Academic journal article Antichthon

"It Would Be the Time to Discuss the Optatives." Understanding the Syntax of the Optative from Protagoras to Planudes

Academic journal article Antichthon

"It Would Be the Time to Discuss the Optatives." Understanding the Syntax of the Optative from Protagoras to Planudes

Article excerpt


This paper uses the Greeks' understanding of the optative mood over many centuries to enlarge our knowledge of the origins of formal grammar, of the vernacular Greek language in post-classical times, and of the limitations which imitative Atticism faced when it tried to give new life to a verbal form which had virtually disappeared from the spoken language. Starting with the very beginnings of grammar as a discipline, it argues that Protagoras' contribution to the study of verbal mood has been overlooked, and the Stoics given too much credit. This observation has implications for the larger issue of whether the origin of formal grammar is to be found amongst students of literature or of philosophy. The rest of the paper works through the standard uses of the optative found in Attic and Homeric Greek, examining the explanations and paraphrases of these usages found in ancient and medieval grammarians and scholiasts, and arguing that this material confirms the evidence for the vernacular suggested by the New Testament and papyri, and can also explain some non-classical uses of the optative found in Atticising writers.

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The study of Greek moods cannot be said to have been neglected over recent decades, and indeed by its modest standards may even be enjoying a boom. But the new impetus for this work has without doubt been modern linguistics, an enterprise driven largely by modern theory and cross-linguistic comparisons. Recent work on the Greek moods largely ignores the ancient grammatical tradition. Emblematic perhaps is Willmott's 2007 study of the moods of Homeric Greek: for her, 'traditional theory' means scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the book contains barely a mention of the many centuries of ancient scholarship and its practitioners who not only wrote and spoke Greek, but who invented and developed the concept of grammar and strove to understand the optative mood.1

This attempt to understand the optative mood was particularly challenging to Greek grammarians inasmuch as, for most of the history of grammar as a formal discipline, the mood was barely present in the normal spoken language of the time. Of course, by definition the 'spoken language' is gone for good, but scholars have generally been inclined to see its strong imprint on the socalled 2 Koinh,v that is, the usual language of papyri (especially private documents) and of essentially non-literary texts like the New Testament. According to this conventional view, Koinh,v and hence the vernacular, stand opposed to Atticising Greek, which self-consciously cultivated features of the classical language which had fallen out of popular use, like the optative mood. 'The Koine was merely the literary version of the Greek spoken, at any rate by the urban upper classes, in the cities from Mesopotamia to Gaul.'3 On this basis, the comparison of Koinh v and Atticist texts clearly shows the decline of the optative in everyday speech.4 We only see this elusive vernacular, then, through a glass darkly, as one writer of Greek Koinh v put it, and it forms one half of the 'diglossia', the linguistic split which has continued to play such an important role throughout Greek cultural history from at least the first century BC.5

The particular importance of ancient grammar for the understanding of this vernacular has not, I think, been fully appreciated. Greek grammar was always largely focussed on the great literature of the past,6 as emerges already from perhaps the first and certainly most famous formal definition of the subject:7


Grammar is the practical knowledge of the usual expressions of poets and prose writers.

It is no coincidence that it begins to emerge as a distinct field of study in the late Hellenistic age,8 at that point when the Greek language begins to diverge more noticeably from the language displayed at least in those prose works. …

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