BMCR 2015.09.44

Expressions of Time in Ancient Greek. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Expressions of Time in Ancient Greek. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ix, 331. ISBN 9781107003941. $110.00.


From the author that brought us Expressions of Agency in Ancient Greek we have another exceptional work that continues the theme of exploring grammatical expression in Greek. As most of us have experienced at one time or another, George has a quarrel with pedestrian temporal descriptions in Greek grammars—specifically the genitive as the time ‘within which’ and the dative as the time ‘at which’ (purists will rest easy in noting that the docile accusative of extent happily behaves itself the majority of the time). The reality, George successfully argues, is that temporal expressions are dependent upon a multitude of variables including the ‘time noun’ in question (e.g. ὥρα—a lexical motivator), the ‘event type’ in question (punctual, durative, etc.), and the author in question (with both significant synchronic and diachronic variation evident). The squabble is Thermopylaean: George and his 331 pages against the heavyweights of Greek Grammar whose combined temporal entries regularly scrape but a page. The triumph, however, is George’s, and the result is a thoughtful and lucid study through the avenues of Greek time.

George opens with the problem of translating “The next day, he held an assembly” into Greek—should this call for a durative genitive (the assembly takes place during the day) or a punctual dative (the assembly takes place upon the day)? (p. 1). The answer: it depends. It depends if there is a demonstrative modifier, an ordinal, a modal expression, an article. It depends upon the author and his time period. The lexical form ἡμέρα plays a commanding role. Xenophon, for instance, uses the dative in saying “the next day”. If the event occurs at night, he favours the genitive νυκτός. The scene is set for the study.

The material is organised into six chapters, which run more or less diachronically (8 th c. BCE— 2 nd c. CE) and understandably focus upon prose authors. Individual authors surveyed are Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Polybius, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Epictetus, with documentary papyri from Egypt allowing an on-the-ground comparison of non-literary use. Biblical texts encompass parts of the Septuagint and the entire New Testament. Homer makes a late appearance in the consideration of the pre-Classical development, with the usual caveats regarding reading too deeply into the poetic grammar.

Chapter 1, ‘Expressions of Time: an Introduction’, gets straight to the root of the problem, highlighting both the methodology employed in the study and problems/approaches in previous scholarship. It is a terrific contribution to Greek grammar studies. George’s ‘taxonomy of event types’ provides the over-arching framework—single events (punctual, durative, limitative) and repeated events (habitual, distributive) that all time-expressions fall within; these, he reasonably assumes, provide clues behind the lexical case of the ‘time-noun’.1 The formal categorisation of a phrase into a singular ‘event type’ is naturally not always unobjectionable, with multiple interpretations sometimes possible.2 It is commendable, however, that data and examples are always provided, thereby allowing the reader to make up his or her own mind about them; for most citations, there is little or nothing to dispute. This chapter makes many important contributions to our understanding of time in Greek. One major point may seem obvious in hindsight, but so often patterns are: individual ‘time nouns’—lexical forms—show patterns of preferential use in case and/or prepositional phrase. The ‘time nouns’ surveyed are (from smallest to largest unit) ὥρα, ἡμέρα, νύξ, μήν, θέρος, χειμών, ἔαρ, μετόπωρον, φθινόπωρον, ἔτος, ἐνιαυτός, χρόνος. A second point of interest is the failure of aspect as a motivator in time expressions. ‘Punctual’ aorists are found in durative clauses and ‘durative’ imperfects in punctual ones. Quite simply, perfective and imperfective aspect demonstrate too many ambiguities for aspect to be used as a singular analytical tool. George is perhaps a little too dismissive in arguing against approaches such as that of Jiménez that focus upon the role of modifiers in temporal expressions, e.g., “quantifying adjectives and cardinal numbers cannot but state duration” and therefore occur with the accusative (p. 29).3 I am not so sure that George (the chicken) and Jiménez (the egg) are not trapped in a hamster-wheel of reasoning—the question of whether a particular author had ‘event type’ or ‘quantitative duration’ first in mind seems to me an unanswerable one, though overall I agree that ‘event type’ provides the more useful holistic methodology.

The remainder of the book focuses upon individual authors or genres and examines their preferential time expressions; I offer only an overview here. Chapter 2, ‘Expressions of Time in Thucydides’, provides an in-depth look at this author and exemplifies George’s methodology. Chapter 3, ‘Expressions of Time: Style, Genre, and Diachrony’, is the heart of the book and a survey of Classical through Second Sophistic authors and papyri. At 127 pages (a little shy of half the book) it breaks the rhythm somewhat and is best approached with a specific view to a particular author within; overall, it represents a masterful analysis of enormous quantities of data. Of excellent value are the little ‘Summary’ sections at the conclusion of each author, which highlight preferences relating to temporal expressions and differences from other writers. Chapter 4, ‘Expressions of Time in Biblical Greek’, investigates the Septuagint and New Testament, while Chapter 5, ‘A Retrospective: Going Back in Time’, offers a brief excursus on Homer and what can be gleaned from some of the earliest preserved literary Greek. Chapter 6, ‘Summary’, is aimed at linguists who don’t know Greek, but is extremely useful for all in summarising the most salient findings of the book and in providing a diachronic discussion that threads together the previous chapters.

The book is of immense interest as a resource for dealing with individual authors and their synchronic contexts, and will probably find its fullest employment in this role (though Chapter 1 is essential for all as a background to the study). Several points are worth further note here. The traditional handbook explanations of the dative and genitive of time hold from an Indo-European perspective and even in Homer, but are less satisfactory from the Classical period onwards: a schism occurs in ‘Punctual Events’ (some nouns prefer a genitive, others the dative) and the dative should be in general decline. Broadly, the dative and genitive of time demonstrate a freer use diachronically (especially from Polybius onwards), though it is remarkable how conservative some of their uses remain. An important takeaway from the book is that while individual authors show clear preferences in temporal expression construction, it is very rare that any one rule ever holds hard and fast. Rather, broad rubrics relating to ‘event types’ and ‘time nouns’ are more useful descriptors under which variation may be found. For example, George’s ‘limitative expressions’ (related to the old ‘Time Within Which’ category) “limit a bounded, telic event to some point or points within that period”, are accompanied by a telic verb, and are often negative; the genitive of time or ἐν + the dative are the preferred constructions (pp. 308-10). The book is strictly a study on Ancient Greek, so comparative examples from other languages are rare, but welcome additions (e.g. p. 182). The sections on Polybius (and following), papyri, the Septuagint and the New Testament provide evidence of ‘interference’ on dative temporal constructions from the Latin ablative of time, as well as from Hebrew and Aramaic. The papyri section (pp. 230-44) provides much food for thought, especially the possibility of ‘formal’ versus ‘less formal’ registers of language and grammatical use. It is noteworthy that in this final period the simple dative of time retains a healthy presence, despite its supposed decline and imminent downfall; fossilised dative time expressions may have perpetuated its use. George’s research raises interesting questions about the use of prepositional phrases in compensating for a truncated case system (and in the continuing search for the underlying grammar(s) of the Atticising Second Sophistic period). I was surprised that there was no chapter on inscriptions—particularly public ones—which provide innumerable opportunities for temporal analysis, along with the chance to investigate the existence of an official public grammar, so to speak, as compared with individual writers and private documents; hopefully George’s keen analysis can shed light on this as an addendum in the future. In general, helpful tables are provided that tally the use of different time expressions. At times, statistical discussion triggered a little unease or confusion, e.g. “Thucydides, who has more opportunity for giving precise lengths of time, uses ἐπί + accusative more than Xenophon; Xenophon’s content, in turn, elicits a greater use of διά + genitive” (p. 155). Presumably what is meant here, for example, is that there are more instances of διά + the genitive in Xenophon than in Thucydides, rather than relative frequencies of use. We are, however, dealing with discrete data sets of vastly different size (one work by Thucydides and multiple by Xenophon), and a comparison of relative frequencies between ‘time nouns’ and ‘event types’ would have been more helpful in demarcating synchronic/diachronic variation. Whatever the case, additional tables in these comparative sections detailing discrete statistics, relative frequencies, and even p-values would have clarified such comments. This is a minor quibble, however, and perhaps the sample size does not warrant anything more than general comments.

The book is full of juicy observations, but make no mistake of it—this is 331 pages about grammatical time, a subject that barely receives a page in standard handbooks, and it is tough going at times. One of George’s great successes is in making the subject matter readable and frequently enjoyable. Dry (but essential) spells discussing case statistics are interspersed with little gems like the observation that ὑπὸ νύκτα most often modifies verbs of sailing. The LSJ definition of “at nightfall” is not borne out by the evidence, with George’s reading “by night” backed up by the comment that it is perhaps “not too fanciful to propose that a local sense of ὑπό is still in play: when sailing by night, one would have paid close attention to the stars, and one’s movement could be envisaged as proceeding beneath the canopy of the sky” (pp. 110-111). Similarly, a discussion of the functionality of Herod the Great’s unfinished temple is supported by a footnote (my personal favourite) referencing the second Death Star from The Return of the Jedi. The book is handsomely presented and well edited, with only very minor errors detected.4 It will take pride of place in all discussions of grammatical Greek time in the future.


1. George employs and builds upon categories developed by Z. Vendler (“Verbs and Times”, Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 143-60) and successors. See pp. 7-25 in particular.

2. Think, for example, of an English phrase like “I’ll finish it in ten days”. Is this a truncated limitative expression denoting a point within the ten days or durative (i.e. in ten days’ time) denoting all ten? The latter is probably right, but further context is necessary to be certain. I was not entirely convinced by the section distinguishing adverbial genitive of time expressions from other syntactic uses (pp. 35-50, particularly the adnominal and partitive). I wonder if the distinction is not largely our one—cannot a time expression in the genitive still be considered partitive in the sense that the event occurs during the whole of an unexpressed time noun? George is again ready for objections, however, and rightly decides to include all ambiguous examples as adverbial time expressions in his tables.

3. M.D. Jiménez, “La expresión de relaciones temporales en ático clásico”, in M.E. Torrego (ed.), Nombres y funciones: Estudios de sintaxis griega y latina, Madrid, 1998: 65-110.

4. Pages 82 and 83 are not numbered. p. 106, footnote 69: read ἤδη. p. 135: read “it seems impossible TO draw a firm line”.