BMCR 2009.01.29

The Moods of Homeric Greek. Cambridge Classical Studies

, The Moods of Homeric Greek. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii, 264. ISBN 9780521879880. $99.00.

Table of Contents

Jo Willmott’s new book, The Moods of Homeric Greek, critically examines the meaning and use of the modal forms in Homeric Greek. Willmott advances the claim that the traditional accounts are often inadequate, both theoretically and descriptively, and consequently proposes significant revisions. Her conclusions bear not just on modality in Homeric Greek, but also on modality theory in general. This is an important book, as it has set a new standard in the description and analysis of the Greek moods.

The synchronic analyses of the Greek moods in the book are excellent: they are more sophisticated and detailed than those found anywhere in the standard handbooks. Close study of this book will make one a more semantically sensitive and thus better reader of Greek. I have only two general criticisms. First, I think more needed to be said on diachrony, as the explanations offered for how and why certain semantic changes occurred left me wanting more. Second, the semantic analyses could have benefited from more engagement with pragmatic meaning. Overall, however, I recommend this book earnestly. A broad Classics audience will benefit from it.

The Layout

In brief, what Willmott does is to demonstrate how the traditional doctrine of the moods fails both theoretically and empirically, and to offer in turn new accounts of their semantics. This involves not only wrestling with high-order questions like the semantic maps of the indicative, subjunctive, and optative, but also more fine-grained and practical ones about the (semantic and pragmatic) interpretation of specific lines. Willmott begins in chapter one by laying out the scope of the work and discussing her corpus and its concomitant pitfalls. Chapter two presents the theoretical framework; here she reviews traditional accounts of the moods and surveys more recent work in linguistics, in particular from the area of grammaticalization (on which more below). Chapters three, four, and five are the heart of the book, dealing with the indicative, subjunctive, and optative, respectively. Chapter six offers a look at moods in subordinate environments, and chapter seven concludes the work. There are two appendices, one on formal markers, the other a catalogue of mood uses in the two Homeric poems (which will prove extremely useful); as well as a bibliography, index locorum, and general index. Below I present and discuss some of the highlights and interesting discoveries of the work. I then look more closely at the book within the framework of grammaticalization. This is followed by a consideration of the semantics-pragmatics interface. I conclude with minor sundry criticisms.

The Greek Moods Revised

So what does one gain from reading this book? Simply put, new semantic maps of the indicative, the subjunctive, and the optative. Willmott upends the traditional semantic accounts of the moods (as found in, e.g., Chantraine, Monro, Goodwin, etc.). In particular, she challenges the claim that they are ordered on an “irrealis continuum,” according to which the indicative is the most realis or factual, the subjunctive less so, and the optative least so.

The Indicative

Willmott replaces this traditional system with an account that is theoretically more coherent and that captures far more of the data. For the indicative, Willmott argues that the descriptions of the mood as one of “reality,” or “fact,” or “objectivity” are unsatisfactory. She points out that this claim runs into problems with the appearance of the indicative in conditional sentences, especially counterfactual. There the counterfactual nature of the clause flatly belies the proclaimed factual essence of the indicative. Willmott resolves this by arguing that the indicative marks “positive epistemic stance”: that is, even if a speaker is not committed to the truth of a proposition, he is at least committed to the possibility of its truth (p. 51). This requires us to accept that a counterfactual implicates, rather than entails, the falsity of the protasis and apodosis.

Take Il. 16.617 as an example (from p. 49), where Aeneas says to Meriones:

Μηριόνη, τάχα κέν σε καὶ ὀρχηστήν περ ἐόντα
ἔγχος ἐμὸν κατέπαυσε διαμπερές, εἴ σ’ ἔβαλον περ.

‘Meriones — even though you’re a dancer, my spear would have
stopped you completely, if I’d hit you!’ (trans. Willmott)

Here Willmott notes that the events described by the conditional, Aeneas’ hitting Meriones with a spear, did not happen. Nevertheless, Aeneas suggests pragmatically that it was a real possibility for him to have struck Meriones (even though he did not). Otherwise, Willmott claims, his taunt would hardly be effectual.

