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The Origin of Homeric ΒΗ Δ’ ΙΕΝΑΙ: A Serial Verb Construction in Greek?

Anthony Yates

The Homeric poems admit a set of relatively fixed collocations βῆ δ’ ἴμεναι, βῆ δ’ ἴμεν and βῆ δ’ ἰέναι, which vary in person and number (3rd s. βῆ, 1st s. βῆν, 3rd pl. βάν) and contain either the particle δέ or ῥα, as well as several closely related, less common expressions with other infinitives of verbs of motion: θέειν ‘to run’, ἐλάαν ‘to drive’, and (uncertain) νέεσθαι ‘to go [home]’. The syntactic behavior of the infinitive in these collocations defies explanation in the traditional terms of Greek grammar (cf. Létoublon 1985:127f., with lit.), functioning neither as a verbal complement nor as an ‘infinitive of purpose’, the latter interpretation (viz. ‘he went to go...’) yielding only semantic pleonasm when no destination or goal is specified, as is often the case.

This paper offers a new proposal, arguing that the collocation βῆ δ’ ἰέναι is a ‘transformation’ of the imperatival sequence βάσκ’ ἴθι which, in turn, directly continues an early Greek ‘quasi-serial verb construction’ (or QSV, in the terms of Pullum (1990)). It will be shown that βάσκ’ ἴθι meets the definitional requirements of a (quasi-)serial verb construction, including, crucially, monoclausality. This proposal finds support in the rapidly growing body of evidence for similar constructions in the ancient Indo-European languages: Hittite (van den Hout 2003, 2010), Vedic (Hock 2002, 2012), Latin (Fortson 2008: 41, 200), and even Greek itself (Il.3.192 εἶπ’ ἄγε μοι ‘Come tell me’) offer examples of serial verb-like syntagms in which the monoclausality of the two verbs is confirmed by prosodic evidence. In view of the clear interrelationship in Homeric epic between βάσκ’ ἴθι and βῆ δ’ ἰέναι on syntactic (cf. Watkins 1975: 96-97), semantic, lexical, and metrical grounds, it is suggested that βάσκ’ ἴθι provided the impetus for the creation of βῆ δ’ ἰέναι, specifically in the context of a face-to-face dialogic exchange between two speakers. This process has a close parallel in the development of the syntactically and semantically similar Modern English QSV (informally, the go get construction); according to Zwicky (2003), the special syntactic restrictions on this construction owe to its imperatival origin, from which it was subsequently extended to the indicative. It is therefore proposed that the similarly anomalous syntax of βῆ δ’ ἰέναι results from the conflicting need to preserve lexical identity with βάσκ’ ἴθι while satisfying the morphosyntactic requirements of (quasi-)serial verb constructions.

Session/Panel Title

Greek and Latin Linguistics

Session/Paper Number

28.3

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