A Warning for Linguists—Keith Slater Babel Vol I, No 2 Contents The Semantics and Pragmatics of Voice Systems: A Functional Analysis by Carrie Cameron (Review)—Zoltan Lazar

Greek Particles

Two facts well-known to linguists for many years are that Ancient Greek orthography represented speech much more closely than does modern English orthography, or practically any other modern European orthography, and that speech, unlike writing, is full of hesitations, false starts, and meaningless expletive utterances which are not recorded in writing. For instance, In English, a typical spoken text might be:

  1. Well, it’s the, umm... you know, the one that, uh, you got from the store across the street.
We can make a number of interesting observations about the meaningless expletives in the above and in similar texts, of which the interested reader can collect many more examples, if he is so inclined. The comments in this paper are based on a collection of 327 naturally occurring English texts ranging from 3 seconds to 118 seconds in length. The first observation concerns the syntactic positions in which such expletives occur. In brief, expletives occur immediately before major syntactic constituents, or immediately following the first word of a major constituent. Thus, we often find particles inserted at the beginning of an utterance, or after the first word, as in (2) and (3) below; at the beginning of a noun phrase, or after the article, as in (4) and (5); or at other constituent boundaries, as in (6) and (7).
  1. Ahh.. no, I don’t think so.
  2. John, um, went to Liberia yesterday.
  3. Hildegarde swallowed, yeah, an entire disk drive.
  4. Did he surrender the...wha...fish?
  5. Eric and the man with no nose...uhh...slew the werewolf with a bazooka.
  6. There’s a situation with, you know, the ringmaster.
Of course, expletives can be inserted at many points during one speech utterance, and may be iterated at any of these points, as seen in (1) above. In fact, sometimes so many expletives are used that the entire communicative function of speech fails. Consider example (8), taken from the Watergate tape transcripts submitted by the Nixon White House to the independent counsel. The conversants are discussing the advisability of paying hush money to the burglars.
  1. NIXON: But then we’d have a problem with the...with the...
    HALDEMAN: Umm, yeah, umm...
    MITCHELL: Ahh, what, ah...what about...ah, the...?
    NIXON: ...with the...with the...
    DEAN: Only, the question is, you know, umm, how much...
    MITCHELL: That is, if, that is, you know—
    NIXON: ...with the...with the...
    DEAN: ...I mean, um, how much...
    HALDEMAN: Umm, yeah, um...
    ERLICHMAN: What?
    NIXON: Huh?
    DEAN: Oh.
Obviously, there is much more to say about the syntactic positioning of expletives (in the non-pejorative linguistic sense, not the sense of the Watergate tape transcripts, although examination of this second type of expletive might also prove an interesting topic). For the purposes of this paper, let it suffice to say that expletives are fairly common in speech, and that they occur in the positions specified above.

We turn now to Ancient Greek, a language much studied but still not perfectly understood, neither by philologists nor by linguists working with more modern theories of language. Let us consider a text often presented to first year students of Greek; it is part of a passage adapted from Xenophon’s Anabasis and reproduced on page 70 of Crosby and Schaeffer’s introductory textbook.

   9. entautha oun theōrhiā   ēn tēs  Kūrou stratiās. 
review   was the  Cyrus army 

        kai prōton men  parēlaunon hoi barbaroi. 
first  paraded the foreigners. 

A typical student, called on to translate the text, is likely to respond as follows:

  1. Lemme see...um...there was a review of Cyrus’ army...and...first...ahh...the foreigners marched by.
Such a translation would draw a reprimand from the instructor, who, with a haughty sneer, would inform the hapless student that the correct translation is as follows:
  1. Thereupon, accordingly, there was a review of Cyrus’ army.
    And first on the one hand the foreigners paraded.
The perspicacious reader will have already figured out where this paper is headed (aside from oblivion). It is obvious, when we consider that Xenophon did not write down his work himself, but rather dictated it, that it is the student rather than the instructor who has translated the text most faithfully. No one, in speech, says things like, “Thereupon, accordingly, indeed, on the one hand, they pitched camp; and then on the next day also likewise they arose indeed and accordingly marched ten stades.” But everyone says things like, “So, um, ah, un...they pitched camp; and, well, the next day...ah, you know, they got up, um, and, ah, marched ten stades.”

What more need I say here? It is obvious that for hundreds of years classicists have misinterpreted the meaning of Greek particles. Most, if not all of them, have no meaning whatsoever. It may be possible to distinguish between particles deriving from words with semantic import: English you know and Greek entautha serve as examples of expletives in this class, unlike English uh or Greek de and gar, which are plainly utterly meaningless. Yet whether this division is sensible is questionable, since it might imply that there is more meaning to the semantically derived particles than synchronic analysis would allow. Clearly, there is more research to be done, but the fundamental facts are now clear.

R.S. Sriyatha Bombay, India

A Warning for LinguistsKeith Slater
The Semantics and Pragmatics of Voice Systems: A Functional Analysis by Carrie Cameron (Review)Zoltan Lazar
Babel Vol I, No 2 Contents