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The Present and Aorist Imperative in (Inter)action: Commands and Politeness in Menander

Peter Barrios-Lech

University of Massachusetts Boston

A more refined understanding of Greek word order, address terms, and directives:  these are some fruits of recent work belonging to a “21st Century Philology” (Dik 1995, 1996; Dickey 1996, Denizot 2011; Goldstein 2015: 695 for the term). Such scholarship makes use of inferential statistics and insights from relatively new fields in linguistics to analyze extensive and carefully gathered data. Inspired by this scholarly method, the present paper focuses on the Greek aorist and present imperative.  Thus, basing itself on a corpus of all directives (commands and requests) in Menander (851 forms total), and making use of inferential statistics, the paper presents two results.  First, the aorist imperative was more peremptory than the present imperative.  That is, on the whole, ποιήσαι (“do!”) had a more commanding tone than ποίει (“do!”) in the Greek of Menander’s time.  This had already been suggested by Sicking (1991b: 166) for Classical Greek, but this paper offers statistical confirmation based on an extensive dataset.  Second, taking again a quantitative approach, the paper shows that women, relatively powerless compared to men in New Comedy, do not avoid the aorist imperative, which we might have expected, given the commanding tone of ποιήσαι.  Rather, what we do see is that women, and socially subordinate characters generally, soften their imperatives with mitigators like εἰ σοὶ δοκεῖ (“if it’s alright with you) and ἱκετεύω σε (“please”) more often than do the authoritative characters, the free men (young and old men).

One main argument, together with an ancillary consideration, shows that the aorist imperative has the more commanding tone. First, present imperatives (299 total in Menander) are softened 3.4% of the time, while aorist imperatives (225 total) are softened 14.4% of the time.  The z-test shows that the difference is significant:  speakers were probably more likely to soften an aorist rather than a present imperative (Butler 1985: 92-95 has a description of the z-test).  The reason that aorist imperatives were mitigated more often was because they had the more commanding tone; that is, they were felt to require such softening.  Ancillary confirmation results from analysis of the prohibitions with the present (μὴ φέρε) and the aorist stems (μὴ ἐνέγκης). Of the thirty-eight total instances of μὴ φέρε in Menander, five are softened, representing a proportion of 13.2%.  Of the thirteen total instances of μὴ ἐνέγκης, five also are softened (38.5%).  The z-test indicates a tendency for μὴ ἐνέγκης to select softeners in preference to μὴ φέρε.  Thus, as with the aorist imperative, so, too, the prohibition “μὴ ἐνέγκης,” presumably because more abrupt, receives softeners more often than “μὴ φέρε.”

As mentioned above, one might have assumed that women in Menander, being on the whole less dominant figures, avoid the aorist imperative.  While that is not the case, two findings will show that less dominant characters do soften imperatives – whether aorist or present – more often than authoritative ones. 

First, women soften present imperatives nearly four times as often as do men (Bain’s [1984: 32-42], an earlier study, had focused not on imperatives or their modifiers in female speech but on vocatives and exclamations).

Second, the courtesan, the soldier (often a foreign mercenary) and the concealed courtesan are most polite in the world of Menander’s comedy. That is, they soften imperatives – whether present or aorist – most often.  Thus, the courtesan employs, on average, 44 softeners per 100 imperatives, followed by the soldier, who mitigates commands at a rate of 25.8 softeners per 100 imperatives, then the concealed courtesan (25 softeners per 100 imperatives).  Young men (13 softeners per 100 imperatives) and old men (9.2/100) are least polite.  From these data, we conclude that Menander’s soldier presents a “deliberate inversion of the type” (Barsby 1999: 157), for in his more polite speech he resembles female characters.

With these findings, the paper hopes to contribute to recent work addressing the “sociolinguistic” dimension of Classical Greek.

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Linguistic Strategies and the Hermeneutics of Reading

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