Her analysis is attractive and persuasive. I wondered how “positive epistemic stance” would line up with an earlier analysis that accounts for indicative counterfactuality in terms of pragmatic assertion (vs. the non-assertion of oblique moods).1 Despite the appeal of her analysis, I thought more should have been said here on the contribution of the “modal” particle κε ( ν), as it was given only a paragraph’s worth of attention. Willmott suggests a compositional analysis, whereby the particle and the indicative each contribute to the meaning of the construction: the indicative can be understood as marking the positive epistemic stance of the subject, while the particle together with the protasis could mark the difference between a counterfactual indicative and its normal use (p. 50).

The Subjunctive

The chapter on the subjunctive is the most complex. To begin with diachrony, Willmott claims that the subjunctive was “originally” (but when: in Proto-Greek? Proto-Indo-European?) some kind of future marker, but one that was developing different meanings from the future indicative. The Homeric subjunctive thus occupies a transitional position between future tense and true mood, but is developing more and more modal uses (p. 79). This trajectory is completed, so to speak, only in Attic, where the “future” meaning of the subjunctive is restricted to subordinate environments (and this is just where we expect the preservation of older morphosyntactic patterns). According to her analysis, the subjunctive is the older form, while the future indicative is “perhaps a ‘younger’ future marker” (p. 79).

There is a long-standing debate as to whether the Greek future descends from the short-vowel aorist subjunctive or from a desiderative morpheme (that is, a verbal form that encodes the meaning ‘wish, want’ on the base semantics of the verb; such forms are attested in Sanskrit). Willmott leans toward the former, but does not press her case too strongly, as it would require getting mired in complex details of historical phonology. Still, I thought Willmott could have argued more forcefully for the aorist-subjunctive origin given her findings on the semantics and use of the future.

To move away from diachrony, Willmott’s synchronic claim for the subjunctive is that it is not more “irrealis” than the future indicative. She looks at the epistemic subjunctive (which others refer to as the “quasi-future” use of the subjunctive) in various morphosyntactic environments, e.g. root clauses, conditionals, subordinate clauses. For main clauses she argues against an analysis whereby the future marks projected reality, while the subjunctive only potential reality. Under this type of model, the speaker uses a future indicative when he has considerable confidence, if not certainty, in the future occurrence of the event, while with the subjunctive it is only a possibility. Willmott is careful in reviewing the evidence, and shows that this distinction is not borne out by the Homeric evidence.

Analysis of the subjunctive and future indicative in Homeric Greek is no easy task, as these two categories are often difficult to distinguish both formally and functionally. One can easily be misled into thinking that they are in free variation: Willmott rightly stresses that this is not the case, as the two categories are not distributionally identical. Rather, the future is restricted in its functional load, while the subjunctive has a broader array of uses. To illustrate this point, she observes that the future indicative in conditionals is restricted to resumptive conditionals (conditionals that reintroduce a piece of information from the linguistic or non-linguistic context).

The Optative

The optative is conventionally considered the most irrealis of the moods, and also often considered to be a past-time variant of the subjunctive. Willmott replaces this view with an optative that expresses negative epistemic stance in conditionals, and elsewhere marks unreal events. As a marker of unreal events, it is thus timeless. Her results on this front are especially interesting when it comes to the expression of wishes.

Willmott also shatters much conventional wisdom about the subjunctive and optative in subordinate environments, such as purpose clauses and non-specific (or “general”) relative clauses. In the handbooks (based as they are on Attic Greek of the classical period), mood usage is essentially a grammatical rule: after primary-tense verbs, a subjunctive is obligatory in the subordinate clause; while after a secondary-tense verb, an optative. Despite robust evidence in support of this generalization, there are many counterexamples, which are typically said to “break sequence.” Willmott shows, on the contrary, that the appearance of the subjunctive or optative (in Homer, at least) is not dictated by grammatical rule, but rather by the semantics of the main clause. Indeed, one can really see from Willmott’s work just how different Homeric and Attic are in terms of degree of grammaticalization. The semantic conditioning that Willmott is describing for the moods can also, for instance, be found among agent-expressions with passive verbs,2 as well as purpose-clause markers.

