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The Greek Definite Article and the English Definite Article Compared

Ancient Greek

The Greek Definite Article and the English Definite Article Compared

Dedicatory Greek inscription from the 4th century

 

by Todd Clary, Ph.D.

Χαῖρε!

Thanks for checking out this entry of the Carmenta Online Ancient Greek Blog.

Today’s entry will discuss the most common word in both English and Ancient Greek: the definite article, or ‘the’.

In English there is only one form of the definite article: ‘the’.

‘The’ can refer to, or modify, a singular or plural noun:

a) singular:  I see the man.

b) plural:     I see the men.

‘The’ can modify, a noun of any gender:

a) masculine:        I see the man.

b) feminine:          I see the woman.

c) neuter:              I see the leaf.

Note: the fact that the nouns in the examples above are masculine, feminine and neuter surfaces when we refer to them with gendered pronouns in subsequent sentences:

a) masculine:        I see the man. He is right there.

b) feminine:          I see the woman. She is right there

c) neuter:              I see the leaf. It is right there.

‘The’ modifies all nouns regardless of grammatical function in sentences:

a) subject:             The man sees you.

b) direct object:    You see the man

In comparison to the one form of ‘the’ in English, there are 17 different singular and plural forms of the definite article in Ancient Greek. How can this be?

Well, most of the forms of ‘the’ in the English examples above would take different forms of the definite article in Greek according to the number (singular, plural), gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), and grammatical function (subject, direct object, etc.).

The Greek definite article differs according to whether the noun it modifies is singular or plural:

a) singular:           I see the man.

Greek: ὁράω τὸνἄνδρα(horaô ton andra)

b) plural:              I see the men.

Greek: ὁράω τοὺς ἄνδρας (horaô tous andras)

The Greek definite article differs according to the gender of the noun it modifies:

a) masculine:        I see the man

Greek: ὁράω τὸνἄνδρα(horaô ton andra)

b) feminine:I see the woman

Greek: ὁράω τὴνγυναῖκα(horaô tn gunaika)

c) neuter:              I see the leaf

Greek: ὁράω τὸ πέταλον (horaô petalon)

The Greek definite article differs according to the grammatical function of the noun it modifies:

a) subject:             The man sees you.

Greek: ἀνὴρ ὁρᾷ σε (ho anḗr horai se)

b) direct object:    You see the man

Greek: σὺ ὁρᾷς τὸνἄνδρα (su horais ton andra)

In these last two examples I have kept the word order the same for the sake of clarity in both the English and Greek examples. But notice that in the English sentences the form of every word is exactly the same and the word order is the only thing that determines who is seeing whom. This is because English is mainly an analytical language. In analytical languages word order is the main factor in determining the grammatical relationship between words in a sentence.

An ancient Greek inscription in stone

Now, if you look at the Greek sentences in the last set of examples you can see that every single word in each sentence has a different form. This is because Ancient Greek was a highly inflected language. In inflected languages it is the form of the individual words, often the endings, that determines grammatical relationships. This means that you can change the order of the words in sentences without changing their meaning. For example, the sentences above could also appear in Ancient Greek as follows:

a) subject:             The man sees you.

Greek: ὁρᾷ σε ἀνὴρ (horai se ho anḗr)

ἀνὴρ σε ὁρᾷ (ho anḗr se horai)

b) direct object:    You see the man

Greek: ὁρᾷς σὺ τὸνἄνδρα (horais su ton andra)

τὸνἄνδρα σὺ ὁρᾷς (ton andra su horais)

Most introductory Ancient Greek textbooks teach students the definite article in the first chapter because it is so common, and because learning its various forms serves as a good introduction to the differences between an analytical vs an inflected language. When referring to the definite article in Greek, we say that the differences in its forms that determine grammatical function are its various cases. Below is the whole paradigm, or list of case forms, of the definite article in Ancient Greek. The nominative is the case of the subject, the genitive is the case of possession, the dative is the case of the indirect object, and the accusative is the case of the indirect object. These cases also have other functions, but these are the main functions to be memorized at first.

   Singular

Masculine           Feminine             Neuter

Nominative        ὁ (ho)                 ἡ (hē)                      τό (tó)

Genitive             τοῦ (toû)            τῆς (tês)                  τοῦ (toû)

Dative                τῷ (tôi)               τῇ (têi)                     τῷ (tôi)

Accusative        τόν (tón)            τήν (tḗn)                  τό (tó)

     Plural

   Masculine          Feminine              Neuter

Nominative          οἱ (hoi)                αἱ (hai)                 τά (tá)

Genitive               τῶν (tôn)             τῶν (tôn)              τῶν (tôn)

Dative                   τοῖς (toîs)           ταῖς (taîs)             τοῖς (toîs)

Accusative           τούς (toús)         τάς (tás)                τᾶ (tá)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
todd clary
Dr. Todd Clary, a specialist in the Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages, holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Indo-European Linguistics from Cornell University, where he now works as a professor in the Classics Department. He has taught “Homeric Philology”, “Latin Comparative Grammar”, “Archaic Latin and the Italic Dialects”, as well as all levels of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Dr. Clary currently teaches the “Latin IV” and “Latin VI” classes and tutors Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit for the Carmenta Online Latin School.

Click here to see Dr. Clary’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Leighton Sovis

    This is a great article, I hardly know anything about Ancient Greek but this is very well written: it’s clear, concise, and I can tell that years of experience and knowledge has been synthesized into an article that is easy to understand. Thank you very much, Todd!

  2. Magister Andrew

    Todd,

    An excellent summary of the definite article in Ancient Greek! Even this most basic element of Greek gives you a good idea of the differences between Greek and English. The biggest stumbling block for many students in their study of Greek or Latin is getting over these basic structural differences between the ancient languages and their native language, English. This is the biggest hurdle for their teachers as well, and one that most never quite figure out how to overcome. Translating a sentence in the language is one thing, but developing an intuitive understanding of it is quite another.

    Andrew