Re: Augment revisited (was: NUN+Verb.Aorist)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri May 02 1997 - 11:54:23 EDT

This, I hope, will be mercifully brief in response to those few points of
disagreement between us where I think a reply is worth making.

At 5:58 PM -0500 5/1/97, Don Wilkins wrote:
(the subject here is flexibility regarding the augment in Greek verse and
its relevance to the question whether the augment was recognized as a
marker of past time in the period of the writing of the NT.
>Quite right, and I take it that Carl (in point 3) is implying some
>relevance to the present discussion. While one can make such an argument,
>here is a comment from p. 502 of Threatte's recent _The Grammar of Attic
>Inscriptions II: Morphology_, to which I've drawn attention in a previous
>"Both the syllabic and temporal augment are frequently omitted in metrical
>inscriptions of all periods whenever the omission facilitates the metre.
>But the augment is virtually never omitted in Attic inscriptions in prose.
>It is certainly omitted in EPERWTHSEN [my transliteration here and
>following] in the Iobacchi regulations, II2 1368.20 (ca. 162/3 p.), and
>while spellings with omitted augment certainly occur in papyri (cf. Mayser
>1.2, p. 102; Gignac 2, p. 234, no. d1, with three cases of ERWTHS-,
>including one dated 100 A.D.), the Attic example is so isolated that it is
>tempting to consider it a scribal error caused by the preceding EPE |
>ROTHSOMEN of ib. 19-20 (both readings L.)."
>Threatte goes on to discuss a few other exceptions, none of which are
>difficult to explain. The point for our discussion, as I see it, is that
>poetry can reasonably be said to be flexible with augments due to the
>nature and metrical requirements of the genre itself, and it does not
>provide us with significant evidence for argument.

Although I would not make very much of this flexibility of poetry with
regard to the augment, a couple comments are in order here: (1) metrical
convenience is too easily equated with metrical necessity, as I'm sure Don
knows well enough. Any really good poet can make creative usage of all
sorts of verb-forms and is not going to feel constrained to avoid the
augment; (2) I would not disregard the evidence of inscriptions but I'm not
sure that I would give them too much weight, particularly over against the
evidence of papyri. I think that there's a fundamental conservatism about
the diction and usage of words that one chisels upon a stone that makes
inscriptions a less significant piece of evidence for current practice than
one might want to claim. I think that the same thing is true even of legal
documents on papyri that have been prepared by well-educated scribes on
behalf of people who may not even be able to understand the words of such a
document read aloud any more than they could read them (just think of the
way contracts and complex wills are written even today--it's almost as
unintelligible as the jargon of social scientists). Moreover I note that
your inscriptions are Attic; I don't know how important that is in itself,
but I have never really studied inscriptions much, and I'm wondering how
they might read in some of the outlying areas away from cultural centers
and capital cities. They're probably conservative everywhere, but the
question might be what usage they are conservative about--to what extent
can one speak of a fully standardized Koine usage? I don't know the real
answer to this, but there are grammars to the papyri and I think that they
may be worth consulting.

>In the NT, Matt has TEQEMELIWTO lacking the augment in 7:25, and no other
>instances of plupft that could take the syllabic augment. I should point
>out for those who may be unfamiliar with the problem that verbs which begin
>with a vowel seem to be fairly consistent throughout their history in the
>handling of the plupft (such as OIDA going to Hid-, hISTHMI to hEIST-,
>etc.), and so it is the syllabic augment verbs that are the focus of our
>attention (Carl can correct me if I am oversimplifying).

No real quarrel here, only a quibble: some of these vocalic augments are
really syllabic augments that have contracted with root vowels, like hEIST-
from E-hEST-

>What I draw from this is that the absence of the augment for the plupft in
>the NT is not very substantial given the existence of 82 plupfts, and the
>instances of the same phenomenon in the LXX are roughly parallel to the NT,
>despite the much earlier age of the LXX. SOMETHING seems to be going on,
>but does the evidence really provide much ground for concern about a major
>shift in the use and understanding of the augment during the NT period?
>Another explanation that seems possible to me is that the augment seemed
>very inconvenient in the construction of the plupft (along the lines of
>Carl's observation about its multi-syllabic nature) and might easily be
>omitted on some occasions because the plupft, like the impft, is uniquely
>indicative and limited to past time. The fact that the same thing does not
>occur for the impft may be due to the latter's frequency of usage and
>simpler construction.

