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This week, we are going to focus on a language you’ve probably heard us talk about quite a bit in passing: Ancient Greek.  Learn how it is the oddball of European languages.

AGreek Dialects

Ancient Greek dialect map. From Wikipedia.

Top of Show Greeting: Pali (natlang)

Special Mention: Linguistics MOOC

Links and Resources:


Hi George and co.

It’s a pity you can’t keep up with a tight schedule for the podcast but that happens, school is important.

For short podcast subjects you might want to do reviews of the variability of certain grammatical structures in some selected languages. Or alternatively go through the variety of uses some simple grammatical forms, such as a case or a participle, can have in a single language. As you’ve said over and over again, nothing in grammar has a simple and well defined function and the available constructions tend to be used for all kinds of different tasks. Hearing some case studies of this from different languages with good examples would be nice and instructive for conlangers at all stages.

My main inspiration for suggesting this comes from doing some research of non-finite subordination for my main conlang project. I’ve read some papers about various aspects of the use of non-finite verb forms in Finnish, and the variability of the system and how flexibly many of its member forms can be used doesn’t end to astonish even a native speaker. For example, in addition to their prototypical attributive use the participles are used in some adverbial constructions happily mixed with other forms based on various infinitives. So the non-finite temporal clause denoting posteriority is built on the past passive participle:

satee-n lakat-tu-a


“after the end of the rain”, “when the rain has ended”

while the parallel non-finite clause for simultaneous actions is based on the 2nd infinitive

satee-n lakat-e-ssa

rain-GEN end-2ND.INF-INE

“simultaneous to the end of the rain”, “as the rain ends”

The use of some infinitives exhibits variation when used with different auxiliary verbs. Some verbs allow pretty free variation between the basic 1st infinitive and the 3rd infinitive illative:

ehdi-n tul-la

have.time-1SG come-1ST.INF

ehdi-n tule-ma-an

have.time-1SG come-3RD.INF-ILL

both “I have time to come”

Whereas some other verbs are pretty picky about what infinitive to use for this same basic verb combining without invoking any additional adverbial meanings:

halua-n tul-la

want-1SG come-1ST.INF

“I want to come”


rupea-n tule-ma-an

begin-1SG come-3RD.INF-ILL

“I begin to come”, “I’m beginning to leave there”


The causes for these variations are not immediately clear without a historical analysis. I’m also searching information of other languages with similarly rich use of non finite verb forms and would like you to have a take on this. That would very likely be a much longer topic and better for a practicum of getting rid of finite subordination.

Finally I recommend you to take a look at Skou as a possibility for a featured natlang. It’s a Papuan language spoken on the north coast of New Guinea just west from the border between PNG and West Papua. There’s a very thorough grammar of it available at

I’ve only taken glances at it because it’s huge but it’s certainly full of juicy goodness. There are also more manageable documents of the language at the site. Take especially a look at the paper on verbal agreement in the language ( and bend your minds with the overwhelming personal marking shown in its examples 38 and 42.


(For pronunciation, the IPA for my name is just that. Stress goes on the first syllable.)


GEN = genetive

PART = partitive

INE = inessive

ILL = illative

1SG = 1st person singular

1ST.INF = 1st infinitive

2ND.INF = 2nd infinitive

3RD.INF = 3rd infinitive

P.P.PARTIC = past passive participle


7 Responses to “Conlangery #88: Ancient Greek (natlang)”

  1. Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

    Hi everyone! Great show about Ancient Greek! 🙂 My own speciality is rather Modern Greek than Ancient Greek, so I wanted to make a few comments on some things you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast.

    First, the Modern Greek spelling is not bad at all! It’s only etymological for the vowels, and even then it’s not that difficult (/i/ is the only truly problematic one). For consonants, the Modern Greek orthography is extremely phonemic (indeed, the only places where writing and pronunciation differ are completely and easily predictable, which is why they are not indicated). Even stress is always marked in polysyllabic words, which is great since it’s phonemic 🙂 (imagine how much easier Russian orthography would be if stress was always marked!). Especially since Greek went monotonic and removed all the breathings and alternative stress diacritics from its orthography (which were useless in Modern Greek). Basically, reading Modern Greek is exceedingly easy, with the orthography being totally transparent. Writing Greek is only slightly more difficult, due mostly to the variety of spellings of /i/ 🙂 . In any case, it’s nowhere as difficult as English spelling is.

