A colleague recently ask me about Biraud’s treatment of determiners in Ancient Greek and its implications for the DP hypothesis (Determiner Phrase hypothesis). I had not seen the book in over a decade, so I put my colleague off until I could find a copy. I found one in a nearby library and it seems to confirm my vague recollection that Biraud (despite the sound of the title to English speakers) was not really discussing the issue that falls under the term “determiner” in English Linguistics.

Here’s the description of the book from its back cover along with my feeble translation. I am not fluent in French. In fact, I’ve never had a French class. What I can read in French is entirely self-taught, so the translation I provide after the French text is certainly open to debate! If you see any mistakes, please point them out, and I’ll make the necessary changes.

L’attique classique est riche en déterminants et la variéte des structures des groupes nominaux appelle une étude précise. A l’aide de quelques principes simples de description, empruntés pour la syntaxe à l’analyse distributionnelle, et pour la sémantique plus librement inspirés par diverses théories, l’auteur montre que cette diversité se laisse réduire à un système de quelques règles aux implications multiples, dont les écrivains anciens ont exploité toutes les possibilités expressives. Sont abordés en cours d’étude plusieurs problèmes de linguistique générale, pour certains desquels sont esquissées des solutions originales (le statut des déterminants d’identité es d’altérité, une possible hiérarchisation de la structure du syntagme nominal en fonction des apports déterminatifs…).

Ainsi non seulement cet ouvrage peut-il donner aux hellénistes une vision plus claire d’une question sacrifiée dans les grammaires alors qu’un mot sur six dans les textes est un déterminant, mais il peut aussi présenter quelque intérêt pour des linguistes curieux des résultats d’une approche systématique de la détermination en grec ancien et des probèmes qu’elle soulève.

Classical attic is rich in modifiers and the variety of the structures of noun phrases calls for a precise study. Using a few simple principles of description, borrowed from syntax for distributional analysis, and more freely inspired by various theories for semantics, the author shows that this diversity can be reduced to a system of a few rules with several implications, of which the ancient writers have exploited all the expressive possibilities. Several problems of general linguistics are addressed in the course of the study, for some of which original solutions are outlined (the status of modifiers of identity and otherness, a possible hierarchy of the structure of the noun phrase according to the contributions of modifiers…).

Thus not only can this work give Hellenists a clearer view of a question ignored in grammars although one word out of six in the texts is a modifier, but it may also be of interest to linguists curious about the results of a systematic approach to modification in ancient Greek and the problems it raises.

[Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my fault! Don’t blame Biraud!]

On Generating the Greek Noun Phrase

After many years away from seriously analyzing Greek Noun Phrases I am rereading Cheryl A. Black and Stephen Marlett’s article “On generating the Greek noun phrase” (Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session. 40: 89-105, 1996). I wish it had been published a couple of years earlier. I would love to have had a copy while I was writing Levels of Constituent Structure.

If you are interested in Greek phrase structure and understand the symbols DP, NP, XP as labels for types of phrases, you should be able to understand the article well. You can download your own copy if you’re interested or read it online at the same location.

Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.