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Expressing Degrees of Probability in Greek

Helma Dik

Grammars of Classical Greek note that the potential optative can be accompanied by a negative, resulting in 'total negation' (Gildersleeve §442), i.e., the statement that it is not possible that something might happen (as opposed to the statement that it is possible that something might not happen), as in the following well-known dictum of Heraclitus, 

(1)       δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.            

You cannot step into the same river twice.

which does not mean that there exists just a possibility that you might not step into that same river twice.

Further adverbs besides οὐ functioning in a similar manner, in that they express a speaker's or author's assessment of the probability of an event, have received little attention beyond a comment in Schwyzer-Debrunner (2.324), unaccompanied by illustration, which reads, in full, "[d]er Wahrscheinlichkeitsgrad kann durch Adverbia wie ἴσως, ep. ῥεῖα näher bestimmt werden" [the degree of probability can be specified further by adverbs such as ἴσως and epic ῥεῖα]. I shall return to ῥεῖα at the very end of this abstract. In the case of ἴσως, as well as τάχα (for which see Goodwin §221), there will be little disagreement that they can express probability. 

This paper, however, argues that in addition to these more familiar expressions of probability, the adverbs μᾶλλον, μάλιστα, πλεῖστα, and, on the low end of the scale, ἥκιστα and ἐλάχιστα can also indicate a (very) high or (very) low probability that an event takes place; and will show [not included in this abstract for reasons of space] that this possibility has often been overlooked by modern readers. In support, I first of all present examples in which we can exclude a degree (or extent, or frequency) interpretation with the predicate. Consider the following example, in which I leave μάλιστα untranslated for the moment (Dem. 19.316):

(2)       συνέγραψε δ’ ἐπιστολὴν ὡς ὑμᾶς, ᾗ μάλιστ’ ἂν ᾤετο τῆς εἰρήνης τυχεῖν.

            He [Philip] wrote a letter to you with which he thought he would μάλιστα obtain the peace treaty.

Since obtaining a peace treaty is not a matter of degree, but a matter of either-or, I believe that Philip is described as thinking that he was most likely to obtain a peace treaty.

Similarly, in (3) below, slavery is not a matter of degree (Thuc. 3.71.1):

(3)       δράσαντες δὲ τοῦτο καὶ ξυγκαλέσαντες Κερκυραίους εἶπον ὅτι ταῦτα καὶ βέλτιστα εἴη καὶ ἥκιστ’ ἂν δουλωθεῖεν ὑπ’ Ἀθηναίων..           

After they had taken these measures they called the Corcyraeans together and told them that this was all for the best, and that now they would be least likely to be enslaved by the Athenians..

In somewhat more technical terms, I conclude that these adverbs, rather than having narrow scope over the predicates ('obtain', 'enslave'), have a broader scope which includes the modality of the utterance.

A final note on ῥεῖα 'easily'. As Schwyzer-Debrunner already pointed out, it too, despite having quite different semantics, also fits this general description, as in Hom. Il. 17.70-71:

(4)       ἔνθά κε ῥεῖα φέροι κλυτὰ τεύχεα Πανθοΐδαο

            Ἀτρεΐδης, εἰ μή οἱ ἀγάσσατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,..

Easily then would Atreus' son have carried off the glorious armor of the son of Panthous, if Phoebus Apollo had not begrudged it him, ... (tr. Murray)

This translation is somewhat ambiguous. One could paraphrase with "it could easily have happened that.." as well as with "he could easily have carried off..". I opt for the former. The same ambiguity (is the manner in which something happens in question, or the likelihood for it to happen) is found in many other languages, including English (compare "I could easily see the Cubs beat the White Sox" vs. "The Cubs beat the White Sox easily"). Just as a grammar of English needs to account for the behavior of 'easily', a grammar of Greek needs to properly describe the interaction of verbal modality with adverbial expressions. 

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Greek Language and Linguistics

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