Word-order variation in Greek and Latin remain thorny problems for philologist and linguist alike. In spite of this, systematic investigations of the topic are disconcertingly few. For this reason alone, one heartily welcomes Helma Dik’s (= D.) new work, Word Order in Greek Tragic Dialogue. This volume follows her 1995 companion opus, Word Order in Ancient Greek (BMCR 95.11.08), which centers on Herodotos. As with the earlier work, D. argues here that word order in Greek is pragmatically conditioned. While couched in the framework of Functional Grammar developed by Simon Dik (no relation to the author), the book is nevertheless accessible to a general Classics audience: graduate students and more advanced scholars will have no trouble with it, and advanced undergraduates could probably benefit from it as well.
All in all, the work is a measured success. On the one hand, I recommend it without hesitation: one is hard pressed to think of another work on Greek word order that is as copiously illustrated or theoretically sophisticated. It is a potent antidote to the irritatingly prevalent notion that Greek word order is “free,” and it will undoubtedly become required reading on the topic of word order in tragedy, as her 1995 work has already become for prose. At the same time, I cannot with equal alacrity second all her analyses and conclusions. While many of them seem successful, the work is too often too short on explanation (whether in the interests of mere clarification or for justification). Often I found myself wondering how exactly D. came to certain judgments about the pragmatic status of various constituents, or how she would defend her analysis against competing stories. Below I present a brief chapter-by-chapter overview of the book, followed by more detailed comments on selected chapters.
The book begins with a short chapter that introduces some elements of pragmatics, lays out the extent of the study, and offers a first illustration of the method and the type of questions asked. This is followed by a more substantial chapter two on the theoretical machinery of pragmatics—the essential ideas of Topic and Focus, as well as Theme, Tail, Setting, and Remainder. From here, we move from theory to illustration, as Dik examines constituent-order at the clausal level. To narrow her focus, she restricts her corpus to clauses with the verbs
Constituent-order at the Clausal Level
Past research on Greek word order has tended to rely on the categories subject (= S) object (= O), and verb (= V), and led to a debate about whether Greek is an SOV or SVO language. D. takes a different approach, however: she relies on informational categories like Topic and Focus, rather than structural ones, like subject and object. The over-arching claim of D.’s work is that Greek word order at the clausal level is organized according to the following pragmatic template:
Roughly speaking, the Topic is the constituent that a clause is “about.” More fully, in D.’s words (p. 31), ” Topic function is assigned to an element which the speaker regards as an appropriate foundation for constructing a message which is relevant to the subject matter of the discourse.” The Focus, by contrast, is the most “salient,” i.e. “important,” piece of information in a clause. In her words (p. 32): ” Focus function is assigned to an element expressing the information that the speaker considers the most urgent part of the message s/he wants to convey to the listener.” Cross-linguistically, Topic-Focus ordering is by no means uncommon: if ultimately true for Greek, it would place the language among a number of similarly configured languages throughout the world. For classicists, the pragmatic approach will perhaps come as more rewarding or engaging than a more formal or generative-syntactic approach: D.’s study is anything but a dry analysis of words in sentences, and all parameters of communication are relevant: what is being said, by whom, to whom, when, why, where, etc.
Occasionally D.’s presentation here lacks clarity. On p. 17 she writes: “I believe that the fundamental characteristic of Greek word order is to place pragmatically marked constituents early in the clause.” At the same time, Topic is organized before Focus; and Topic is supposed to be the grounding for the Focus. Why then is Topic regarded as pragmatically marked? D. answers this question by observing (pp. 31-32) that many clauses have no overt Topic,2 such as those in which there is no change of Topic from one clause to the next, or a Topic is otherwise unnecessary or irrelevant. So when a Topic is expressed, it is most likely new or contrastive. But this still allows for Topics that are expressed though neither new nor contrastive. Following D.’s scheme above, a Topic of this kind would be positioned before Focus; but if so, this then violates her general position that “pragmatically marked” (whatever that is supposed to mean exactly) constituents come early in the clause. A problem of this type is illustrated below by a passage from Ajax.
