Lesson δ': Verbs

The verb is the most important part of speech, and here is how Greek does it. Use this lesson for reference.

A sentence consists of a subject, what is talked about, and a predicate, what is said about the subject. A verb is a word that says something about the subject of the sentence, and is an essential part of the predicate. In fact, a sentence can consist of a verb by itself, since verbs in Greek contain a subject by default. A verb may express an action, a change of state, or a linking of ideas or things. A finite verb consists of a stem and an ending, like a noun, but now the ending expresses the person and number of the subject of the verb, as well as the tense relations. Quite often a verb form is made up from stem + tense sign + personal ending. We shall use the term finite often; remember it has nothing to do with mathematical finiteness or infinity. Fitting endings to the stem of a verb is called conjugation. Greek is very rich in verbs, and they are handled somewhat differently than in Latin or English. In Euclid, there is no historical description and no reporting of speech, so you will not need to know as much about Greek verbs to read Euclid as to read the Iliad. However, you should know the fundamentals, and they will be explained in this lesson. Verbs are the most difficult part of learning Greek, so don't be discouraged.

The personal ending of a verb, as well as modifications of the stem of the verb, express person, number, tense, voice and mood. These technical terms will now be explained, since they are very useful.

The first person is I, singular, and we, plural. Euclid uses the first person to address the reader. The second person is thou or you, which is not used in Euclid. The third person is he, she or it in the singular, and they in the plural, and is by far the most common person in Euclid. Unlike in English, the person and number are included in the verb, and do not have to be otherwise specified except in the third person, and when some special emphasis is desired.

The voice of the verb expresses whether the action of the verb is performed by the subject, active voice, whether the action of the verb as performed by the subject reflects back on the subject, middle voice, or whether the action of the verb is performed on the subject by some independent agency, passive voice. "I see the cat" is active. "I am seen by the cat" is passive, while "I see myself in the mirror" is middle. In each case, the subject is "I". Greek often has separate verb forms for these three cases, while English actually has only one, and must express the other meanings by using helping words (am seen, see myself). A verb in which the subject acts on another thing is called transitive. The verb "see" is transitive, and in the example above, "I" is the subject, and "cat" the direct object, of the verb. As we know, direct objects are put into the accusative case to make the meaning clear. Only a transitive verb can be in the middle or passive voices, obviously. In Greek, active, middle and passive voices have different endings to tell them apart. There is no finite passive in English; we must say "I am washed" using the passive participle with a helping verb.

The mood of the verb expresses the intent of the speaker. The indicative mood is by far the most common, and is used to state a fact. The imperative mood is to give a command or to establish a condition. The subjunctive mood expresses something that is a mental conception, an idea, not necessarily a reality, and the optative mood expresses a wish or choice. In Euclid, the imperative mood is much the commonest, in statements like "let there be drawn a circle". He is not giving a command, but simply stating that something must be done in order to proceed. The indicative mood appears often, of course, but the subjunctive is used only when specially called for by the structure of the sentence, for example in "if a triangle have equal sides..." (here I have even used the English subjunctive, a concept beyond modern American education).

The tense of the verb is the notion in which Greek differs significantly from Latin or English. In Latin or English, tense is present, past or future, and is rigidly tied to relative time relations. In Greek, it is much more important to state whether an action is continuing or completed, and the time when it occurs is of secondary importance. In Euclid, we will find four tenses, the present, future, aorist, and perfect. The present tense is used to express an action in progress, continuing, or repeated, which naturally is in present time. The future tense is used to describe an action that has not started yet, but will begin perhaps after some preliminary condition is satisfied, and then will continue indefinitely. The aorist tense is used for single or completed actions at any time, past or future. It would be difficult to have a single action completed in the present, so the aorist is usually considered a sort of past tense. However, this is much too rigid a definition, and the aorist must be recognized as the basic tense for single, definite actions that clearly separate past from future, whenever they actually take place, which is made clear by the context. The perfect is used for a completed action that has continuing consequences. By its very nature, the action must have occurred in past time. This is all very confusing and difficult, but will be carefully explained by examples as we read Euclid, and in fact will turn out not to be very hard at all.