Mood through the Lens of Grammaticalization

The framework within which Willmott comes to her conclusions is that of grammaticalization. This is a subfield of linguistics that was initiated by Meillet;3 it has experienced a burst of attention in the last twenty years. Its focus and scope, as traditionally defined, are the development of lexical items into grammatical items, as well as the development of new functions in already grammatical items. One example of the first type was mentioned above, namely the change of English will from a content verb to an auxiliary marking futurity. A similar example would be the change of body-part nouns into prepositions (e.g. Hittite hant-‘forehead’ and cognate prepositions like Lat. ante and Grk. ἀντί 4). What Willmott is looking at with the moods is how already grammaticalized forms take on new semantic dimensions. This includes e.g. looking at a verbal category like ‘subjunctive’ and examining how it came to be used in various embedded clauses, e.g. purpose clauses. It also includes looking at individual grammatical markers and how they develop, e.g. temporal-clause markers also taking on purpose-marking functions.

Previous attempts to understand the semantics of Greek moods have attempted to set up a core abstract meaning from which other meanings are derived. One assumption underlying this method is that language is structural, and that grammatical domains may be neatly defined and divided, with each individual marker in the system gaining its meaning through opposition with other markers (e.g., indicative in opposition to the “oblique” moods). By contrast, grammaticalization claims that such neat descriptions are insufficient, as language use is far messier. Rather than derive the various meanings of a grammatical form from some abstract essential meaning, grammaticalization sees the different uses as stages along a trajectory of development (p. 26): grammatical markers, e.g. verbal mood, gradually develop and accumulate new meanings. Moreover, these trajectories are constrained by the type of constructions in which the grammatical marker occurs, as well as its implicatures (that is, broadly speaking, the non-linguistically encoded meaning that is conveyed by inference). Thus language change is of central importance in understanding the synchronic diversity of meaning in a grammatical form.

This amphichronic framework is a fruitful one, as it has yielded new and exciting insights. In practice, however, it creates some tensions in Willmott’s work. For while Willmott has not set out to write a diachronic study of the moods from PIE to Greek, or even from Homeric Greek to Attic Greek, her framework nevertheless demands diachronic investigation. The result is that discussions on this front seemed cramped. I often found myself wanting explanations for why and how certain changes occurred, e.g. the discussion of ὄφρα pp. 156-158, of purpose clauses on p. 159, and of iteratives on pp. 182-183. With forms or constructions undergoing change, discussion of frequency would also have been helpful, e.g. the number of tokens in which ὄφρα has temporal, purpose, or indeterminate semantic values.5 With ὄφρα in particular, I wonder whether there is a connection to make between its frequency (which, impressionistically, does not seem that high) and its restrained development: for while ὄφρα became a purpose marker, its use as such was constrained (apparently by the semantics of its matrix verb phrase), and it never exhibited the same kind of development as e.g. ἵνα.

The Semantics-Pragmatics Interface

The focus of Willmott’s study is the semantics of the moods, and her results from this angle are impressive. At times, however, I think more could have been achieved with greater attention to pragmatic meaning. That is, to look not only at the propositional meaning of a sentence, but how a speaker might manipulate the implications of such meaning. For there are cases when it seemed that data that were inconsistent from a semantic angle were not from a pragmatic one. Moreover, the semantics-pragmatics interface is in some ways crucial to grammaticalization. Frajzyngier7 has recently argued that indirect expression in interpersonal communication is one of the basic driving forces of grammaticalization. To be sure, Willmott is aware of the importance of pragmatic implicature; my point is only that greater consideration of the interface between semantic and pragmatic meaning could have strengthened her analyses. I present three examples below.

Consider the aorist indicative in the protasis at Il. 1.503, discussed by Willmott on p. 42: Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴ ποτε δή σε μετ’ ἀθανάτοισιν ὄνησα
‘Father Zeus, if ever I helped you, among the immortals…'(trans. Willmott)

Here Thetis is speaking,6 and, as Willmott rightly notes, she did in fact help Zeus. As such, the protasis appears to be a factual statement (closer to a causal clause: ‘since I helped you…’) rather than a real conditional. Willmott claims that Thetis does not want to appear to be bartering her previous duty for a favor from Zeus, and therefore uses a conditional. Accordingly, Willmott labels the usage here a “rhetorical device” (ibid.) and a “stylistic choice” (ibid.). Both of these observations are probably correct (even if it is not entirely clear what these labels are supposed to mean), but I thought that a better motivated account of Thetis’ language could be derived from a pragmatic angle. By using a conditional here, she explicitly disavows recognition of having done favors for Zeus in the past, but implicitly both speaker and addressee know that she has. As such, the indirectness seems more like a face-enhancing or assertion-muting strategy of a speaker with less power attempting to acquire something from a listener with more.

