Re: Augment revisited

From: Don Wilkins (
Date: Fri May 02 1997 - 17:46:16 EDT

I sense that our discussion may be getting far too esoteric, so like Carl,
I will try to be brief.

At 10:54 AM 5/2/97, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>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

This is another point-of-view issue. If we *assume* that the augment is
used in the traditional way, then the free use of unaugmented forms in
poetry is significant, and the willingness to do so may perhaps be compared
with the break from metrical or rhyming restraints in English poetry. If,
to the contrary, we assume that the augment is purely routine and
unnecessary, then we will come to the opposite conclusion along the lines
Carl is suggesting. Either way, though, the timing is important: if the
augment is routine and unnecessary and was therefore dealt with casually in
poetry of all time periods, then why should it have come to exist at all?
The generalist linguistic argument seems to hinge on the assumption that
the augment at one time meant something, and gradually became routine and

>(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.

I've anticipated Carl's objection to the argumentative value of Attic
inscriptions, and his points are well taken, as usual. Obviously we are
very concerned with the papyri. The only answer to stylistic differences
between inscriptions and papyri is to examine the former closely for
evidence of a formal style that would actually conflict with the grammar of
ordinary usage, and this of course has yet to be done. Here again, the PHI
papyri/inscription disc may prove to be a gold mine. While inscriptions may
be formal, I suspect that we won't find significant differences in grammar
because the inscriptions were, after all, meant to be read by passers-by.

>>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-

This is of course true, since the rough breathing in such a verb represents
an 's'. Similarly, the E of EIDON is actually syllabic due to the original
presence of the digamma (obsolete Greek w) before ID-. However, these
augments seem to be consistently retained in koine etc.
>>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.

Agreed, for the most part. The NT stands somewhere between such letters and
literary Greek.
> 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.

Such comparisons to other languages is exactly (as I perceive it) the stuff
of which generalist linguistics is made, and the question remains whether
this methodology would be valid in criticizing and deciding particulars in
Greek or any other language--not that Carl is advocating the methodology.
As to Carl's last question about perceived value, I don't know how we
obtain such evidence. I would be very interested, Carl, in what you would
consider evidence of perception. I'll give that some thought on my end as

Don Wilkins
UC Riverside

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