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Review of  Greek Prepositions

Reviewer: Coulter Harris George
Book Title: Greek Prepositions
Book Author: Pietro Bortone
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Greek, Ancient
Greek, Modern
Middle Greek
Book Announcement: 22.728

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AUTHOR: Bortone, Pietro
TITLE: Greek Prepositions
SUBTITLE: From Antiquity to the Present
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2010

Coulter H. George, Department of Classics, University of Virginia


In this book, Bortone (henceforth B.) traces the development of the Greek
prepositional system over the course of its entire 3000-year history. The first
third of the book deals with general theoretical issues about the syntactic and
semantic description of prepositions, cases, and the relationship between them.
B. devotes particular attention to the localistic hypothesis (the idea that
spatial uses are primary), a concept that provides a consistent orientation to
the remainder of the book, which takes synchronic snapshots of four different
periods of Greek (Ancient, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Modern) in order to
establish the bigger diachronic picture.

Part 1: Background to Greek prepositions

Chapter 1: On the function of prepositions (pp. 3-32)

In the first chapter, B. looks at the syntax of prepositions, in effect to
establish the boundaries of his study. On the one hand, he must deal with the
relationship between prepositions and cases (and, to a lesser extent, between
prepositions and postpositions). From the practical standpoint of work on a
mainstream Indo-European language, the two categories can be kept apart fairly
easily (e.g., prepositions occur only once at the start of a noun phrase,
whereas case endings are repeated on each relevant element), but B. is well
aware that such diagnostic criteria often apply less well in other language
families. He must also deal with the fact that, especially in Ancient Greek,
prepositions can have considerably different meanings depending on the case that
they govern. In his view, this is not much of a problem, as one can simply
describe the combination of preposition plus case as a single discontinuous
morpheme that functions in parallel to either a simple case or a simple
preposition. Finally, because of the particular structure of the Modern Greek
prepositional system, in which there are few ''proper'' prepositions, with much of
the functional load carried by compound prepositions (forms analogous to English
_out of_, in which a first, adverbial element narrows down the meaning of the
second, prepositional element), B. argues in favor of treating such compounds as
true prepositions in their own right.

Chapter 2: On the meaning of prepositions (pp. 33-85)

Like cases, prepositions vacillate between having a clear meaning (_he fled to
Paris_ vs. _he fled from Paris_) and seemingly being semantically empty
(_different to_ vs. _different from_). At the same time, as B. shows with
examples from an impressive number of languages, certain patterns recur:
locative expressions are often related to comitative ones, which in turn are
frequently bundled together with the instrumental; the locative is also close to
the allative, which in turn often expressed the recipient. To create some
descriptive order out of this apparent chaos, B. turns to the localistic
hypothesis: as he shows quite convincingly, one gains a lot by positing that the
spatial meanings are primary. After all, these are the meanings that children
acquire first, the meanings that are most likely to be expressed consistently
from language to language, and, in what is one of the main points of the book as
a whole, they are the first meanings to arise diachronically when a new
preposition is born. Only later, along various cross-linguistically common
semantic pathways, do the more abstract senses develop.

Chapter 3: On the development of prepositions (pp. 86-106)

In the next chapter, B. takes a step back to look at how prepositions are
created in the first place. Members of just about any word class can turn into
them, as B. details: verbs (_regarding_, _considering_), adjectives (_near_),
univerbations (_among_), borrowings (Spanish _hasta_ < Arabic _haṭṭa_). But B.
devotes the most space to the prepositions that develop from nouns. While the
precise etymology of the most basic Greek prepositions must inevitably remain
somewhat speculative, there are very good reasons for viewing many of them as
ultimately derived from inflected nouns: the _-i_ on the end of _peri_ ''around,
about'' (found in other prepositions as well) gives it the appearance of the
locative case of a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) noun. What is more, Greek renews
its prepositions in the same way: Classical _peri tou kēpou_ ''around the garden''
later gives way to _kuklōi tou kēpou_, where the first element is transparently
the dative case of the noun for ''circle''.

