The Basics of the Greek Verbal System

All English verbs have three principal parts. The principal parts--if you know them--allow you to use a verb in any form. If you're a native speaker of English this process doesn't require a whole lot of thought, but it's actually quite complex. For most verbs (the so-called weak verbs) the principal parts are completely predictable. Things sound really easy when you realize that for these verbs the 2nd and 3rd principal parts are the same. It's even easier when it turns out that these are both just the 1st principal part--which is just the base verb--plus the ending -ed (maybe with a slight spelling change, so 'pet' has 'petted' and 'petted' as its 2nd and 3rd principal parts).

But if you take one of the strong verbs--a small group, but they contain many of the most common and important verbs--you can see exactly why you need all three principal parts:

1st p.p. 2nd p.p. 3rd p.p.
ring rang rung
drink drank drunk
run ran run
break broke broken
bring brought brought
beget begat begotten

Since these are entirely unpredictable, it is necessary to memorize them. You can do this the easy way, namely by being born into and raised by an English-speaking family, or you can do it the hard way and chant them over and over again. But once you know them, you do so very much with them. Some examples:

1st Principal Part

to drink (present infinitive active)
I drink, he drinks (simple present tense active)
I am drinking (present progressive tense active)
I do drink (present emphatic active)
I will drink (future tense active)
I will be drinking (future progressive tense active)
I will have been drinking (future perfect progressive tense active)
I have been drinking (present perfect progressive tense active)
I had been drinking (past perfect progressive tense active)
I was drinking (past progressive tense active)
or just use it as an adjective ("The drinking dog looks strange.")

2nd Principal Part

I drank (simple past active)

3rd Principal Part

to be drunk (present infinitive passive)
to have drunk (perfect infinitive active)
to have been drunk (perfect infinitive passive)
it is drunk (simple present tense passive)
it is being drunk (present progressive tense passive)
it will be drunk (future tense passive)
it will be being drunk (future progressive tense passive)
it will have been drunk (future perfect tense passive)
it was being drunk (past progressive tense passive)
it has been drunk (present perfect tense passive)
it had been drunk (past perfect tense passive)
I have drunk (present perfect tense active)
I had drunk (past perfect tense active)
or just use it as an adjective ("Drain cleaner, when drunk, is dangerous.")

Greek Principal Parts

By contrast, the Greek verb has 6 principal parts. Before you close your browser window and give up right now, understand that the English system may only have 3 principal parts, but the forms above hardly scratch the complexity of the overall verbal system. What about forms like "would have been drinking," "could have been drinking," and "might have been drinking"? You see, whereas English relies heavily on auxiliary verbs and their combinations with the 1st and 3rd principal parts, the Greek verb encodes the same information in endings (and in a few cases a prefix) that are added to each of the principal parts. Because of this fundamentally different approach, the Greek verbal system's admitted complexity seems even more complex. But an overview of how the principal parts work in Greek might help you to get your head around the Greek verb. There's still a huge amount of information to absorb when studying Greek, but if ancient Greek children could use most of it, so can you!

Let's take a look at the six principal parts of a Greek verb.

1st p.p. 2nd p.p. 3rd p.p. 4th p.p. 5th p.p. 6th p.p.

The same principle holds here as in English, viz., each principal part gives you the knowledge to recognize and make a certain subset of the possible forms of a verb. There are two components to being able to put this to use. First, you must be able to extract from each principal part a stem. Second, you must memorize the endings (and prefixes, but there's only one) that can be added to these stems to produce the various forms.

Let's start at the beginning.

Of the 6 principal parts, only the third and sixth have a prefix, called the augment, that must be removed to find the stem. This is usually just e-, but if the stem begins with a vowel the e- normally does not show up, but the vowel is lengthened. In our sample verb, you can see the e- quite clearly in the two forms in question:

1st p.p. 2nd p.p. 3rd p.p. 4th p.p. 5th p.p. 6th p.p.

Now, each of the 6 principal parts is a 1st person singular form (a fancy way of saying that the subject of the verb is "I") and so we need to remove the 1st person singular ending:

1st p.p. 2nd p.p. 3rd p.p. 4th p.p. 5th p.p. 6th p.p.

Removing the augment (from p.p. 3 and 6) and the endings leaves us the stems, each named after the tense (plus sometimes the voice to clarify things) that the principal part is actually a form of:

present stem future active/
middle stem
aorist active/
middle stem
perfect active stem perfect middle/
passive stem
aorist passive

If you know the names of the stems, you also know the verb forms that are going to come from them. So the present stem gives all the forms of the present tense in all three voices, including the present infinitive and the present participles (the adjectival forms). The aorist active/middle stem gives the aorist forms in those two voices, while the aorist passive stem provides the aorist forms in the passive. There are some footnotes, but they need not concern us much now: 1) the present stem also gives the imperfect tense forms, 2) the perfect active stem gives the pluperfect active forms, 3) the perfect middle/passive stem gives the pluperfect middle/passive forms, and 4) the aorist passive stem provides the future passive forms also. If this seems impossible to keep straight, that's probably just because we're still dealing with all of this stuff in the abstract. It's also fairly likely that most people reading this haven't learned more than one or two of these tenses yet! I'm tyring to give you an overview of how it works, not to try to teach you every single form here and now. Your job is to grasp the nature of the system and let it begin to percolate in your brain next to all of the information there about how English verbs work.

