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2.13 Accentuation of Verbs

First, a sermon about accent in general

The patterns of Greek accentuation are extremely complex, although the accentuation of verbs is considerably more straightforward than the accentuation of nouns. The most important thing for you to understand is where the stress falls because this is vital information for how you pronounce the word. It is far less important for you to understand whether the particular stress should be marked with an acute accent mark or a grave mark or a circumflex.

Think about it this way: you should learn Greek accent by ear... NOT by means of your eyes. The distinction between a syllable with an accent and a syllable without an accent is a distinction you can hear and say. In fact, you should exaggerate the accented syllable so that it will stick in your memory.

The distinction between the acute, grave, and circumflex accents, on the other hand, is purely a visual distinction. It cannot be reinforced by speaking or by listening. There are rules you can learn later on to help you if you want to write Greek with a full accentuation system - but remember: the accentuation system is a medieval invention which was not even part of the ancient Greek system of writing. You can become a masterful and confident reader (and speaker) of ancient Greek even if you never understand the function of the circumflex accent.

Of course, the circumflex accent did originally reflect a difference in pronunciation - or else it never would have evolved as a written symbol. The problem is that the difference between the circumflex and the acute is a different of "pitch" or "tone" rather than accent... and since English does not have a "pitch" system, it is impossible for us to hear pitch or to reproduce that quality of pitch when we speak. The only modern Indo-European language which retains a vestige of the pitch system is Swedish! If, however, you are a student of Chinese, you have had to learn how to grapple with a pitch system, since the pitch (or tone) is a fundamental part of the sound system of Chinese, much as it was in ancient Greek.

Some people worry that when we read ancient Greek with a strong stress accent, but without pitch, we are making a muddle of the language. This is undoubtedly true! Yet you will also find that the stress accent is enormously helpful in memorizing Greek words and understanding their forms. Especially because we are also not very good at distinguishing between long and short vowels in Greek, using an exaggerated stress accent can help you remember just where the long and short vowels are found. That probably does not make sense to you right now... but believe me: it will start to make sense very soon. The more you can exaggerate the stress accent of the words now, memorizing carefully where the stressed syllable is found in each and very form, the easier it will be for you to read and write Greek with confidence.

And if you are worried about making a muddle of the language, just remember: there were people all over the ancient Mediterranean world who were speaking Greek with terrible accents! In the same way that people all over the world speak English who have a strong accent from their native languages, the same was true of Greek in the ancient world. So, if you end up speaking Greek with an inevitable English accent, this is surely no worse than all the people in the ancient world who spoke Greek with a Thracian accent... an Illyrian accent... a Libyan accent... a Roman accent... an Egyptian accent... a Macedonian accent... a Bactrian accent... you get the idea! So, as always, my recommendation to you is to make noise in Greek! The louder the better! (so long as you don't drive your roommates totally crazy...).

Second, some notes about verbs

As Croy explains, verb accent is recessive. This means that the accent of the verb stays as close to the beginning of the word as possible. Yet at the same time, there are forces working on the verb that "pull" the accent towards the end of the word. This is because when the end of the word gets "heavy" - either because the word is long, or because there is a long syllable at the very end of the word, or both - the accent gets pulled away from the beginning of the word towards the ending.

Eventually you will understand this process in an unconscious, automatic way - but for now there is one vital rule that you have to understand: when the final syllable of a word is long, the stress cannot fall on the antepenultimate syllable. If a word ends in a long syllable, the stress must be either on the ultima syllable, or on the penultimate.

You can see the effects of this pattern for a verb like διδάσκω which has a two-syllable stem (διδασκ), but you cannot really see this clearly in a verb like λύω, since λύω has a monosyllabic stem (λυ).

Basically, the stress of a Greek verb really "wants" to go on the first syllable, but it cannot always do that. What is interesting is that the stress stays on the same syllable throughout the present active indicative paradigm! This is because the monosyllabic endings are all long, while the polysyllabic endings contain a short final syllable. Please make sure you understand this pattern, and the reasons why the accent moves back and forth between the penultimate and the antepenultimate syllables:

When you learn the dictionary form of a verb, you can see immediately which syllable is stressed throughout the entire present active indicative paradigm. At the same time, you need to be aware of the forces at work in the paradigm, causing the stress to actually alternate between the penultimate and antepenultimate syllables, depending on the specific endings (monosyllabic or polysyllabic ending, with or without a long final syllable).

Biblical Greek Online. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. Page last updated: April 9, 2005 8:06 PM

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