Part 2: The history of Greek prepositions

Chapter 4: Prepositions and cases in Ancient Greek (pp. 109-70)

In the second part of the book, B. turns to the description of the Greek
prepositional system, starting with the situation in Ancient Greek. First, he
gives a general overview, outlining the Greek case system and its PIE origins,
and listing and defining the so-called proper prepositions. In short, these are
the older stratum of prepositions, which form the core of the system (the Greek
equivalents of ''to'', ''from'', and the like) and share the syntactic property of
also being used as verbal prefixes. But B. also argues strongly against
neglecting the improper prepositions: the stepchildren in the prepositional
family, these correspond to e.g. English ''following'' or ''opposite'', and are
often sidelined in grammars as newer and somehow less central to the
system--unjustly, since many of them, over time, come to replace the proper
prepositions. Indeed, one general lesson to be drawn from B.'s work is the
importance of liminal categories like compound and improper prepositions: easily
passed over in synchronic studies, they are frequently the interesting
transitional categories in diachronic development.

After this initial survey, B. examines the use of cases and prepositions in
Homer, the earliest Greek corpus substantial enough to allow a syntactic study
of this sort (generally dated to the eighth century BC, but containing many
archaisms as well). In keeping with his general interest in marginal features,
B. also gives a full treatment of relic endings like ablative _-then_ and
allative _-de_, which sit awkwardly at the boundary between cases and
adpositions. A cursory discussion of the syntactic ambiguity of the Homeric
prepositions follows (it is often unclear whether they are adverbs, adpositions,
or preverb), but for a full discussion of this issue, one should still consult
Horrocks 1981. What is primarily important for B. is the fact that the
prepositions are largely facultative at this point: the case system still bears
the brunt of distinguishing between allative, locative, and ablative, and the
prepositions often serve simply to add dimensionality to the construction. For
example, the dative case on its own can mark location, so adding the preposition
(or is it an adverb?) _hupo_ simply specifies further that the location in
question is the one underneath the landmark noun in the dative. In pp. 153-66,
B. summarizes the main diachronic trends that can be traced as one moves into
the period of Classical Greek (5th-4th centuries BC). Probably the most
fundamental change is the shift of functional weight from the case ending to the
preposition itself: the dative case is on its way out, and there is a blurring
of the nuances conveyed by the different cases after several of the individual

Chapter 5: Prepositions and cases in Hellenistic Greek (pp. 171-94)

The next stop on B.'s diachronic tour is Hellenistic Greek--broadly speaking,
the Greek that spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean with Alexander the
Great's conquests in the late 4th century BC. Also familiar under the label
Koine (the ''Common'' dialect; B. uses the terms more or less interchangeably: p.
171 n. 2), this variety of Greek is most famously associated with the language
of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and the New
Testament, and these are the texts that B. uses as the basis for his snapshot as
well. They are problematic texts for linguistic research, however, because their
language has clearly been influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic--though the exact
extent of that influence remains a matter of debate (see George 2010). Still,
there are some diagnostic tools that can help determine whether or not
prepositional usages in the Septuagint and New Testament reflect the general
development of Hellenistic Greek, such as their presence in other texts of the
period not subject to interference from Semitic or indeed their continued life
in Medieval and Modern Greek. What remains, after accounting for the effects of
the substrate, is the continuation of the changes already underway in the
Classical period: the decline of some of the older proper prepositions (e.g.
_ek_ ''out of'' is increasingly replaced by _apo_ ''from''), the increase in use of
the new improper prepositions (e.g. _epi_ ''on'' gives way to _epanō_ ''on top
of''), and further decline in the dative case.

