Tag Archives: Latin

The Demise of the Optative in Latin and Greek

I’ve been somewhat obsessed lately with the demise of the optative mood in both Italic (the parent language to Latin, among others) and in koine Greek. For some reason, it strikes me as very strange that both languages would lose the optative. Italic, of course, lost the optative completely, replacing it, to a certain extent, with the imperfect subjunctive (see my overview of that change here). Greek, however, didn’t technically lose the optative, but it replaced the optative with the subjunctive in most every case; in other words, it functionally, though not formally, lost the optative mood in terms of usual means of expression.

As I’ve reported, the old Proto-Indo-European subjunctive, along with the old desiderative, became the future tense in Latin, while the optative mood stepped in to fill the empty shoes that the old subjunctive left when it switched uses. Here’s the interesting part about this change: “The [Proto-Indo-European] subjunctive seems to have referred to a future event anticipated with some slight reservation on the part of the speaker — the equivalent of ‘I suppose’ or ‘in that case'” (Sihler 592), and in very old Sanskrit (a cousin to Latin), the subjunctive usually just acts as a simple future. In other words, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to see how the subjunctive could get watered down in Italic (and thus Latin) to the point where it is solely a future tense. That left only the optative for expressing counter-to-fact statements, and the optative form became, by default, the subjunctive.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In Greek, the subjunctive did not get watered down at all. In fact, by the time of the New Testament, the subjunctive had grown in strength to the point where it replaced the optative in most cases, except in prayers, strong affirmations or condemnations, stock phrases, and the like. So, while in Italic, the optative replaces a highly weakened subjunctive, Greek sees just the opposite: a strengthening subjunctive takes over the optative. However, both phenomena have the same effect, namely that, in both languages, the subjunctive is the primary mode for expressing something counter to fact.



Work cited: Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (new York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 592-600.

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Fascinating Article on Latin Imperfect Subjunctive

Jay H. Jasonoff, “The Origin of the Italic Imperfect Subjunctive,” Historische Sprachforschung / Historical Linguistics 104 (1991): 84-105.

If you’re into the history of languages or morphological development, this article is a great resource. It’s quite dense, and is thus a slow read, but it’s well worth the effort to unpack it. Some highlights:

Italic languages originally had two ways of placing the action of a verb in the future. One was based on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) subjunctive, which was formed with a vowel between the verb’s stem and the personal ending (like the Greek subjunctive λύῃς, which came from λύ + ε + εις) and the other was based on the PIE present desiderative, which was formed with an between the verb’s stem and personal ending (like the Greek future tense, λύσω). Ultimately, the PIE subjunctive form won out and became the primary way of forming the future tense in Italic languages.

Similarly, Italic languages expressed the pastness of an action in two ways. One came from the PIE perfect tense, which reduplicates the first syllable in a verb (Greek λέλυκα; seen in Latin perfect forms like tetigi). The other came from the PIE aorist, which adds an s between the verb’s stem and personal endings (Greek ἔλυσα; reflected in Latin perfect forms like dixi). Ultimately, the old PIE perfect and aorist were combined into a single verb form, the perfect, which explains why in Latin, the perfect tense carries both a perfective/resultative sense (“I have run three miles”) and an aoristic/undefined sense (“I ran three miles”).

When Italic lost the subjunctive form, which went to form the future tense, the only non-indicative mood it had left was the optative. The optative form, then, was co-opted for duty as the subjunctive. Ultimately, though, because the old optative became the subjunctive mood, Italic needed to fill in the gap left by the optative. Thus, it kept the non-past subjunctive (that is, the present and the perfect subjunctive forms) as true subjunctives (one degree separated from reality; “I would go running if it weren’t raining”), and it made the past subjunctives (the imperfect and the pluperfect subjunctives) into wanna-be optatives (two degrees separated from reality; “I might have gone running if it weren’t raining”).

Or, for those who are more visually-minded, here’s the same information, but as a picture:

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Greek and Latin, in Authentic Pronunciation

Real quick post about a resource that I (and I hope others) have found really interesting and even useful: the Society for the Oral Reading of Greek and Latin Literature. They have quite a few recordings on their site of famous selections of ancient Greek and Latin, recited in authentic historical pronunciation. The ones I’ve found most interesting are Homer, Demosthenes, and AristophanesCicero, and Catullus, though all the others are also really informative. The only thing cooler than this site in regards to ancient Greek pronunciation, I think, is W. B. Stanford’s The Sound of Greek (which comes with a 33 1/3 record in the back!).

Check it out!

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