There are forms of the verb without personal endings that are used as nouns or adjectives. One such form is called the infinitive, which indeed means simply "ending-less". It is a sort of noun that names the action of the verb, and may have tense and voice, but not person or mood. Unlike a real noun, it takes no case endings, and is used in places where they would not be necessary. When you say "I like to read", "to read" is an infinitive, the object of "like". Or, you could say "To read is fun" and the infinitive would be the subject of the sentence. Although infinitives are common in Euclid, the participle, a verbal adjective that takes case endings, is highly important. We will devote a full lesson to explaining participles later. Greek makes great use of participles, and it is essential to know how they work. When you say "the given triangle", "given" is a past passive participle of the verb to give. Like the infinitive, the participle has tense and voice.

Let us illustrate these things with a verb that appears frequently in Euclid, meaning "say". The present, future and aorist tenses of this verb in the indicative active are shown in the Figure, together with the infinitives. If you look up the definition of this verb, you will find that it can mean various things, including to "pick out," or to "say," depending on the context. In Latin, the cognate verb lego means to read (as well as some other things), but the simple verb does not have that meaning in Greek. It appears in the proof of every proposition in the Elements, where the author restates the proposition in terms of the figure.

The endings of the present tense are, as usual, the result of vowel contractions in an initially regular scheme. The ε or ω that appears in the present and future tenses, and elsewhere, is called the variable vowel ε/ο, and can be contracted into an ending (as it is in ω). Note the ν-movable in the third person plural. This ν appears before vowels, and at the end of sentences, for the sake of euphony. Don't let it confuse you when you come across it here or elsewhere. The accent remains in the same place here, but in some verbs it must be shifted to the penult when the vowel in the ending is long. Generally, in verbs the accent goes as far to the front as possible.

The future tense is formed by inserting a σ before the ending. This σ is the sign of the future tense, which should always be suspected when a σ sound comes before the ending. In λεγω, the γ combines with the σ to give ξ. This also happens with π to give ψ. When you see ξ or ψ, suspect that something like this might have happened. Greek spelling tries to reflect the spoken language, so the reader must be on guard.

The aorist tense involves two changes. First, σα is inserted before the ending. There are two ways of forming the aorist, called weak and strong or first and second, and λεγω prefers the first, where σα is the sign. The second change is a change in the stem called augment, where again there are two possible ways. One way, used when a verb begins with a consonant, is simply to prefix an &epsilon. Now the accent can go forward one syllable, and so it does. This shift of accent is characteristic of the aorist. The other way to augment the stem is to lengthen an initial vowel.

The formation of the second, or strong, aorist is shown in the Figure at the left. There is either an augment of the stem, as here, or the vowel of the stem is changed, and a new set of endings is used. These are called secondary endings, and they appear in other places that will not concern us here. The strong aorist infinitive drops the augment, and accents the ending. Some verbs have only a strong aorist, some only a weak aorist, and some both. There is no difference whatever in the meaning. Greek only does this because otherwise the language would be too easy to learn.

In the future of some verbs, notably those whose stem ends in a liquid consonant (λ, μ, ν), the σ that follows the liquid is not pronounced. This makes two vowels come together, and they contract, causing the usual difficulty for the learner. All of the contracted vowels wear a circumflex (they are all long, of course), and this is a give-away. This even happens in the infinitive, which has a circumflex, just like the strong aorist. They can be distinguished only by recognizing the stems. If it's not a liquid, then it's an aorist.

If the stem of a verb ends in an accented vowel (ε, α, or ο), it contracts with a vowel of the ending to give a long vowel with a circumflex, just as in the liquid future, and the endings turn out the same way. These contract verbs are quite numerous and useful, so they have to be mentioned here, with the commonest one as an example. Again, the present infinitive of a contract verb sports a circumflex, as in the strong aorist and liquid future. This is all getting quite complex, and you have seen only the surface. Cheer up, however, since you will only have to recognize the forms!

When a verb appears in a vocabulary list, its principal parts are given, which are six verb forms from which the stems for all others can be found. The first person singulars of the present, future, aorist, perfect, perfect middle, and aorist passive are the principal parts normally given in a vocabulary list. When you know these for a verb, you can find the stem for any form. First and second aorists, liquid stems, and contract verbs can all be recognized. A great difficulty for the learner is that the stems often change their first letters, or even more radically, and these forms are not usually listed in the dictionary in alphabetical order.

A synopsis of pau/w in the third person is shown above for reference. All the tenses, voices and moods are given for this verb, which is the standard example of a regular Ω-verb. Since the third person is practically the only one to occur in Euclid, this table will help you recognize endings. Most of the tenses you will never see, of course, but the complete list shows you the big picture. Note that the subjunctive is formed by lengthening the vowel in the indicative ending. These verbs are called Ω-verbs because the first person singular present active indicative ends in ω. Some very important verbs use a different set of endings in the present tense, where this form ends in -μι. These verbs, which include words for give, place, put, show, join, add, go, construct and be, will be taken up as they occur. They are an important group indeed.

