Friday, May 18, 2012

Greek compounds and English phrasals

I'm working my way through Lucain's True Story and the realization is hitting me again. Ancient Greek and English have some odd ways that they are alike. The biggest to me is in how compound verbs are interpreted. (And I'm sure as soon as I hit publish, I'll realize otherwise.)

I should be clear. The morphology of the verbs are completely unalike. English is virtually inflection free, whereas Greek has inflections for person and number that are much more like Latin. But the interpretation of the compound is more likely to be transparent to English speakers than Latin compounds. For example:
καταγράφω – I write on
The morphology breaks down like this:
Ok, so maybe I'm cherry-picking a definition for κατα. But there are more. I'll divide the morphemes up with dots like I did above—they are in the same order.
περι.πλέκ.ω – I fold around
ἐπι.σκοπέ.ω – I look at
In most cases, the Greek compound fits more or less with its English phrasal counterpart. This is completely at odds with Latin. Latin forms its compounds exactly like Greek. Preposition + verb root + person/number inflection.
pro.mitt.o – I send for?
in.veni.o – I come into? – I stand with?
No, promise, find and agree (though that last one kind of works). It is almost as if you have to learn each Latin compound as its own new work, but in Greek you can guess and wind up close to the mark. The other nice thing about Greek is that it is a bit more promiscuous about noun-noun compounds. Latin does this to an extent with words like crucifer (cross bearer), but it usually prefers to phrase things like that as a phrase—typically with genitive case.

Greek is far more promiscuous with compounds, particularly in the right- vs. left-headedness of the compound. You're familiar with some of them already. Here are a few left-headed compounds.
ῥινό.κερως – rhinoceros (nose.horn)
ἱππο.πόταμος – hippopotamus (horse.river)
φιλο.σοφία – philosophy (love.knowledge)
You may not know my new favorite from Lucian, which is right-headed.
ψυλλο.τοξότης – flea archers