How principal are Greek principal parts?

I just finished adding the principal parts to the DCC ancient Greek core vocabulary list, something I meant to do last summer, but which got lost in the shuffle. So that’s done, and up. Phew. Anybody who has tried to learn ancient Greek knows what a big hurdle the principal parts are: absolutely essential, but a beastly task of brute memorization. I am here to say that, as one who focuses more on Latin than on Greek, I have to re-learn some of them on a regular basis if I want to read (or teach) Greek well. This is not the fun, life-affirming, profound, aesthetically enriching part of Greek. This is the boot camp, the weight-lifting one must do to get there.

The idea behind principal parts is to put in your hands, and hopefully in your brain, all the different stems of a verb, so that (theoretically) any declined form can be derived from, or traced back to, one of them. But of course it’s not quite that simple.

On the one hand, some verb forms and related things are extremely common, but not really directly derivable from the principal parts as they are traditionally presented. εἰκός, for example, is a very common participial form meaning “likely, plausible” that is not immediately apparent from the principal parts of ἔοικα. It’s in the dictionary, of course, but somewhat buried in the entry on ἔοικα.

On the other hand, many Greek verbs have principal parts whose stems are only very rarely employed. πέφασμαι, for example, is a perfect tense principal part of a very common verb, φαίνω. But forms derived from it are rare. πέφαγκα, another perfect form listed by Smyth among the “principal” parts is very rare indeed, with only seven attestations in the TLG, almost all of those from late antique grammarians and lexica. I guarantee you will never encounter it outside a grammar book.

Part of the problem here is that our apparatus for learning ancient Greek is largely derived from big, comprehensive, scientific grammars of the 19th century, and thus have a tendency to completism, rather than the conveying of what is most essential. This is a general problem that does not only affect the issue of principal parts.

Enter into this picture the database, specifically the TLG and its lemmatizer tool. This is the tool that attempts to determine from what dictionary head word (or lemma), a given form derives. I have complained elsewhere about the impotence of existing lemmatizers when it comes to determining the meaning of homographs–forms that are spelled the same but derive from different lemmas, or forms derived from a single lemma, but which could have more than one grammatical function. This is a serious and as yet unsolved problem when it comes to asking a computer to analyze a given chunk of Greek or Latin. And the homograph problem also substantially compromises frequency data based on machine-analyzed large corpora of Greek and Latin.

But one thing at which the lemmatizers are extraordinarily good–theoretically flawless– is telling how many occurrences of a certain word form there are in a given corpus. And by examining that data you can get in most cases a very accurate picture of how common are the forms derived from a particular stem or principle part in a Greek verb. In other words, the TLG Lemma Search (which is what I have been working with in making the principal parts lists for our site), helps us see more clearly than has ever been possible which principal parts of each verb are the most important, and which very common forms lie slightly outside the traditional lists of principal parts. It has the potential to make principal parts lists far more informative and helpful to the language learner even than the information found in Smyth, LSJ, or any of the current textbooks.

I can think of a couple ways in which TLG lemmatizer data could be used to enhance the presentation of Greek principal parts. One could, for example, have a second list of, say, the five most statistically common forms of a given verb. In the case of πάρειμι, for example, that would be the following (with the total raw occurrences in TLG as of today):

παρόντος (8587), παρόν (5406), παρόντα (4920), παρόντων (4442), παρόντι (3451)

In fact the top 10 or so are all participial. παρών παροῦσα παρόν: that’s what I call a principal part!

Another way to do it would be to print in bold the principal part from which the most forms derive, or even use a couple different font sizes to reflect how commonly used each principal part is. For σῴζω, save, the figures are (roughly) as follows σῴζω (8600) σώσω (1300), ἔσωσα (5500), σέσωκα (400), σέσωσμαι (700), ἐσώθην (8800). Interesting to see the aorist passive stem beat out the present stem. The top vote-getters in terms of forms are σωθῆναι, ἔσωθεν, σώζεται/σῴζεται, σῶσαι, and σῶσον.

People who are better at Greek and spend more time with large corpora and their analysis than I do have probably thought of all this long ago, and there may be some principal parts lists that incorporate some of this data. If so, I would love to hear about it.

Before closing I should give a huge thank you to Prof. Stephen Nimis from Miami University of Ohio and his collaborator Evan Hayes, whose principal parts list in their edition of Lucian’s A True Story (soon to be re-published on our site with extra features) was of great assistance as I was making our list. And I should mention here also the crucial help I have had all along with our Greek list from the great Wilfred Major, of Louisiana State University.




7 thoughts on “How principal are Greek principal parts?

  1. This is good stuff—I can’t tell you how often I cringe when I make sure that my students know principal parts that I’m not sure *I’ve* ever seen. I think this is an incredibly important principle for those thinking about writing a new textbook.

