“Just Enough” Greek: Speaking about This and That, with Leonard Muellner

is the public presentation [apo-deixis] of the inquiry [historia] of Herodotus of Halikarnassos, with the purpose of bringing it about that whatever results from men may not, with the passage of time, become evanescent, and that great and wondrous deeds—some of them publicly performed [apo-deik-numai ] by Hellenes, others by barbarians—may not become akleā [= without kleos]. In particular [this apodeixis of this historiā concerns] why (= on account of what cause [aitiā]) they entered into conflict with each other.

Herodotus, Histories, 1.prooimion.1–5
(revision of translation by G. Nagy, Greek text via Perseus Digital Library)

Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

Key Concept: Pointing in Performance — Demonstratives in Ancient Greek

In the passage above, Herodotus uses the words apo-deixis and apo-deik-numai to describe the public performance of his history and the publicly performed deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians. Both words share a root that means something like ‘demonstrate, point, perform.’  This same root appears in our English word ‘deixis’, which modern linguists use to describe words and phrases whose meanings are incomplete and shifting depending on the context in which they occur. As we are about to see, when Herodotus points to his work with the demonstrative pronoun ‘hēde, [ἥδε] this’, he is sharing important information about his relationship to his performance and its context.

Pronouns are words that take the place of another noun. ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘them’, and ‘it’, are all examples of pronouns.  Some words, such as ‘this’ and ‘that’, point toward things in space and time and can function either as pronouns or adjectives. These pointing words are sometimes called demonstratives and they are some of the most common words you will find when you look at ancient Greek texts. Even though they occur frequently, these words can be loaded with meaning, so learning a bit about how they work can be very rewarding.

But to understand demonstratives, it’s also important to know one other basic fact: Greek is an inflected language. This means the spelling or form of a word can change to express the function of that word in the sentence. For example, the beginning or ending of a word can signal if the word is a subject or object in the sentence, or if the grammatical gender of a noun or adjective is masculine, feminine, or neuter. So if a pronoun replaces or points back to a man (or a noun that is grammatically masculine), then the speaker uses a pronoun that is masculine and singular. And if the pronoun is the subject of the sentence, the speaker will choose a particular form of the pronoun, one that would help to signify this fact.

In ancient Greek, demonstratives also signal important information about the relationship of a word to the speaker. In this system, specific demonstratives are correlated with persons of the verb in the sentence–that is, the ‘I’ speaker, the ‘you’ person or people being directly addressed, and others further away.

Masc.         Fem.           Neut.         Correlated Person

ὅδε             ἥδε             τόδε           ‘this’ of an “I”, 1st person, the speaker of the sentence,
οὗτος         αὕτη           τοῦτο         ‘this’ of “you”, 2nd person, the person(s) being addressed
ἐκεῖνος       ἐκείνη          ἐκεῖνο        ‘that’ of a 3rd person or thing not immediately present

This system allows the speaker to make connections with people and things in the most beautiful ways.

Below is a brief video tutorial, in which Professor Leonard Muellner of Brandeis University presents an accessible introduction to ancient Greek demonstratives. Muellner first clearly defines demonstratives. He then explains the simple three-part demonstrative system outlined above, which was first described by Egbert Bakker.

Video Tutorial: Demonstratives in Ancient Greek, with Leonard Muellner

You may download  a transcript of this video: H25_Demonstratives_in_Ancient_Greek_Muellner (PDF)


Can you find other passages in our readings where this three-part system of demonstratives helps us to “read out” of the text more effectively?

Further Reading and Viewing on this Topic 

In the passage above, Herodotus uses ἥδε ‘this’ to point to his inquiry or “history.” For more on this passage and the performance of Herodotus, see Nagy’s analysis in Chapter 8 of Pindar’s Homer.

For more on demonstratives, see Pointing at the Past by Egbert Bakker and Homer’s Versicolored Fabric by Anna Bonifazi.

In Herodotus, pointing and indicating are often closely related to signs and seeing. For a full-length study of signs in Herodotus, see The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus’ Histories, by Alexander Hollmann.

To learn more about current efforts to visualize geographic data in Herodotus, watch “Classics, Geography and Computing with Elton Barker“.

Ancient Greek for All Tutorials

Would you like to explore masterpieces such as the Iliad and Odyssey in the original Greek, but don’t have time to the learn the language? Many members of our community who have never studied ancient Greek are using online resources to go “beyond translation” and explore words or passages in the original language. Tools available through the Perseus Digital Library can automatically define and “parse” words to tells us if they are nouns or verbs, singular or plural, masculine or feminine. We recently shared a video tutorial with Professor Joel Christensen in which he helps us decode the information available through these tools and in ancient Greek dictionaries. With these online resources and with a basic understanding of how the ancient Greek language works, everyone can begin “reading out” of original texts to learn more about ancient Greek society and institutions. Our “Ancient Greek for All Tutorials” are intended to facilitate these first steps beyond translation by presenting key concepts in the use of the ancient Greek language.