Chapter 6: Prepositions and cases in Medieval Greek (pp. 195-237)

With this chapter, B. is able to shed light on some particularly murky
territory. Medieval Greek has not received nearly as much scholarly attention as
Ancient or Modern Greek, largely because of the difficulties of establishing a
corpus that reflects real developments in the language. Nearly all Greek of this
period is subject to varying degrees of interference from the Classical
standard, so it is particularly challenging to work out whether a particular
prepositional use is still a living part of the language or just a learned habit
of the educated: diglossia, par excellence. Still, the situation is not
hopeless. B. shows that there is much to be gained by looking at some of the
more colloquial works, like the twelfth-century Ptochoprodromos poems, as well
as ''translations'' of higher-register works into more vernacular language, such
as a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century metaphrase of Anna Comnene's _Alexiad_ or
Sophianós' fifteenth-century metaphrase of Plutarch's _Peri paidōn agōgēs_. The
same trends continue and are now even more advanced. The dative case has fallen
into even greater disuse: the indirect object is now often marked by _eis_
(earlier illative ''(in)to''). Even the distinction between the genitive and
accusative after prepositions is now being lost, with the accusative gaining
ground as the default case after all prepositions. Further semantic mergers
between the older prepositions take place (_en_ ''in'', _pros_ + accusative
''towards'', _epi_ + accusative ''(on)to'', and _eis_ ''(in)to'' all collapse together
as _se_, the phonological outcome of _eis_), and new prepositions (like _konta_
''near'') are created in their place. Also important: most of the older
prepositions increasingly have only non-spatial uses, while the newer
prepositions are primarily spatial.

Chapter 7: Prepositions and cases in Modern Greek (pp. 238-301)

After discussing two theoretical problems with doing linguistic work on Modern
Greek (continued diglossia, and the difficulty of determining whether a given
shift in usage should be attributed to the Balkan Sprachbund), B. first looks at
the Modern Greek case system, the main feature being the complete loss of the
dative (apart from a few fossilized phrases). The bulk of the chapter, however,
covers the prepositions, in particular the proper analysis of the numerous
compound prepositions, as Greek has shifted from a system in which case marks
direction (''to'', ''from'', ''at''), and prepositions specify dimensionality (''on'',
''next to'', ''under'') to one in which all but the most basic spatial relations are
expressed with a compound, in which the first, adverbial element indicates
dimensionality, and the second element, a proper preposition (usually _apo_
''from'' or _se_ ''at, to'', but also sometimes _me_ ''with'' and _gia_ ''for''), plays
a role in some ways similar to that of case in the ancient system. Some first
elements occur exclusively with one second element (just as some of the ancient
prepositions occur with only one case), but others can occur with different
second elements depending on the nuance expressed (e.g. _panō se_ ''(up)on'' vs.
_panō apo_ ''above''). What is more, these compound prepositions, originally
purely spatial, have taken on abstract meanings in Modern Greek. Finally, B.
considers the fate of the ancient prepositions that have mostly died out in the
modern language, but occasionally still survive in limited contexts, showing
that the spatial uses are entirely defunct (and giving the modern equivalents)
and that it is only in figurative expressions that they survive at all.


All in all, this is an extremely impressive book. B.'s main point--that new
prepositions are created to mark spatial relations, gradually acquire
non-spatial meanings, then lose their original spatial meanings--is very
convincingly argued, and anyone interested in the grammaticalization of
prepositions (and case) will find it an indispensable source of examples.
Particularly noteworthy is the support for unidirectionality: in all his copious
data, B. finds no evidence that a preposition ever acquired spatial meanings
after starting out as a marker of a non-spatial relation. B.'s linguistic
breadth is also remarkable: it is clear, especially from the the first half of
the book, that he is extremely comfortable with scholarly literature on cases
and prepositions in a wide range of languages and time periods. Citations from
ancient Greek grammarians are to be expected, but Rabbinic writings and the
views of Leibniz rather less so.

