The tale of φαῖο

By: | Post date: October 26, 2006 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Language

In my capacity of working on the lemmatisation of Greek for the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae project, verbs are much more of a hassle than nouns, because Greek verbs just have more latitude to do idiosyncratic stuff than nouns. The running joke with Greek verbs, in fact, is that there is no such thing as a regular verb; even λύω, so favoured in textbooks as an exemplar (because its root ends in upsilon, one of the few consonants or vowels not to cause grief when it is juxtaposed to the tense suffixes), has variable length on that upsilon depending on the tense. However, the truly, insanely, every person is its own story verbs — i.e. the athematic irregulars: εἰμί, εἶμι, ἠμί, φημί — had already been covered by the lemmatiser I’ve been elaborating; and since they require a lot more deep Greek than I’m comfortable with, I’ve usually managed to steer clear of them. It doesn’t help that these verbs are so irregular, that the lemmatiser deals with them in a completely different way from other verbs: they’re basically treated not as stems + a class of suffixes, but each as their own set of suffixes, from scratch.

And so it was that a perfect storm of irregularities had me scratching my head for a full hour with a single verb in Moschus. Not a long verb, actually a rather short verb; which in Greek hurts you rather than helps you, because you can’t, like, buy a vowel to work out what’s going on. In fact, my problem was there were too many vowels. The verb was φαῖο, and it shows up in the following passage

αὐτὰρ ὃ μειλίχιον μυκήσατο· φαῖό κεν αὐλοῦ
Μυγδονίου γλυκὺν ἦχον ἀνηπύοντος ἀκούειν
(Moschus, Europa 97-98)

I have no idea what phaîo means. Neither does my lemmatiser. The thing doesn’t look like a verb; but it looks like an Ancient Greek noun even less. I look for dictionary entries sarting with φα- that might help me make sense of this; no such luck. I leaf through my Smyth and (paper) Kühner-Blass grammars — respectively the basic English and ludicrously detailed German grammar of Greek; no go. Now, in the cis-webic age, Google knows all, so I pop into the Project Gutenberg translation of Moschus to see if it would help; Moschus is writing bucolic Greek — meaning Doric or Aeolic mooshed with Epic, and damn me if I have any idea what the mooing is about. The Gutenberg edition of the bucolic poets is old and out of copyright enough to be unhelpful at times — Theocritus 30 is completely missing (and in the other Gutenberg Theocritus, the translator pretends it’s addressed to a girl); but the Moschus passage has made it, moo and all:

Then he lowed so gently, ye would think ye heard the Mygdonian flute uttering a dulcet sound.

Nice to know bestiality wasn’t as big a deal to the translator. OK, so φαῖο means “you think”. Nope, still not getting it. I spend half an hour, uninformed Modern Greek speaker that I am, trying to yoke it to φαίνομαι “seem”; but there’s no alchemy that’s going to make that nu completely disappear absent a sigma to knock it over. (Keep that sigma in mind, it ends up with a candlestick in the conservatory.)

In desperation, I ask TLG central for a clue; and TLG central sends me the variant readings of the verb in their edition. The variants in the manuscripts are φαῖε, φαίε, and φαίης. Now, I don’t know what φαίης means either, but the lemmatiser does: it’s the optative active 2nd sg of φημί, “say”; so “you would say”. “You would say” means pretty much “you would think”; the same happens in Modern Greek (λες και). Bell goes off in my head, I look at the verb table for φημί in my grammar, and I attain enlightenment.

Here’s the perfect storm:

  • First up, the optative is reasonably rare in Greek to begin with, and died early; so with my slapdash knowledge of Ancient Greek, it would be easy for me to have not clicked to it.
  • Second, we have in φαῖο a middle/passive optative, not an active like φαίης. The middle/passive ending for the 2nd sg should have been –iso; but proto-Greek did away with its sigmas between vowels, so all that was left was –io. Which doesn’t look like a verb ending I’d be familiar with, and for good reason: Middle Greek ended up putting such 2nd sg passive sigmas back in. (Ancient Greek has lou-omai “I am washed”, *lou-esai > *lou-eai > lou-eːi “you are washed”; Modern Greek has restored the forms to lun-ome, lun-ese.)
  • Normally Greek verbs are thematic: they have a vowel, an -e- or -o- depending on the person, between the verb stem and the personal inflection. This means that the optative passive ending is normally –oîo; and –oîo I had seen before enough to recognise. But φημί is one of those irregular athematic vowels — meaning it’s archaic enough not to have a thematic vowel. The –io goes straight onto the verb stem pʰa-. pʰa + io = φαῖο. Because I had not grokked the optative by being force-fed it at school, I wasn’t familiar enough with the ending to make the conection.
  • The killer was the change in Moschus. I had actually gone past the description of φημί in Kühner-Blass, who had a generous three or four pages about it, listing all its attested tenses. It turns out that standard, Attic Greek only used the verb for “say” in the active; having it in the middle voice is an other dialect thing, and since we have a lot more Attic than other dialects, we don’t have all that many middle voice φημί in our literary texts to begin with. Nonetheless, Kühner and Blass (dunno which one, though Kühner’s earlier solo edition is in Google Books) saw fit to include all known middle instances of φημί. They list the indicatives, the list the subjunctives, they list the infinitives, they list the imperatives.

    No optatives listed.

  • Which can only mean one thing. In the 19th century, the editors of Moschus had gone with the common, normal Attic form φαίης. Kühner-Blass is 19th century, and so is Liddell-Scott. When A.S.F. Gow did his new edition of Moschus in 1952, he looked at φαίης and φαῖο, and did what a philologist should: he went with lectio difficilior. (OK, I’ve got a normal boring Attic optative, and a weird unknown Doric optative. Maybe the scribe who wrote that manuscript thought he’d out-Doric Moschus, so he made φαῖο up. That might have happened, and Kühner-Blass is adamant that that kind of thing has happened with Herodotus. But it is rather likelier that the scribe took one look at Moschus’ φαῖο, had the same reaction I did, and plugged in the form of the verb he was much more familiar with.) In doing so, Gow brought back into the corpus a likely authentic Doric optative. But noone is bothering to revise the 19th century grammars, so the grammars won’t tell me that.
  • Moreover, the way irregular athematic verbs are handled in the lemmatiser, actives and middles are handled separately, as distinct classes of endings — whereas normal verbs lump all the possible classes of endings together that would attach to a given tense stem. So it didn’t guess at the middle version of the verb, whereas normally it would.

So that’s the story of φαῖο. The lemmatiser now knows what the verb means; alas, it’s the only instance of a middle optative of φημί in the corpus, but every verb counts (especially when it’s in my performance index testbed). Not that I was happy to have been running around for an hour trying to work out a verb I should have grokked immediately. But that’s how pioneers work, I guess.


  • opoudjis says:

    No surprise it’s not in Veitch; like I said, this is a 20th century edition (1930-odd), and the grammars for Greek tend to have been fixed in stone in the 19th century, so I surmise the 19th centry edition had the Attic, active form.

    Wierd to be in Blogistan, and no clear yet how much vim I’ll have to post vocation as opposed to day job stuff here; we’ll see. Great to have been greated by Language Hat though!

  • language says:

    Heh. Having had optatives drummed into me in school, I instantly picked this as one. But you’re right, it’s a very rare form; I checked Veitch (Greek verbs, irregular and defective: their forms, meaning and quantity) and found nothing.

    Oh, and welcome to Blogovia!

    –language hat

Leave a Reply

  • October 2006
    M T W T F S S
        Nov »
  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

%d bloggers like this: