Thursday, March 05, 2015

That dratted digamma

I’m in the middle of editing a book and ran across the word ἀργός. Here’s the LSJ entry: ἀργός (B), όν, later ή, όν Arist.EN1167a11, Mete.352a13, Thphr.Lap.27, Ath.Mech.12.11, etc.: (contr. from ἀεργός)

And here's the BDAG entry: ἀργός, ή, όν (contr. fr. ἄεργος ‘without performance’, s. ἔργον; Aeschyl., Hdt. et al.; Herm. Wr. 11, 5; ins, pap, LXX; Philo; Joseph.; on the number of endings s. Nägeli 31; B-D-F §69, 1)

I didn’t think anything about it at first, but then I started wondering why it wasn’t ἀνεργός. Isn’t that what would have been expected? Isn’t it normal for the alpha privative before a vowel to use a nu as a glide?

By the way, there is also an uncontracted version of the word:
ἀεργός, όν, not working, idle, Il.9.320, Od.19.27, Hes.Op.303, Theoc.28.15, etc.; opp. ἐνεργός, Arte11: c. gen., not working out, not doing, ἔργων αἰσχρῶν ἀπαθὴς καὶ ἀ. Thgn.1177:—of things, inert, Aret.SD1.9. Adv. -γῶς PFlor.295.5 (vi A.D.).

The Homeric references should have clued me in, but I didn't see it until I referenced Smyth:

885. Several prefixes occur only in composition:

1. α᾽(ν)- (ἀν- before a vowel, ἀ- before a consonant; alpha privative) with a negative force like Lat. in-, Eng. un- (or -less): ἀν-άξιος unworthy (= οὐκ ἄξιος), ἀν-όμοιος unlike, ἀν-ώδυνος anodyne (ὀδύνη pain, cp. 887), ἄ-νους silly, ἄ-τι_μος unhonoured, ἄ-θεος godless, γάμος ἄγαμος marriage that is no marriage. ἀ- is also found before words once beginning with digamma or sigma: ἀ-ηδής unpleasant (ϝηδύς), ἀ-όρα_τος unseen (ϝοράω), ἄ-οπλος without shields (σοπλον), and, by contraction with the following vowel, ἄ_κων (ἀ-ϝέκων unwilling). But ἀν- often appears: ἀν-έλπιστος (and ἄ-ελπτος) unhoped for (ϝελπίς), ἄν-οπλος without shield.

Get it? I didn't at first. When I saw the "(ἀν- before a vowel, ἀ- before a consonant..." I thought, yes. But, look a bit further: "ἀ- is also found before words once beginning with digamma or sigma"

So? Well, ἔργον is cognate with English "work." See it? The "w" at the beginning! It's another case of the disappearing digamma! Oh the joys of etymology and phonology! Homer usually shows the remnants of the digamma by not contracting where later authors do contract.

I know. I'm crazy, but these kinds of things get me excited...

Update: I just realized that a lot (most?) of my readers—even those who know Greek—might not know what a digamma is...

The digamma was a letter in the Greek alphabet that represented the "w" sound. The sound itself dropped out of the Greek language relatively early. But it left remnants in the strangest places, especially in Homer and Hesiod, where uncontracted vowels abound. That's why I said that the occurrences in Homer should have alerted me to what was going on... Oh, the letter itself, which looks like a double gamma (hence the name, digamma) remained, but only as a numeral.

Does that help any? Or have you already written me off? Not sure I want you to answer that! : )

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