That said, there are some shortcomings--which, let me hasten to add, I discuss
at length not because they represent serious flaws (they certainly do not), but
because they raise interesting points. For the most part, they are the
inevitable result of attempting a full-scale history of Greek prepositions,
combined with a generous theoretical introduction, all in only three hundred
pages. While his arguments for the localistic hypothesis, for instance, are on
the whole well-grounded, occasionally some of the rough edges have been smoothed
off a bit too much. In his table of the Ancient Greek ''proper'' prepositions (p.
117), he lists the commonest meanings of _dia_+accusative as ''all over; on
account of''. This misleadingly overstates the localist position, however, as the
spatial sense of _dia_+accusative is found only in poetry (LSJ s.v.). Another
oversimplification is his statement that, in the Classical age, ablatival
genitives are rare, whether with or without prepositions (p. 127, 146 n. 66).
This is certainly true of the use of the genitive on its own, as well as with
many prepositions (including those B. highlights in this connection, _kata_ and
_hupo_), but certainly not across the board: _apo_, _ek_, and _para_+genitive
are all used ablativally extremely frequently. Along the same lines, B., while
absolutely right to rehabilitate the improper prepositions, probably goes too
far in the other direction in downplaying the difference between them and their
older counterparts. He writes: ''[T]he supposedly immense difference between
'proper' and 'improper' prepositions is essentially a matter of age'' (p. 141).
Well, yes, but age matters: the difference between a case ending and a
postposition--or, indeed, the noun from which that postposition developed--is
also ''only'' a matter of age, but surely it remains useful to distinguish these

Another problem inevitable with attempting so broad a study on a historical
corpus is the necessary inclusion of texts from very different genres that can
and do use prepositions in very different ways. Now B. is clearly aware of this
pitfall and generally avoids it, but some misleading examples still slip in:
example 4.109 (p. 157) uses a line from Sophocles' _Antigone_ (1123-4) to
illustrate the fact that _para_+genitive (normally ''from'') could have the same
locative spatial sense that this preposition also has with the dative and
accusative. But this line is not only textually corrupt (some manuscripts have
the accusative singular rather than the genitive plural), but also occurs in a
choral ode--the sort of passage where the Athenian tragedians were particularly
prone to stretch language beyond its normal semantic and syntactic limits. (For
a general study of how the syntax of tragedy, including spatial use of the
dative and accusative cases, is different from that of prose, see Bers 1984.) It
is also strange that B. chooses to argue for the decline of _en_ ''in'' on the
basis of its occurring less often in the Hellenistic epic poet Apollonius of
Rhodes than in Homer (p. 193). True, Apollonius did model his language on
Homer's, but often by exaggerating archaic features, so his less frequent use of
_en_ could easily be due to his desire to avoid what in his eyes was a
comparatively prosaic preposition. (For Apollonius' archaizing use, relative to
Homer, of the preposition _hupo_+dative, see George 2005: 73-4.) This mixing of
evidence from different genres has wider implications when one looks at the
argumentation on pp. 147-9, where B. demonstrates the richness of the Ancient
Greek prepositional system by listing all the different Greek prepositions that
could express a single given prepositional phrase in English. At first glance,
it is impressive that he can give no fewer than nine equivalents for ''out of
fear''--and, indeed, his overall main point, that there was a lot of synonymy,
ripe for simplification, is certainly correct. But one wonders whether it
wouldn't also be possible to say the same of English (where one can act not just
''out of fear'', but also ''from'', ''in'', ''through'', ''with'', ''for'', or ''by fear'',
depending on various contextual factors)--especially if we do not just restrict
ourselves to 21st-century vernacular, but to all genres of poetry and prose from
the past five centuries. For, of the examples given by B., five come from poetic
texts, four from prose, and they range in time from the Iliad to Isocrates (4th
century BC).

