gradation is summarized in §§908f.

085.3 Qualitative vowel gradation. In addition to changes in length, vowels sometimes undergo qualitative change, as, for example, in the English verb, ring, rang, rung, and in the noun, man, men.

Analogous qualitative vowel change may be observed in a few Greek verbs, e.g. λείπω (present tense), ἔλιπον (aorist), λέλοιπα (perfect). S. §911 for other patterns.

Once again (§085.2), qualitative vowel change may be observed in related verbs and nouns:

ἀποστέλλω, I send away or out
ἀπόστολος, apostle (someone sent)
ἐπιστολή, letter (something sent)
τρέφω, I nourish, feed, support
τροφή, nourishment, food
τροφός, nurse

The relationship among words belonging to the same family may be more readily discerned when there is awareness of the possibilities of quantitative and qualitative vowel change.

086. The phonetic changes indicated in §§082-085 are illustrative of some of the more common changes to be expected in Greek. A schematic but by no means exhaustive presentation is to be found in Appendix I, §§900-933. The student is well advised not to commit this material to memory in advance, but to study it in a preliminary way, and then let it take shape slowly as he confronts the inflectional patterns of the nominal and verbal systems, and builds vocabulary by observing relationships among Greek words and between Greek and related English (Latin, etc.) words. Many phonetic changes will appear natural after a brief experience of the language.