  2. You’re absolutely right, of course, that one source of this problem is a foolish insistence on completeness, which in turn is reinforced by the way our curricula are designed and how we teach. The urge to shove as much into the first year of Greek as possible and to prepare students to read any text at all from the whole corpus of ancient Greek in the second has some unfortunate outcomes. It means, for instance, that our first-year students learn a lot that they will either never need (πέφαγκα) or that they will need (πέφασμαι) but forget long before they encounter it in an actual Greek text. And our second-year students read most texts equally poorly because we’ve trained them to read no texts well because we’re thinking about the day far down the way when they read Pindar. Frequency data alone is not going to solve this. Throw Chaucer, Shakespeare, Gibbon and Rowling together into the same heap of data for English frequency along with a lot of other authors, and while the most frequent words (and, he, but, is) will surely be at the top of the list, the rest of it may not be the most useful way to acquire English vocabulary.

    It may also not be particularly useful to worry about frequency data among principal parts of individual verbs. You’re simply giving students more uncontextualized data to process. In other words, you’re replacing completeness (learn all these 6 principal parts, even though you won’t really need them all down the road) with confusion (you’ll need the 1st and 3rd principal parts of this verb because the other principal parts don’t exist but the 3rd and 6th of this verb even though the others do exist and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of this one–only depending on what you read, maybe not). One argument for the traditional method may be: “You are learning patterns here. If you assimilate them, you have a better chance of guessing at the dictionary form of an unfamiliar verb down the road.” I’m not sure how true that is, or whether it’s the best method for getting them to that point; I’m merely pointing out that this is not a very simple issue to get to the heart of.

    And whatever theory we’re going to follow needs to be tested through long and broad usage. After years of frustration about the ability of my students to retain such verbs in the core vocabulary list as μανθάνω, λαμβάνω, λανθάνω, and τυγχάνω, I started teaching them all together as a pattern. Worked great (as I saw it) for a few years, then I hit a class that, because they learned them all together, continually mixed them up, particularly λαμβάνω and λανθάνω (which may seem an obvious error, but it was never one I happened to notice students making to any great degree before). It makes no sense by whatever standard to include them in a generic list of “liquid stems” (because they aren’t liquid stems!), but that’s where we’ve put them and most other people put them. But does pulling them out and treating them more rationally and systematically actually help? Based on my experience, I think so, but I can’t be sure.

    I’ll stop rambling.

  3. Good points as usual, Stephen. The last thing we need to do is make things more complicated than they already are. Maybe the best use for this kind of information is for instructors, so they know what to emphasize and re-repeat.

  4. I definitely agree with the sentiment here to rethink principal parts in a pragmatic way for beginning and intermediate students of Greek. There are far more important things for students to use limited brain space on than principal parts.

    For what it is worth, Byron Stayskal and I have argued briefly in print that beginning students should focus on the first three parts, and then with verbs grouped by stem type (something similar to what Stephen Trzaskoma speaks about above). Rather than just repeat more of what we said, here’s the link:

    “Teaching Greek Verbs: A Manifesto” Teaching Classical Languages 3 (2011) 24-43
    (, esp. pp. 33-34

    We’d value feedback (dissenting or otherwise) on our take, since Chris has brought it up (and/or on anything else in the piece.

    And thanks once again to Chris for taking on and elucidating another critical area for students!

    best wishes,

    • Willie,
      Your piece resonates in several ways with some of the practices I’ve adopted over the last few years. For instance, about seven years ago I began to teach the middle and the passive very separately, and I’ve found that students have benefited from this approach. Principal parts remain problematic, and this is one issue where competing priorities are the cause of difficulties. Ideally, as I’ve come to think, we would emphasize principal parts 1, 3 & 6 (rather than, as you and others have suggested, 1, 2 & 3—if one teaches sound combinations well, as you’ve also emphasized, the 2nd is pretty easy for most verbs).

      But, of course, the great difficulty is that almost any text of ‘real’ classical Greek is likely not to present a nicely distributed set of verb (and noun/participle/adjective/etc.) forms. It’s all very well to say that the perfect is less common than the the present and aorist, but if students read the Apology, they’re going to hit that πεπόνθατε as the first finite verb they see no matter what, and οἶδα will be the second, and ἐπελαθόμην the third, and εἰρήκασιν the fifth. A student in the 19th century, having memorized all their principal parts (and having been beaten if he [always he] failed to do so), probably could have managed. How could we possibly prepare students for that without the beatings or the brute memorization. That’s the question. I’m not sure there’s a good answer yet.

  5. Just realized that the above makes it sound as though ἐπελαθόμην is perfect, which of course it’s not–my point was merely that aside from ἔλεγον, the initial verbs in the Apology are not going to be transparent to a student whose instructor has has given them thorough familiarity only with principal parts 1, 2, & 3 of verbs like λύω.

  6. In High School in Scotland I came to Greek four years after Latin, so I had to make up for that when I went and studied Classics at St Andrews University. I worked so hard at Greek and liked it so much that i became better at it (for a while) than Latin. But over the years my Latin has always been more secure.
    Even so, I always prided myself on my facility with Greek verbs, and I could rattle off the principal parts of almost any verb I was challenged with. I have been retired for 16 years (and not dead yet), and when I can’t sleep i review principal parts. To my horror I find myself floundering all too often. So my advice is: get some old nineteenth century grammar like Sonnenschein’s, and review your pp.’s daily. You;ll sleep better. Do you remember me, Stephen?

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