It's daunting to see a Greek verb written out in all the persons, numbers, tenses, voices, and moods. There is really a general pattern underlying all this complexity that is quite simple and regular. Consider the box at the right, which shows the third person singular of pau/w in the six tenses, as in the synopsis above, but arranged logically. pau/w is a "regular" verb in that its stem remains the same in all tenses. Many verbs, however, make certain stem changes for various causes, and these changes are seen in the six principal parts, but the general idea is the same. The stem adds a σ or a κ, or takes an augment, to form the six tenses. The augment is not always a simple ε, but may be a lengthening of an intial vowel instead. The perfect is additionally marked by reduplication, which means prepending πε for verbs beginning with π, τε for verbs beginning with τ, and so on. The personal ending, showing number, person and voice, is added to complete the verb. As we have seen, this often involves contractions. There are, therefore, three elements that combine quite regularly to give the different meanings.

The tense pattern shown for pau/w is the same in the middle/passive voice, where different personal endings are used. The perfect does not use -κ-, however. Separate passive forms exist only for the aorist and future (we neglect the little-used future perfect), and they add a characteristic -θη- to the stem, with the usual -σ- for the future. As for the other moods, the subjunctive lengthens the vowel between stem and ending, while the optative inserts -οι-, and the imperative has its own characteristic endings.

The personal endings are shown in the box at the left. What you see is the result of the interaction of a "variable vowel" ο, ε or α with the actual personal endings, which involves contraction, elision of σs, and other bothers. The box lets you compare corresponding personal endings in the various tenses and moods. They are listed in the usual order, from first person singular to third person plural. The personal ending does not only give person and number, but mood as well. Column 1 is present and future indicative active, column 2 is imperfect and second aorist active, column 3 is first aorist active, column 4 is perfect active (nearly the same as aorist), and column 5 is pluperfect active. Column 6 is present and future middle/passive, as well as future perfect passive. column 7 is imperfect middle/passive, column 8 is aorist middle, and column 9 is perfect middle/passive. It is like the present, except that the variable vowel is missing, and the ending is attached directly to the stem. Finally, column 10 is aorist passive. The pluperfect middle/passive endings, seldom met with, are somewhat like the present, with the variable vowel missing. This table should allow you to interpret any personal ending you may encounter, however.

A peculiarity of Greek that must be emphasized is that a plural neuter takes a singular verb. That is, a neuter plural noun is a kind of collective noun. The word tau~ta means "these things" and "these things say" would be tau~ta le/gei, not tau~ta le/gousi.

As we said above, the tenses are not used as in Latin or English, and we review this important point here. Time distinctions are not as important in Greek as those of continuance or completion. The present expresses continuous action or existence without implication as to beginning or end; the imperfect expresses continuous action or existence in the past, without implication as to current action; the perfect expresses a completed action in the past whose effects are lasting; the future expresses an action that has not yet occurred but is expected; the aorist expresses a single action with beginning and end that occurs at any time, past, present or future; the pluperfect expresses a completed action in the past whose effects continued for a time, without implication as to current effects. Time relations are made clear by adverbs.

The verbs we have studied here are called ω-verbs from the typical ending of the first person singular, present tense. They are by far the most numerous, but many important verbs, those of hoary antiquity, lack the variable vowel and have different endings in the present. For example, di/dwmi means "I give." These verbs are called μι-verbs, and have many peculiarities. We will explain these verbs as we meet them.


Conjugate each of the verbs in the list in the present, future and aorist if possible. An ellipsis (...) means that the form either does not exist, or is of another voice that we have not considered here. If a principal part does not exist, then the verb is not used in those tenses. This is hard for the learner to accept, but the Greeks did not mind, having ways of expressing the same thing that they preferred. Note that contract verbs are given in uncontracted form, so they can be clearly recognized. Incidentally, some dialects of Greek did not contract so rigorously as the Athenians. When a verb is made from another by adding a prefix, only the first principal part is given, since the others can easily be found from the root verb. When you can conjugate the basic verb, you can also conjugate all its derivatives. In the last verb, note that the prefix απ has smooth breathing, and so does the compound. The π is, howver, modified by the rough breathing on the root verb to a φ; that is, it is aspirated.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 10 September 2000
Last revised 13 December 2000