    Second, William gives the impression at one moment that the verbal system of Greek completely lost the perfect aspect. That’s not actually true. Although the synthetic perfect forms were indeed lost, the perfect aspect itself was continued through periphrastic conjugations using the equivalent of “to have” with an invariable form that looks identical to the 3rd person singular subjunctive perfective (for all verbs, no exceptions), but actually descends from an old non-finite form. So Modern Greek still has the three-way imperfective/perfective/perfect distinction, mostly unchanged in meaning if not in form for the last 2000 years.

    Finally, I want to mention that I find it interesting to hear how non-finite-form-happy Ancient Greek was, knowing that Modern Greek has mostly lost nearly all those forms. While Ancient Greek used non-finite clauses everywhere, Modern Greek uses instead finite clauses. It hasn’t even kept an infinitive as citation form, using the first person singular present instead! Shows you how much can happen in 2000 years 😛 .

    Anyway, a great show as usual, keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. MBR

    Curse you and your reconstructed pronunciation! My fellow students and I, learning Koine Greek as part of a Biblical languages/Theology program, use a really, really lazy, very anglicized version of the Koine pronunciation. In fact, the cot-caught merger bit one of them in the butt today: the neuter nominative singular article, τὸ, was pronounced as τὸ, but heard as the plural version, τὰ. And speaking of articles, I love, love, love how Attic Greek stacked articles. But in examples I’ve seen of Koine Greek, things are a bit more attached. This is lifted from my Koine textbook.

    ἐργαζωμεν τα εργα του κυριου.
    work-SBJV-1PL DEF work-PL DEF lord-GEN
    “Let us work the works of the Lord.”

    New Testament Greek does have a morphological passive in the future and aorist, according to the grammar (Kubo, Sakae. A Beginner’s New Testament Grammar) and text that my class is using. θ is the sign that gives these passives away. (A quick Google for papers tells me that this is a morphological convention that is traditionally referred to as the passive.)
    Active: ἐλύσα
    Middle: ἐλύσαμην
    Passive: ἐλυθήμεν

    This is even clearer in the aorist subjunctive mood:
    Active: λύσω
    Middle: λύσωμαι
    Passive: λυθῶ

    One example of passive voice used (which I can’t recall, so I’m synthesizing one):
    ἐλυθὴσαν οἱ δοὺλοι ὑπο τον κύριον.
    AOR-loose-PASS-3SG DEF slave-NOM.PL by DEF lord
    “The slaves were freed by the Lord”

    For learning materials, I’d recommend Athenaze by Maurice Baume and Gilbert Lawall. It teaches grammar and morphology in an incremental format, and it teaches discourse through the use of stories, starting easily, and building to wilder texts. It has some examples of how discourse particles such as δε (which I stole wholesale borrowed for one of my conlangs) are used.

    • wm.annis

      Carl Conrad, a NT scholar, has done the most to raise serious doubts about a blanket “-θη- is passive” by marshaling textual evidence. His overview, Understanding Ancient Greek Voice is a good quick intro, with New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb the full (really full) rundown with evidence. I expect a conlanger will not be daunted by the argumentation. 🙂

      A main point is that the trigger for an unambiguously passive interpretation is by having an agent with ὑπό in the clause. Without that, a middle interpretation is just as likely, even for -θη- forms.

      • MBR

        Okay, that makes sense. Now that I check the textbook, Kubo does give us ὑπό in all of the exercises when he first introduces the present passive (and I was interested to see that Greek used roughly the same preposition to mark the oblique agent). But he also treats -θη- as blanket passive in all the verb charts. I’ll have to read those papers in my spare time, whatever that is. Thankee!

  3. Nausher

    This was probably the best conlangery episode.
    I really enjoy your episodes covering Natlangs.

  4. Bryan Parry

    Old English and Modern English are definitely more different than Ancient and Modern Greek (although yes, Modern Greek and Ancient Greek are very different).


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