Also, I am skeptical of the claim that Thetis wants to avoid the appearance of bartering with Zeus. For this is what she is doing, even if the bartering takes the expression of a conditional and not an outright causal clause: that is, to say ‘if I did X, do Y’ is still to barter, irrespective of whether the conditional is true or not. Moreover, given the overwhelmingly do ut des nature of Mediterranean religions (see e.g. Pl., Euth. 13d-15a) to set Thetis up as wanting to avoid the appearance of bartering may be anachronistic.

On p. 63, in discussing subjunctives found where we might have expected futures, Willmott cites the following from Agamemnon ( Il. 1.184-185): τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ σὺν νηΐ τ’ εμῆι καὶ ἐμοῖς ἑτάροισιν
πέμψω. ἐγὼ δέ κ’ ἄγω βρισηΐδα καλλιπάρηιον

‘Her I’ll send back in my own ships [sic], and with my own crew. But I’ll take Briseis, in all her beauty.’ (trans. Willmott)

Willmott uses the example to argue that subjunctives and future indicatives cannot be distinguished according to a certainty parameter. Prima facie Agamemnon’s use of ἐγὼ δέ κ’ ἄγω seems to support this claim: the event of transporting Briseis is entirely under his control and he has every reason to regard the event as reasonably certain. However, if we imagine that the future indicative and subjunctive do differ in terms of speaker-certainty, then it is possible that the subjunctive, encoding less certainty, might be exploited for pragmatic purposes, here to mute the assertiveness of the suggestion by presenting a projected reality as a potential reality. We might compare the use of English ‘could’ here to talk about potential events that are not dependent on the ability of the speaker.

We find another scenario of this type on pp. 125 and 130, in a discussion of the optative λύσαιτε at Il. 1.20:

παῖδα δ’ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε φίλην, τὰ δ’ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι

‘Release my darling child, and accept this ransom’ (trans. Willmott)

Willmott draws the following semantic distinctions between wishes (which we have here) and imperatives. With imperatives, the agent of the action is addressed, and the speaker has some control over the addressee or agent. In wishes, the agent of the action is not addressed, and the speaker has no control over the addressee. This example does not fit neatly into Willmott’s scheme because we have a wish in which an agent is directly addressed. Here she rightly points out, as others have before, that the use of the optative is a politeness tactic, in that it enables the speaker to avoid directly asking (or ordering) the addressee to do something. But the analysis could, I think, have been stronger if she had shown how this politeness technique results from a manipulation of the semantic scheme. That is, in using the wish construction, Chryses frames the situation as if he has no control over his addressee, and hope is his only recourse. This is presumably a deference-tactic. Likewise, although his message is directed toward the agent of the desired event (namely Agamemnon), Chryses addresses the Greek host at large ( Il. 1.15-16). In doing so, he further distances himself from a direct request over a particular agent. Thus, an example like this seems to me not to be a counterexample, but rather another example of how semantic resources can be pragmatically manipulated.

Consider again in this light the use of the indicative in counterfactuals. Here the propositional value of a protasis (e.g. ‘If I had gone to the store’) can suspend truth on a semantic level, but deny it on a pragmatic level. We observed the opposite effect with our Thetis-example above: explicitly a proposition was suspended, but implicitly it was affirmed. More attention to the pragmatics of modal constructions will surely enhance our understanding of grammaticalization patterns, texts, and Greek sociolinguistics more broadly.

Sundry and Small

Translations of the Greek are usually satisfactory, but sometimes Willmott takes unexpected turns with the modality, e.g. future ἐφήσει on p. 76 is rendered with ‘could’; on p. 185, εἵποντο is translated ‘would follow.’ On p. 186 she translates Τρώων as ‘of the Trojans.’ The addition of the definite article would normally not be cause for concern, but here in a discussion of antecedent specificity more care should have been exercised.

