Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek

I have uploaded my paper, “Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek” to two places. You can read it here at Greek-Language.com at the following location:

You can also view it at Academia.edu.

This paper is an updated version of one I presented at a national meeting of the SBL in the late 1990s. A slightly updated version was published by Forum, the journal of the Westar Institute in 1999 under the title “From the Lexicon to the Sentence: Argument Structure in Hellenistic Greek.”

This latest version lays out my proposals for information that should be included in an electronic lexicon of Hellenistic Greek.  Serious advances in digital technology have made it possible to include information about syntactic and semantic relationships that would have been impractical only a few years ago, and in the context of the work that Jonathan Robie and I are doing on using XML to structure and query databases, I decided it was time to make my most recent proposals easier to locate.

Argument Structure of ἀγαπάω

Simon Wong’s A Classification of Semanti Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistles lists the Case Frame (Argument Structure) of ἀγαπάω as [Event: EXPERIENCER, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. I think this argument structure is quite appropriate for the English word “love,” but I’m not sure it really fits ἀγαπάω.

My disagreement is with the designation of first argument as EXPERIENCER. In English we think of love as an emotion, in which case it is quite appropriate to think of the first agument (the subject of an active verb) as EXPERIENCER rather than AGENT. Love is something we experience more than do.

In Hellenistic Greek, though, ἀγαπάω represents a way of acting more than an emotion. Jesus commands his disciples ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27 and 35). He is not commanding them to feel warm and fuzzy toward their enemies, but to treat their enemies with good will.

Does it even make sense to command an emotion? If I tell you, “Be angry!” will you be able to simply decide to do so? In Hellenistic Greek, ἀγαπάω represents something that can be commanded. It represents something that a person can decide to do.

I propose the following revision to Wong’s case frame (argument structure) for ἀγαπάω: [Event: AGENT, COMPLEMENT/PATIENT]. The verb implies an actor/AGENT (the person who acts with good will) and a PATIENT (the person who is treated with good will).

Feel free to disagree. Please offer examples that you think demonstrate whether the first argument (the subject of ἀγαπάω when it is active voice) represents a person who experiences the emotion we call love or a person who acts in a way characterized by good will. Does ἀγαπάω function like the English word “love,” or do you also think it is different?

Greek Argument Structure

How should verbs be treated in a reference grammar of Hellenistic Greek? What syntactic and discourse information should be included in the lexicon? Argument Structure Theory can provide helpful suggestions.

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?

Greek Verb Phrase?

I would like to thank Michael Aubrey for his comments on the the lack of usefulness of the category VP (Verb Phrase) for describing Ancient Greek. In particular, he challenged some comments that I made in Levels of Constituent Structure for New Testament Greek (1995).

This is, of course, the way to advance the field. As we each examine the claims of our colleagues and submit them to scrutiny, we move the discussion forward.

The comments I made about the Greek VP in 1995 were part of a larger argument for the existence of phrase-level categories in general. While I am still firmly committed to the usefulness of the syntactic category Phrase in general, I have never been particularly committed to the usefulness of VP in particular for addressing the phrase structure of Ancient Greek.

In the years since 1995 I have come increasingly to view the syntax of Ancient Greek as determined by the argument structure of verbs—verbs and the phrases demanded by their lexico-semantic properties. This view does not necessarily require the category Verb Phrase, though postulating the existence of such phrases may eventually prove useful.

As for Aubrey’s objection that the subject appearing between the verb and one of its subsequent arguments (specifically a PP in the examples he cites), the objection works only if you discount the possibility of verb movement. He is probably right, but it’s not as obvious as it might seem.

Thank you, Michael, for your thoughts and research on this issue. I look forward to reading more.