Along the same diachronic lines, the exact timing of some of the shifts in usage
that B. notes might not always be clear to a reader who wasn't already familiar
with the basic history of Greek. Comparing pp. 145 and 156, we find that B.
takes the position that the semantic force of the cases governed by prepositions
is vigorous in Homer and much weaker in Classical Greek; this is indeed
eminently sensible. But it then seems odd that, in exx. 4.111 and 112 on p. 157,
he uses constructions with _peri_+dative and +accusative from *Homer* to
illustrate the ''broad synonymy between syntagms composed of _peri_''; the same
holds true of exx. 4.123 and 124, on p. 159, where Homeric examples of the
equivalence of _meta_+dative and +genitive are given. Now B.'s glossing of the
_peri_ examples makes clear that there is a difference between the two, but a
slightly more nuanced take on the Homeric prepositions (e.g. distinguishing
between those prepositions where it still made a significant semantic difference
which case was governed and those where it didn't) could have bolstered the
overall argument (the latter prepositions, like _meta_ and _peri_, in contrast
to _para_, were, it seems, particularly prone to cease construing with the
dative already in the Classical period).

A bit more discrimination in assessing the relative prevalence of various
prepositional usages would also have been useful in the list (p. 205) of
''proper'' prepositions found in Porphyrogenitus' _De administrando imperio_ (10th
century AD), with which B. illustrates the ''shrinking'' of the range of the older
prepositions in this period. Of the eighteen in Classical Greek, fifteen,
according to B.'s list, are still found, which already seems a rather small
drop. What is more, B. curiously omits two prepositions that *are* still found
in Greek of this time (_dia_ and _meta_), so the only real ''loss'' is _amphi_,
which was already absent from Isocrates, thirteen centuries earlier (see B.'s
chart on p. 122). Real evidence for the reduction of the proper-prepositional
options open to Porphyrogenitus thus only truly emerges from some of the
evidence presented later in the chapter (e.g. the fact that _huper_ was no
longer used in a spatial sense, as shown by the charts on p. 229).

There remains one final quibble: while he does provide translations, B. does not
transliterate or gloss the vast majority of his Greek examples--or, indeed, much
of the Hebrew. Whether or not one should do so is a tricky call and largely
depends on the audience one wishes to reach. After all, what is useful in a work
aimed at a wider community of linguists comes across as off-putting in one aimed
at classicists. But given B.'s interest in the big picture, a presentation more
like that of Horrocks 2010 or, even more relevant, Luraghi 2003 would perhaps
have been preferable. As it stands, linguists unfamiliar with Greek who wish to
use B.'s book are strongly advised to start with Luraghi's work--an admirable
introduction to the cases and prepositions of the ancient language--before
turning to B. for a splendid survey of what happens to those prepositions in the
centuries that follow. They will not be disappointed by the wealth of data that
Greek, from antiquity to the present, has to offer.


Bers, V. (1984) _Greek Poetic Syntax in the Classical Age_. New Haven.

George, C. H. (2005) _Expressions of Agency in Ancient Greek_. Cambridge.

George, C. H. (2010) ''Jewish and Christian Greek'', in _A Companion to the
Ancient Greek Language_, ed. E. J. Bakker, Malden, MA: 267-80.

Horrocks, G. C. (1981) _Space and Time in Homer: Prepositional and Adverbial
Particles in the Greek Epic_. New York.

Horrocks, G. C. (2010) _Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers_, 2nd
edn. Malden, MA.

LSJ = Liddell, H. G. and R. Scott, rev. H. S. Jones (1940) _A Greek-English
Lexicon_, 9th edn. Oxford.

Luraghi, S. (2003) _On the Meaning of Prepositions and Cases: The Expression of
Semantic Roles in Ancient Greek_. Amsterdam-Philadelphia.

Coulter H. George is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia and is the author of _Expressions of Agency in Ancient Greek_ (Cambridge University Press, 2005). His research interests include the syntax of the Greek verb, particles and prepositions, and contact phenomena between Greek and the other languages of the ancient Mediterranean. Currently, his main project is a book on expressions of time in Ancient Greek.

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ISBN: 0199556857
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