Re: (phonemes) Particle Construction of (Greek) Words

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Mar 22 1998 - 07:23:36 EST

Perhaps Mari will have her own response in time to this query, but there
are a few things, not really very many, that I'd like to say about the
issues raised here. I wish I could abbreviate the cited material, but I'm
not sure that my response will be intelligible without leaving the
substance of what I'm responding to intact.

At 10:15 AM -0600 3/21/98, wrote:
>Mari Broman Olsen wrote:
>> >From the linguistic perspective: phonemes may be used to change
>> meaning, in that words (or morphemes) are made up of phonemes, and
>> when you change the phonemes you change the word or morpheme. But it
>> is not quite right to say phonemes carry meaning.

Let me add a bit here to what Mari is saying; I'd put it this way,
morphemes are constructed from phonemes, and phonemes may change within
morphemes, BUT only those phonemes that are themselves morphemes can carry

For instance, many important Greek roots are subject to "vowel-gradation,"
often referred to by the German term, "Ablaut." One of the major roots for
"vision" has the three forms, WEID, WOID, and WID (where the W represents
the original consonantal U or so-called "digamma" which was an earlier form
of our own F. Here we have constant elements in W and D and variant
elements in the EI/OI/I. the root-form WEID doesn't show up in Koine as a
verb, but it shows up as a noun, EIDOS, "form," or "visible pattern," a
word which, because of Aristotle's particular use of it in combination with
GENOS, was conveyed by the Latin SPECIES in connection with the Latin GENUS
for Greek GENOS. WOID shows in the perfect tense active forms of hORAW:
OIDA, OISQA, OIDE ..., while WID shows in the aorist tense active and
middle forms: IDEIN, IDOU ... I don't think we'd want to say that EI/OI/I
are morphemes here but rather constituent elements employed in the
traditional formulation of tense/aspect stems: we can't say that EI or OI
has a meaning by itself, but they are the forms which in older verbs tend
to show up in the present/progressive and perfect verbal systems

>Mari ~
>This is a topic that I would like to see expanded upon. When I went
>to translate PROWRISEN in Romans 8:30 from this perspective
>[phonemes], a lot of fun things started happening. The basic root,
>hOR, surrounded by sounds, seems to maintain its integrity through a
>lot of differing surroundings! 'See', in the very physical, limited
>sense, runs through them all. When I looked at 'preselect' as the
>literal translation word for PROORIZW, I was stunned to find that the
>English, in this word, 'does' exactly what the Greek seems to do by
>way of its particle [phoneme] construction. PRO gives it 'before',
>just as in English [pre], hOR gives it 'see', just as in English
>[se(e)-lect], and IZ gives it 'ize', just as in English [(s)-elect].
>So the Greek PRO-hOR-IZ-(W), literally 'before-see-ize', is exactly
>parallel to the English pre-see-elect of preselect!! And this
>provides a foundation for translational words like preordain, etc.,
>In like manner, then, I went to the word hORION ~ See-if-being ~ The
>lex gives it as boundary, which then, in the livingness of the Greek,
>becomes '(That which has) being if (it is) seen', and since everything
>we see has a boundary .... [The boundaries of physical seeing issues
>lurk here...]
>hORAW becomes 'see-at' in virtue of the phoneme A, hence to 'stare
>at', or does it?

No, I really think this is an oversimplification, although not simply
wrong. I'm not exactly sure how these elements are related; my sense is
that hORA (with a long A) is itself a root for vision and that a
present/progressive thematic-type verb is constructed on it with addition
of Yo/e and personal endings. I'm not sure that hOROS, the word for
"boundary," "limit," is actually related to the same root we see in hORA,
but hORION is a diminutive formed from hOROS by adding the -I/ON neuter
additive to the root hOR. Morever hORIZW derives, I think, from hOROS
rather than from hORA by addition of the verbal formative -IDYo/e and
personal endings.

My points here are that: (a) etymology itself is a curious complex of
genuine science and profound speculation: it involves massive amounts of
guesswork hypothesis-making and testing on the data of cognate languages.
There is much that is certain beyond doubt that has been uncovered about
the relationship of words and forms in Indo-European and other languages,
but there is also very much that is purely speculative until proven, and
there are competing explanations for some "apparent" cognates. If you
consult two or more etymological dictionaries of Greek, you'll find several
entries for words in full agreement, but you'll find radically different
explanations for others. (b) there is for some reason a tendency to get
mystical about word-relationships once one starts down the path of
etymological explanation: you can see this in Plato's dialogue "Cratylus"
or in the Roman Varro's celebrated explanation of the Latin, LUCUS A
LUCENDO ("grove" from "light shining"). In sum, etymological speculation
sometimes tends to make people overconfident of how much they really do
understand about word-relationships in a language; in my opinion, we would
be wiser to demand precise methodology for proving relationships and remain
respectful of the vast amount of what remains mysterious and unknown (at
least thus far) about the nature of the languages we study. (c) Those who
have studied language long enough come to realize that etymological
explanations all too often explain very well how a word may have originated
but only careful observation of its usage at a particular time is a sure
guide of what it means to its current users. One of my favorite examples is
the word "saunter" which we use for a kind of aimless roaming toward an
uncertain goal; the word apparently derives from description of pilgrims
and crusaders to the Holy Land, "voyageurs a la sainte terre," who may
ultimately have gotten to the Holy Land or not, but of whom we have to say
that they went in very round-about ways. (was it the Third Crusade that
conquered the Byzantine Empire more-or-less by accident?).

>The point of all this, of course, is that particle construction around
>roots would seem to be a valuable way of approaching and learning
>Greek, where a student can 'step in' to the root, surrounded by
>particle phonemes, and 'make sense' out of the surroundings in a
>living, active way, rather than being dragged through endless tables
>of memorization. [There are times when I wonder if the very letters
>of the Greek alphabet have particle meanings... If so, and they could
>be determined, what a wonderful way to actually LEARN the alphabet!!]
>I would like to hear your thoughts on the plusses and minuses of this
>approach, and do you know of anyone who has done it and written about
>it? Being a Rip-van-Winkle, rope-a-dope and lex-bound first time
>reader of the GNT, I am aware, through 'erroric' experience, that
>pitfalls can loom beyond the range of my myopic vision. The flip
>side, however, is that the slower I go, the further I seem to get...
>[arguably] :) :) :)

The truth of what you've observed is, in my opinion, a very important one.
Greek is an "agglutinative" language, one wherein verbs, nouns, adjectives,
etc. are constructed from numerous phonetic elements--phonemes and
combinations of phonemes that are, as morphemes, bearers of meaning or
building-links of larger constructions. In addition therefore to simply
memorizing vocabulary lists, one would do well to learn what can be known
about principles of word-formation (e.g. that Greek verbal roots/stems form
agent nouns in -WR, -HR, -EUS, and -HS, action nouns in -TIS/-SIS, and
result nouns in -MA(T)/, and one would also do well to learn nouns, verbs,
and adjectives in groups of cognates based upon those etymological
relationships that have been solidly established by linguistic research.

There are at least a few observations on "the plusses and minuses" of your
approach. There ARE both plusses and minuses, the former to be exploited
and the latter eschewed. Does anyone know the etymology of "eschew"? I

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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