Well, what I called it was a "crack in the wall" of regular use of the
augment, nothing more. What still hasn't really been demonstrated is that
Greek speakers and writers actually deemed the augment A NECESSARY MARKER

>Well, we *might* get some help from colloquial papyri of the period, if
>some is extant. I have not yet taken a close look at the papyri, and with
>the recent update of the PHI disc it may be possible to find something

Yes, one would want to look particularly at letters--not legal documents --
written by people who are literate but not sophisticated--and I think that
there are such papyrus documents, although I haven't really looked closely
at them.

>>The upshot of this is, I guess, that I don't question the overwhelming
>>evidence that the augment continued to be used on indicative aorists and
>>imperfects. What I do question is the claim that the augment was
>>undisputably recognized as a marker of past time in these forms by those
>>using it. I'm just not so confident that the endurance of a phonetic
>>element in these verb-forms necessarily means that speakers and writers
>>felt it had a semantic force.
>This of course is where I would tend to part company with the generalist
>linguistic approach. I think we need to look very carefully at the specific
>pieces of evidence within the literature of a language itself and consider
>that what may appear to be similar across languages is not necessarily so.
>It's undoubtedly true, as Mari has noted, that grammatical forms like the
>augment will last for some time after their meanings have become obscure,
>but the actual timing of such an event should be determined objectively
>from the language itself. The appeal of the generalist approach is (as it
>seems to me) that one can really know all or most of what there is to know
>about *any* language's syntax etc. by learning the supposed common traits
>of language in general. But this seems too good to be true, and most likely
>is. I hasten to add that I don't know what Carl thinks about this and am
>going well beyond his comments immediately above. In that regard I would
>agree with him that we can't know in effect what went on in the minds of
>the speakers/writers; I just think that the written evidence that we have
>paints a relatively clear picture of the use of the augment, at least
>through NT and somewhat later usage.

I'm glad that there are among us people as cautious as you are, Don, to
keep those of us who are as ready to break ranks with tradition as I am
honest. The truth may very well lie somewhere between the positions we are
taking. In response to the point you make in this last paragraph, however,
let me just note how conservative orthography is even in English: we may
use forms like "midnite" on billboards and in letters we right, but you
won't find it on inscriptions or official records. We Americans are even
much more conservative than our English cousins regarding spelling. George
Bernard Shaw gave a large sum in his will toward creation of a rational
alphabet and orthography for English; it was used to create what was called
ITA--"international teaching alphabet"--and it was a very good alphabet
that was used experimentally for a couple years in a few schools and then
dropped. It would have spelled words like "sky" and "sigh" and "eye"
consistently so that the vowel sound in "pie" would appear the same in each
of these words: "skie," "sie," "ie," etc. Much too radical, isn't it? Of
course some other languages are not so conservative as English--Italian and
German are pronounced as they are written--but French is not; I once taught
French grammar to a woman who had lived and spoken French in Paris for 20
years but who couldn't write it because she couldn't handle the difference
between the spoken and the written language. I don't know whether this may
be true of Greek, but I think it is to some extent because I have read some
Egyptian papyri where the phonetic development called "Itacism" had so
confounded the spelling that upsilons appeared where one should find an
epsilon-iota or an iota; epsilons appeared where one should find an
alpha-iota. No doubt there were levels of society pronouncing the same
words more precisely and conservatively, but all this does make one wonder.
And I still have the question nagging at me: did Greek-speakers of the NT
period really PERCEIVE the augment as a marker of past time? While I've
seen plenty of evidence that it was still being written on imperfect and
aorist indicatives, I have NOT seen evidence for its PERCEIVED semantic or
grammatical value.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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