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Distinguishing between concrete and abstract nouns: a terminological innovation in Herodian?

Stephanie Roussou

University of Oxford

Statement of purpose

This paper will lay out the terminological system used to distinguish between concrete and abstract nouns in Pseudo-Arcadius’ Epitome of Herodian’s Περὶ καθολικῆς προσῳδίας (‘On prosody in general’), and show that this system is fundamentally different from those found in other Greek grammatical texts.

Previous literature

One of the main features attributed to nouns is their quality of being either concrete or abstract. One of the terms that comes up in contexts where there is a need to distinguish between concrete and abstract nouns is οὐσία. The background to the use of this term is the Aristotelian tradition on the definition of ὄνομα (see further Schoemann 1862, 81, Steinthal 1891, 237–43, and more recently Matthaios 1999, 211–12).

Summary of the argumentation and Examples to be used in the argumentation

(i) The usage of the term οὐσία in Pseudo-Arcadius’ Epitome

In Pseudo-Arcadius’ Epitome the term οὐσία is consistently used for the sort of entity that concrete nouns denote, while the sort of entity that abstract nouns denote can be called a πρᾶγμα or ‘not an οὐσία’. There are five passages in this Epitome where we find a distinction between concrete and abstract nouns. For example:

(1) 34.14–17 (Schmidt) Τὰ εἰς -νις διβράχεα προσηγορικὰ ὀξύνεται, κατ’ οὐσίας κείμενα -α- ἢ -ο- παραλήγοντα· ῥανίς, χλανίς, σανίς, ὀνίς, κονίς (τὸ ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς), κόνις δὲ τὸ χῶμα. σπάνις καὶ φρόνις οὐκ ἐπὶ οὐσίας.

(‘Common nouns ending in -νις and consisting of two short syllables are oxytone, when they denote an οὐσία and have Α or Ο in their penultimate syllable, e.g. ῥανίς (‘drop’), χλανίς (‘upper-garment of wool’), σανίς (‘board’), ὀνίς (‘ass’s dung’), κονίς (‘louse egg’) (that which is on the head), but κόνις the earth. σπάνις (‘scarcity’) and φρόνις (‘prudence’) do not denote an οὐσία’).  

(ii) The terms used by other grammatical texts to distinguish between concrete and abstract nouns

At first sight, Pseudo-Arcadius’ system shares the use of the term οὐσία with other grammatical texts in which concrete and abstract nouns are distinguished, but the term turns out to occupy a quite different place in the system. For example, passage (2) distinguishes between the kinds of entities denoted by concrete and abstract nouns with the terms αἰσθητὴ οὐσία (‘a being perceived through the senses’) and νοητὴ οὐσία (‘a being perceived through thought’):

(2) Scholia to Dionysius Thrax Vat. i.iii 217.2–3 (Hilgard) «σῶμα ἢ πρᾶγμα σημαῖνον», τουτέστιν οὐσίαν αἰσθητὴν ἢ νοητήν.

(‘‘signifying a σῶμα or πρᾶγμα’, that is to say a being perceived through the senses or a being perceived through thought’).

In passage (2), by contrast with (1), the term οὐσία does not independently signify the kind of entity denoted by a concrete noun. By itself the term signifies the entity denoted by any noun, and to signify the entity denoted by a concrete noun it needs an additional qualification. Pseudo-Arcadius, moreover, contrasts with all our other ancient Greek scholars in the place that the term οὐσία occupies in the system for distinguishing between concrete and abstract nouns. For Pseudo-Arcadius nouns denote an οὐσία if they are concrete or a πρᾶγμα (or ‘not an οὐσία’) if they are abstract. For other ancient scholars who use the term οὐσία in connection with nouns, all nouns denote an οὐσία: concrete nouns denote one type of οὐσία whereas abstract nouns denote another.

The paper will include a discussion of the terms used in philosophical texts to distinguish between concrete and abstract nouns and of the ways in which other Greek grammarians use the term οὐσία in other contexts.

Finally, we will consider the origins of Pseudo-Arcadius’ system: does it go back to Herodian, and how did it come about in the first place?

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Language and Linguistics

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