Let's look at one quick example and don't be freaked out by the terminology. Take the English "You were drinking a glass of water." "You were drinking," which is the equivalent of one Greek word, gives you several pieces of information.

"You" tells you who the subject of the verb is, specifically the 2nd person singular, which is a fancy way of saying "you."

"were" tells you that the action of the verb took place in the past, but it also reinforces the subject since if the subject was "I" we would say "was."

"drinking" tells you what verb we're dealing with (and so what activity "you" was involved with in the past). In combination with "was" this derivative of the 1st principal part characterizes the action as a process in the past. If we didn't want to characterize the action this way, we could use a different past tense, the one from the 2nd principal part ("You drank"). This portion of the verb also makes the voice of the verb active, so you know that "you" is doing the drinking, not having the drinking done to it (Compare "it was drunk," which is passive).

The lack of a "modal verb" (for instance "might" or "would") shows that the mood of the verb is indicative (the "normal" mood).

The equivalent Greek verb gives the same information. Here's the verb:

Here it is broken into its three parts: prefix, stem and ending.

The prefix tells you that the action of the verb is in the past. It also happens to tell you that it hasn't been put into a mood outside of the indicative (the "normal" mood). That means it will probably not require a "modal verb" when you translate it into English. So no "might, may, could, should, would," or the like.

The stem, which happens to be from the 1st principal part of this verb, tells you what verb we're dealing with and also characterizes the action of the verb as a process because that's one of the functions of the present stem (< 1st principal part) in ancient Greek. Together with the prefix this stem guarantees that we are dealing with a past action characterized as a process. If we didn't want to characterize the action this way, we could use a different past tense, the aorist, which is from the 3rd principal part.

The ending tells you that the subject of the verb is 2nd person singular, i.e. "you." It also makes the voice of the verb active so that you know "you" is doing the drinking and not being drunk. Just for good measure it reinforces the tense established by the prefix and stem. It also reinforces what the prefix already told you, namely that it is in the indicative mood.

Now, compare all the information and you'll see that most of it is explicitly encoded in both languages, just in different ways. What you need to do as you learn Greek is adjust your mindset a bit so that you remember what parts of the verb convey what information.

The Point

It's all in the mix! To decipher a Greek verb form you need to pay attention to the total interaction of stem and endings (and prefix, if it exists). It is only all together that they reveal everything about a verb form. The same goes for English. The major difference is that Greek combines all of this information into a single word, whereas English divides up the duty among several. If you look at "might have been eating" and ignore the "might," you don't really understand the whole thing. Sure, we can say both "I have been eating" and "I might have been eating," but they don't imply the same thing. And "I have been eating" and "they have been eating" are also different. As you change each component's form, you end up with different meanings: sometimes in tense ("I had been eating" vs. "I have been eating); sometimes in person and number ("I have been eating" vs. "they have been eating"); sometimes in voice ("It has eaten" vs. "It has been eaten"); and sometimes in that slippery category called mood ("I have been eating" vs. "I should have been eating").

If you don't panic or immediately decide that Greek is impossible, you'll be fine in the long run. Classics teachers love to brag about the complexity of the Greek verb and act as though it is the sublime creation of natural genius. In fact it is the undeniable genius of the Greeks in so many areas that makes some want to extend our admiration to every facet of their civilization, including their grammar. But for every bit of complexity that a Greek teacher praises to the heavens, there is some nuance somewhere else that the Greeks did not worry overly much about. Quite often English, in fact, is more complex and more nuanced. We can say "I am eating" or "I eat," and that is not always saying the same thing. Greek can't make the distinction. If that doesn't seem complex enough to you, think about the overlap and distinctions among "might have said," "may have said," "could have said," "would have said," and so forth. It is standard practice in such cases for many teachers to do some sleight-of-tongue and praise the simplicity of Greek! Don't blame them. They love the language and that leads to inconsistency. Love is blind, after all, and makes us praise everything about our beloved.

To make the statement that one language is simpler or more complex than another is a silly exercise. It may have some relative importance for native speakers of a single language. So maybe saying "Navajo is more complex than Dutch" is a statement that a lot of English speakers would agree with because Dutch and English are relatively closely related languages. But for native speakers of an Apache dialect, the related Navajo language probably looks less complex than the Dutch. But our brains are wired in such a way that we can theoreticallly learn any human language. Millions of non-Greeks learned ancient Greek when it wasn't yet "ancient." Some of them learned it well, some didn't. Some of them learned it so well that they were perfectly fluent in it, just as a modern French speaker can become perfectly fluent in English. You're at a disadvantage because ancient Greek is no longer a living language. The consequences of that are astounding. If you're in a classroom, you're being taught by someone who knows Greek less well in some ways than an ancient child did. You likely have a book that tries to cram more formal grammar into one year's learning than your fellow students in Spanish, German and French will have in their first two. You're heading toward Plato in three semesters! How long does it take a student of German to get to Goethe, or a student of Italian to get to Dante? And you can't spend time just listening to the language or hang out with its native speakers, naturally absorbing it. But there's nothing special about the Greek language itself that makes it unlearnable by some percentage of the population. And despite the disadvantages I just mentioned, the ultimate lesson here is an encouraging one. If you really want to, you can learn ancient Greek. Think about it: if people can learn English, you can definitely learn Greek.

Copyright and disclaimer © 2000-2002, Stephen M. Trzaskoma