One problem besetting a pragmatic approach like D.’s is that the categories of Topic and Focus are notoriously difficult to define explicitly. Accordingly, judgments about what constitutes a Topic and what a Focus can be distressingly subjective, a problem that D. herself is aware of (pp. 33-34). To avoid this problem, she takes care to provide a bounty of examples, and goes through them in some detail. What she generally does not do, however, is explain how alternative pragmatic interpretations of a sentence could be ruled out. Take for example El. 582-583:
I had a similar difficulty with D.’s discussion of Aj. 970, which runs:
To return to the template above in (1), two extraclausal adjuncts are possible, Themes and Tails. Theme constituents precede the clause proper, while Tail constituents follow it. Both form their own intonational phrases. In the following example (Thuc. 6.9.3, quoted on p. 35), the prepositional phrase is a Theme:
According to D., the “clause proper” begins with
Here the verb is
Constituent Order and Metrics
In chapter six, D. turns to the question of the relationship between meter and word order. Up until this point in the book, she has discussed word order in tragedy as if she were dealing with prose texts. Here D. claims that the end of the trimeter line is not a position of emphasis (by contrast, line-beginning is). D. cites the following example from OT 122-123:
I was not persuaded by this claim, and thought her discussion at this point needed to be more refined. For there are three levels of positioning at issue here. The first is that of constituent order within the phrase, e.g. the adjective preceding the noun in
D.’s point is that, since the sequence adjective-noun marks adjective salience (as claimed in chapter four), the marked pragmatic status of
Chapter six also contains an interesting discussion of enjambment. D. follows earlier discussions of this phenomenon by distinguishing two types, “necessary” and “adding” enjambment. “Necessary enjambment” refers to “syntactically necessary” enjambed constituents,5 as with
D. claims that with necessary enjambment, it is not the enjambed item that is “emphasized,” but rather the one preceding it (in the line previous). Only with adding enjambment is the run-on item “emphasized.” The problem that I have with her claims here is the same one I had earlier with items at line-end: an enjambed item is acoustically marked, that is, you have (typically) one lexical item surrounded by two pauses (one brought about by the preceding line-end, and one brought about the by the fact that the enjambed item is the last in its sentence). Typically within a clause individual lexical items are not fenced in by pauses like this, unless you are dealing with, e.g., appositional phrases, or a pre- or postposed constituent. But if we follow D., this marked acoustic prominence has no pragmatic effect. If she is right about this, then her argument needed to address this question more fully.
To return to El. 1503-1504, D. claims that the Focus of the clause is
With enjambed proper names (pp. 192-196), D. comes to the opposite conclusion, that line-initial position serves a highlighting function. Most of the examples she analyzes are what she calls Tail constituents, that is, syntactically adjoined constituents co-referential with some previous NP. She considers the effect of their position more akin to clause-initial rather than clause-final position. So the address to Helios at Aj. 845-846:
As far as the big picture is concerned, my most serious reservation is that D.’s account allows little to no room for other components of grammar besides pragmatics. To be sure, D.’s aim is to show how Greek word order is pragmatically organized. But at various points I had the sense that to her pragmatics was everything (even if she does not consciously subscribe to this opinion) and that there was little room for other factors, such as prosody, metrics, semantics, or syntax. D. must be right that a good deal of constituent-order variation in Greek is pragmatically conditioned. But I at least am not persuaded that it can account for all that she thinks it can, nor that some of these pragmatic patterns have not been grammaticalized. For there may well be an underlying syntactic configuration to Greek (whether SOV or
A related problem is that D.’s approach to pragmatics is narrow. She relies exclusively on one theory, namely that of Functional Grammar, which is a fairly insular and marginal school. Other approaches to pragmatics are theoretically richer and more nuanced (for examples, see the works cited in footnotes two and four). I have some worry that classicists will think that D.’s approach represents the field of pragmatics more broadly.