On p. 80, I doubt that the point of τενῶ will be clear to the typical classicist, and its historical development should have been spelled out to clarify its relationship to a desiderative *-h 1 s- morpheme, i.e. * ten-h 1 s-o > ten-es-o > teneo > τενῶ.

On p. 200, in her discussion of the semantic contribution of ἄν, Willmott mentions one possible etymology, namely that it originates from a reanalysis of the string οὐ κάν into οὐκ ἄν; and that it descends from the same form as κε ( ν), which is derived also from earlier κάν. Here Willmott should have at least cited the competing analysis, which holds that ἄν and κε ( ν) are not historically related, and that the former is in fact cognate with Latin an and Gothic an.8 This is a plausible view, and if it is true, then the functional overlap of the two particles could not be ascribed to the same diachronic source.

In laying out semantic maps of the various moods, it would have been helpful to provide visual maps of the various meanings and their relationships, as is done elsewhere in studies of grammaticalization. This would have been especially helpful with the subjunctive, where the use and semantics of the category are especially rich.

Lastly, a word about the presentation of the Greek. If classical linguists intend for their work to be read by general linguists (as they should), they will need to adopt the conventions of modern linguistics and transliterate the Greek as well as offer word-by-word glosses, which this book does not do. Subjunctive and optative forms are underlined, which is helpful, but I doubt that for a Greekless linguist this is sufficient.

Final Thoughts

In sum, this work has superseded much that has come before it and set a new benchmark in the analysis and description of Greek modality. It is the most theoretically sophisticated and empirically detailed account of the Greek moods that I am aware of. This book is thus a welcome addition to a growing body of work by young classicists revealing just how inadequate the traditional grammars are, especially when it comes to semantics and pragmatics. These areas are ripe for more exciting discoveries in the coming years.


1. See F.R. Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 2001): 3-4.

2. On the diversity of agent-marking with passives in Homer, see C. George Expressions of Agency in Ancient Greek (Cambridge 2005): 62-65, 68-69.

3. A. Meillet, “L’évolution des formes grammaticales,” Scientia ( Rivista di Scienze) 12/26 (6): 384-400. The essential idea behind grammaticalization had existed well before Meillet, however, in the work of Bopp, von Humboldt, and others; see e.g. C. Lehmann, Thoughts on grammaticalization: A programmatic sketch (Cologne 1982) and B. Heine, U. Claudi, and F. Hünnemeyer, Grammaticalization: A conceptual framework (Chicago 1991).

4. See J. Puhvel, Hittite Etymological Dictionary: Volume 3, Words Beginning with H (Berlin/New York 1991): 89-96; A. Kloekhorst, Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon (Leiden/Boston 2007): 287-289. This is a cross-linguistically common development: see J. Bybee, R. Perkins, and Willmott Pagliuca, The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World (Chicago/London 1994): 10-11.

5. The absence of frequency in Willmott’s discussion is surprising given that it generally plays such a prominent role in grammaticalization studies. See for instance Frequency Effects and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure, ed. J. Bybee and P. Hopper (Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2001), or J. Bybee, “Mechanisms of change in grammaticization: The role of frequency,” in Handbook of historical linguistics, ed. R. Janda and B. Joseph (Oxford 2003).

6. Willmott misidentifies the speaker here as Chryses.

7. Z. Frajzyngier, “Grammaticalization, typology and semantics: Expanding the agenda,” in Rethinking Grammaticalization: New Perspectives, ed. M.J. López-Couso and E. Seoane (Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2008): 61-102. On meaning change (both semantic and pragmatic) and grammaticalization specifically, see also Regine Eckardt, Meaning Change in Grammaticalization: An Enquiry into Semantic Reanalysis (Oxford 2008).

8. See e.g. H. Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg 1960-1972), s.v. ἄν. Nicholas Sims-Williams informs me (p.c.) that he is preparing an article with Elizabeth Tucker on ἄν from a comparative Indo-European point-of-view. This article will include new data from Middle Iranian that has not been included in past discussions.