Re: alpha privativum

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Mar 15 1999 - 06:26:28 EST

At 8:21 AM +0200 3/15/99, Thomas J. Kraus wrote:
>Dear b-greekers,
>does anyone remember any bibliographical data on the so-called *alpha
>privativum* formation of words? Actually, I try to find out if there is
>anything behind the many words built with alphas (in order to negate) in
>2Peter displaying an authoręs capability to form words on his own (there
>are alpha privativum words next to the positive ones; many of the alpha
>words are hapax legomena in 2Peter and the NT, some even not in the
>Any reference helps (any comment, too).

There probably is some bibliography on alpha privative, and if there is
anything recent and significant, I expect Micheal Palmer could point it
out. On the other hand, it certainly is a major formative element in Greek,
just as its cognates are in at least some IE languages. What I was taught
about it early on was that its PIE form is a vocalic M- (which some
grammarians mark by putting a dot under the M-, others by putting a small
convex curve immediately under the M-); in Greek composition it becomes an
Alpha before a consonant (just as does the -M marking the accusative
singular become an Alpha following a consonant), and it becomes AN- before
a vowel or a dental consonant, AM- before a labial consonant, e.g.:
        A-QANATOS/A-QANATON: immortal
        A-GAMOS/A-GAMON: unmarried
        A-KAMATOS/A-KAMATON: unwearying
        A-MELHS/A-MELES: uncaring
        A-LHQHS/A-LHQES: undeceiving = true
        AN-AGNOS/AN-AGNON: impure, stained with guilt
        AM-BROTOS/AM-BROTON: immortal
The above are adjectives, and like compound adjectives generally, they have
only one form for m & f, one form for the neuter. The alpha privative can
appear in other composite words too, sometimes not so easily recognized,
as, for instance, hAMARTANW which appears formed from A- and a form of the
root SMER/SMOR/SMAR, "part"; in this case the initial S- lost historically
from the root has affected the initial alpha and aspirated it; hAMARTANW
means originally "not participate,"not share"; an old Homeric augmented
second aorist of it is HMBROTON.

In Latin the same PIE privative prefix is IN-, which assimilates to
consonants in expected ways: IN-UTILIS "useless"; IN-EVITA-BILIS,
IN-ELUCTA-BILIS (and countless others that form ready English derivatives);
in English and German the PIE privative M- becomes UN- as in UN-VERSCHAEMT,
"shameless" or UN-MOEGLICH, "impossible."

In Greek one must distinguish the A- privative that derives from an
original PIE M- from an A- sociative which is also quite common in words
such as A-KOITIS (wife, bed-mate) or A-KOLOUTHOS/A-KOLOUQON (accompanying,
taking the road with).

The best grammars will have sections on word-formation where this sort of
lore can be found; I'm at home as I respond to this, but I know that Smyth
and BDF have sections on word-formation.

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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