One over-arching question not discussed is what role prosody and specifically intonation played in signaling pragmatic status in Greek. In English (not to mention a vast number of other languages), the informational status of a constituent can be indicated via prosody (e.g. pitch, loudness) as opposed to word order, and similar mechanisms were likely to have been available in Greek. Obviously this is a very difficult issue to wrestle with when it comes to a corpus language, but nevertheless the question must be asked, as it has implications not only for the role that D.’s pragmatic template plays in ordering constituents but also in our broader understanding of Greek grammar. In addition to intonation, one wonders how particles (in their capacity to signal the information status of constituents) interact with D.’s pragmatic template.
A few small gripes. Some of the terminology is unfortunate, especially ‘Mobile.’ This term goes back to Dover (1960)7 and should be abandoned. It essentially refers to prosodically independent words, i.e. items that are neither pre- nor postpositive. The belief behind the term is that such words are relatively free as to where they can be positioned. There are, however, a good number of words that are prosodically independent but nevertheless are not so “mobile.” Dover himself recognized this, and referred to such words as “preferential Mobiles.” There may well be more such words (or contexts) than have so far been identified. Nothing is gained by the use of the term, and “constituent” or even “word” (in the sense of prosodically independent word) works just as well.
D. sometimes makes peculiar comments about postpositives. On p. 197, discussing line-initial
The title of the work is slightly misleading: the phrase “Greek tragic dialogue” sets up the reader to expect a more encompassing study: while all three tragedians are represented to an extent, greatest attention by far is paid to Sophocles.
Lastly, the target audience. I was surprised and disappointed to find that examples were not quoted in both Greek and Roman scripts. The decision not to transliterate the Greek has severely limited D.’s audience: effectively, only classicists and the occasional linguist with some training in Greek will be able to read it. This is a topic that desperately needs the attention of both classicists and linguists.
To conclude, this is a valuable book, but one not without its problems. It can be read with profit as there is a good deal that D. must be right about. More, however, in the way of explanation was needed. Word-order variation is no doubt one of the most difficult problems in Greek, and my criticisms here should be taken as questions that remain to be answered: the nature of the topic is such that it will require ongoing consideration from both philologists and linguists.
1. J.D. Denniston, The Greek Particles (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1954): vi.
2. Her discussion of whether clauses have Topics even if there is no overt morphological Topic constituent needed to be more nuanced. For consideration of this and related theoretical questions, see e.g. N. Erteschik-Shir, Information structure: the syntax-discourse interface (Oxford: OUP, 2007).
3. Here I have in mind something like that found in T.E. Payne, Describing Morphosyntax (Cambridge, CUP: 1997): 261-294.
4. Surprisingly there is no reference to the work of Gregory Ward on this or any other topic in D.’s book. He is one of the leading authorities on information structure and constituent order. See e.g. B.J. Birner and G. Ward, Information Status and Noncanonical Word Order (Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins: 1998), as well as Ward’s website.
5. Her terminology here is unfortunate. The first problem is that “necessary enjambment” seems like it should refer to a phenomenon whereby a constituent must be enjambed. The second problem is the notion of “syntactical necessity.” Given the phenomenon of ellipsis, D. at points has to temper the idea of “necessity,” e.g. p. 182 n. 28, pp. 184-185. Had she simply used the term lexically-governed enjambment instead, she would have avoided both problems.
6. Other points at which I wonder about her pragmatic judgments: (6.6) on p. 183; (6.9) on p. 186; (6.10) on p. 187; (6.11) on p. 188.
7. K.J. Dover, Greek Word Order (Cambridge: CUP, 1960).
8. For discussion on prosody versus syntax in accounting for clitic positioning, see e.g. A.L. Halpern and A.M. Zwicky, edd. Approaching Second: Second Position Clitics and Related Phenomena (Stanford: CSLI, 1996).