Lerna IIIb: Why we do not count word forms

By: | Post date: 2009-06-05 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
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Greek is a flexional language: it’s not English. A single noun can have 11 different inflections. A single adjective can have 23 inflections. A single verb? I’ll throw in the second aorist as well as the first, though I really shouldn’t—verbs mostly had just one aorist at a time. I’ll be generous, we’ll call it 740 forms.

Many a student has gazed in wonder at the subtlety and copiousness of the Greek verb table. I’m sure about as many have been annoyed at the rote memorisation; but the reason the verb table gets admiring remarks is, the 740 forms are not random: they follow a mesh of patterns, which you can reconstruct in proto-Greek back to something pretty neatly agglutinative. On the other hand, a few centuries of phonological shuffling reconfigured the 740 forms enough to be interesting.

Of course, very few verbs are attested in a corpus with all 740 forms. Few verbs have both first and second aorists, to start with. And any corpus is going to display only a subset of what is possible in a language, and what language speakers will recognise as valid verbs. To our knowledge, πεπαίκοιτον “you two would have played” is not attested anywhere in Greek. But it’s a regular perfect dual optative, and the perfect indicative πέπαικα is well attested enough: it’s as valid a verb form of Greek as any other, whether anyone ever wrote it—indeed, whether anyone ever spoke it, or not. So though the TLG happens to have 219 forms of παίζω, all 534 possible forms of παίζω should count. (No second aorist.)

But once we admit all possible forms, and aren’t constrained by what’s in a corpus, we’re comparing langues, not paroles. And there are languages with more morphology than Ancient Greek. Finnish has fifteen cases. Sanskrit has comfortably over a thousand verb forms. Agglutinative languages, which don’t moosh affixes together into idiosyncratic combinations, can go a lot further than that. Turkish? OVER TWO MILLION verb forms.

So is Ancient Greek the only language with an interesting verb table? No, Sanskrit beats it. Is it the only language with lots of morphology? No, Turkish beats it, and Lakhota beats it, and Telugu beats it.

And does that prove Greek inferior to Sanskrit, or Turkish, or Lakhota? No, because that’s no valid criterion for judging language’s merit. And the reason Greek should bail out of this comparison is not that its 740 lose out to Turkish’s TWO MILLION, but that this particular flavour of grocers’ calculation doesn’t prove much of anything. Just as the 98 inflections of Modern Greek, or the four inflections of Modern English, don’t prove its inferiority to the 740 of Ancient Greek.

And really, why would they? There’s poetry in Chinese, and poetry in Lakhota; there’s oratory in Latin, and oratory in Arabic. Is a culture lesser for lack of a dative? Μὴ γένοιτο. Is it impoverished through absence of an optative? Ας σοβαρετούμε λίγο. In fact, just as Hellenomaniacs ponder whether you really are impoverished for lack of a dative, English-speakers in different venues—though no more scholarly—ponder whether you are impoverished for having one. Both can’t be right, and really, do we want to say that either is right? That’s a dodgy calculus to embark on.

Now, I have to swap hats from linguistician to literato for a minute, because the Hellenomaniacs do ponder the loss of the dative for a reason. “I prefer the synthetic nature of Ancient Greek to the analytical nature of Modern Greek”, one of the Sarantakos bloggers posted. With a linguistician’s hat on, that’s sentimental claptrap. But language is about a lot of things, including sentimental claptrap. It’s a vehicle for peoples’ idelogies, and it gets affected by those ideologies.

The dative ain’t coming back in Greek—been through that. But Puristic has had major impact on the Modern Standard, even if it didn’t augment its inflection count. And just because Puristic Greek failed to revive the dative doesn’t mean standard languages can’t choose to switch their typology, through deliberate acts of engineering. Estonian even changed its word order because of one language reformer. Are there linguistic reasons to do so? Not really, the languages were trundling along fine without the engineering. I mean, language typologies left on their own do change: they’ve got more analytical for the European languages we’re familiar with, but less analytical for Chinese. So it can happen. But it doesn’t have to, and natural ebb and flow of language structures is not why the language engineering happens. It’s “sentimental claptrap” that does it. If a language community is convinced to do something about its morphology, that has linguistic consequences, so it’s not something alien to linguistics.

That aside, you can have aesthetic judgements about how a language works. If you got Classical Greek under humane conditions in your schooling, you can look at a phrase in Lucian and say, “that’s elegant”. The datives and the optatives are part of that elegance. I’ve even thought “that’s elegant” about George Chatzidakis’ Puristic Greek. At the sentence level; because like most 19th century linguists, he was incapable of structuring an argument, and Chatzidakis’ elegant sentences add up to fifty pages of “and another thing” meanderings that can only be broached via a subject index.

Aesthetics matters; but aesthetics is informed by many a factor, not all of them linguistic. Modern Greek speakers have been attracted to the dative, which they don’t have and wish they did, like the Ancients; and they’ve been repelled by it, after being badgered that they should have it. It’s emotive either way because the Ancients are part of the equation. The Turkish ablative is as elegant, in purely linguistic terms, as the Latin one; but those who have longed for the Greek dative aren’t on record admiring Turkish sentence structure.

There’s no shame in aesthetic judgement being culturally informed. That’s the nature of aesthetics. But that tells you that the aesthetics are not mathematically provable, certainly not through a word form count. People used to want to nudge English in the direction of Latin, back when they too were burdened with its heritage. They’re chill about it now. Which means the few English-speakers who read Latin can appreciate it without the gnawing feeling they should emulate it—whether the emulation makes sense in English or not. (See infinitive, split.)

I don’t say this to dismiss the learning of Ancient Greek in Greece. I’m not even saying there aren’t things Modern Greek style can emulate from Ancient Greek: it has done, just as Gibbon owed a debt to Cicero. But none of that is inherent in the dative case. And at the end of the day, πεπαίκοιτον is more compact than “you two would have played”, but is it “better”? Objectively? Without considering which civilisation the word was at home to? And if it is, is Upper Sorbian byštej zahrałoj “you two would have played” any less “better”? How? How about Nenets manzarajidinz’ “you two would have worked”?

Right. More grocery calculations coming up.

One Comment

  • Personally, I’d say, we should get rid of these silly infections, and go back to using adverbial suffixes (-φι, -θεν, -δε, -θι) for everything. Agglutinative style.

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