Greek Argument Structure

I agree with Mike Aubrey that the category Verb Phrase is not particularly helpful at this point in the discussion of Hellenistic Greek syntax. I would like to propose that we talk instead about the “Argument Structure” of Hellenistic Greek verbs.

Each verb requires, or clearly implies certain elements, such as a subject, and frequently one or more objects as well. Where these elements are essential to the meaning of the verb, we can say they are part of the verb’s “Argument Structure.” Modifiers that are optional, in the sense that they are not demanded by the meaning of the verb, we can say are not part of the verb’s argument structure.

Let’s take the verb δίδωμι as an example. In Matthew 4:9 we find

ταῦτά σοι πάντα δώσω
All of these I give to you

Here the verb is accompanied by three arguments: ταῦτα (these), σοι (to you), and -σω (I). One of these arguments (the subject) is attached to the verb itself and need not be expressed separately unless the context demands it. The other two we can call “complements.”

In certain discourse contexts, one or more of the complements may be left unexpressed. In Matthew 5:42, for example, we find

τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός
Give to the one who asks you
Give to the one who begs from you

Here the Recipient is expressed  explicitly: τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε (the one who asks you, the one who begs from you), but the Patient (that is, the thing that is given) is not expressed explicitly. Crucially, the cultural and discourse contexts make it clear that sustenance, in the form of food or money, is what is expected. The meaning of δίδωμι itself asserts a Patient role (the object given), and when the context clearly implies what must fill that role, it may be left implicit rather than directly expressed.

It is my contention that a reference grammar for Hellenistic Greek, if it is to serve the interests of both language learners and exegetes, needs to include this kind of information. Optimally,  argument structure information should be included in the lexical entry for every verb. The grammar would simply need to explain argument structure, and refer to an accompanying lexicon for details of specific verbs.

Some strides have been made toward this goal in recent research. Simon Wong provided a great deal of relevant data in his A Classification of Semantic Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistles (1999). What he calls semantic case-relations I would call arguments to avoid confusion with morphological case (nominative, accusative, etc.), but the data he provides could be very useful.

If you know of other research on this topic, please include it in your comments.

What would you like to see about the argument structure of verbs in a reference grammar? In a lexicon?

8 Comments on “Greek Argument Structure”

  1. Paul Danove has a basic lexicon for the argument structure of verbs and prepositions, like Wong he’s following Case/Construction Grammar in his book Linguistics and Exegesis in the Gospel of Mark: Applications of a Case Frame Analysis and Lexicon, though Carl Conrad has told me that he’s somewhat apprehensive about Danove’s work and that he hasn’t seen Wong’s.

    I’ve been doing subcategorization like this:

    διδωμι, to give something to someone;

    One of the issues that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how Greek voice & deponency could be represented through subcategorization and argument structure and I’m trying to convince my wife to write her MA thesis on the subject.

    • That didn’t work because of the brackets, let me try again:

      διδωμι, to give something to someone; <Subj-Agent, Obj1-Theme, Obj2-Recipient>

      • Thanks for the reminder about Danove’s book. I talked with him a number of times when he was writing it. I have not read the final product, though.

        UNC’s Davis Library has a copy. I’ll see if I can read it there. As I remember, it was a bit expensive.

  2. Danove has another book about to be released related to this topic:

    Grammatical and Exegetical Study of New Testament Verbs of Transference: A Case Frame Guide to Interpretation and Translation, Library of New Testament Studies, T & T Clark, July 10, 2009.

    At the projected Amazon price of $92.51, I don’t think I’ll be able to read it anytime soon!

    • Yeah, that’s a lot of gift certificates and my book budget is pointing elsewhere – but his first book sometimes shows up used at a decent price.

  3. Michael, This sort of approach is an interesting one. I’ve been tracking it some. My major concern is the terminology. If this is going to be usable in teaching students to use Greek, the terminology needs a major overhaul. Talk about “patients” etc. is particularly “jargonous” and pedagogically unhelpful. I know it makes (good?) sense to linguists, but most learning Greek are not of that stripe. Can we make it more friendly?


    • Yes. Terminology is a problem. There are two or three different linguistics paradigms attempting to solve the same issues of argument structure, and each one has its own terms. That’s a problem not just for Greek students, but for linguistics students trying to stay abreast of more than one paradigm.

      What would you suggest to replace “Patient”? In both Principals and Parameters and in LFG (correct me if I’m wrong, Mike), Patient is the entity acted upon, not the Recipient, for example. Do you have a suggestion for a term that would be quickly understood by the typical Greek student?

      By the way… Thanks for responding. I’m thrilled to see you in the discussion!

  4. If you want to read a good example of why an Argument Structure Lexicon would be an important component of an advanced Hellenistic Greek grammar, see this post by Mike Aubrey.

    Mike is not arguing for an Argument Structure Lexicon, but he does a good job of illustrating the problems caused by not having one. It will take a long time to get to the point where we can have such a tool, but young scholars like Mike may be able to help us get there!

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