Origin and History of the Infinitive

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242. That the Greek infinitive was originally the dative of an abstract noun is proved by comparison with Sanskrit. "In the Veda and Brāhmaṇa a number of verbal nouns, nomίna actίοnίs, in various of their cases, are used in constructions which assimilate them to the infinitive of other languages—although, were it not for these other later and more developed and pronounced infinitives, the constructions in question might pass as ordinary case constructions of a somewhat peculiar kind" (Whitney, § 969). In the Veda these infinitives, or case forms on the way to become infinitives (werdende Infinitiνe, Delbr.), are mostly datives, expressing end or purpose, and several of them are identical in formation with Greek infinitives.

dâνane δοῦναι (δοϝεναι)

vidmane ϝίδμεναι

-dhyai -σθαι1

-ase -σαί.

In Greek, however, the dative ending -αι is not otherwise preserved, and the "true" dative construction is not applied to things (§ 143). Consequently, these forms stand quite apart from the case system, and have ceased to be felt as real case forms. Thus the Greek infinitive is a surνiνal, both in form and in construction, from a period when the dative of purpose or consequence was one of the ordinary idioms of the language. In Latin, again, this dative is common enough, and often answers in meaning to the Greek infinitive; compare (e.g.) ὥρη ἐστὶν εὕδειν with munitioni tempus relinquere (Roby, 1156), ἀμύνειν εἰσὶ καὶ ἄλλοι with auxilio esse, etc. The retention of the construction in Latin is connected, on the one hand with the fact that the Latin dative is a "true" dative, on the other hand with the comparatively small use that is made in Latin of the infinitive of purpose. Similarly in classical Sanskrit the Dative of Purpose etc., is extremely common, but the dative infinitives have gone entirely out of use (Whitney, § 287 and § 986)—a result of the "struggle for existence" which precisely reverses the state of things in Greek.

The growth of the Dative of Purpose into a distinct subordinate clause was favoured by the habit of placing it at the end of the sentence, after the verb, so that it had the appearance of an addition or afterthought. This was the rule in Vedic Sanskrit (see Delbrück, A. S., p. 25). It may be traced in Greek, not merely in collocations like ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι, etc., but even in such forms as

Il. 5.639 ἀλλʼ οἷόν τινά φασι βίην Ἡρακληείην
               (what they call him as to being)

where the infinitive appears to be added epexegetically after a slight pause: cp. Il. 2.249, 17.27, 21.463 and 570; Od. 1.233 and 377, 6.43, 17.416.

The development of the infinitival clause which we find in Greek and Latin may be traced chiefly under twο heads

  1. the construction of the accusative with the infinitive, by which the predication of the infinitive was provided with an expressed subject (§ 237)
  2. the system of tenses of the infinitive, which was gradually completed by the creation of new forms—especially the future infinitive, peculiar to Greek—and by the use of the present infinitive as equivalent in meaning to the present and imperfect indicative.

In the post-Homeric language the infinitive came to be used as an equivalent, not only for the indicative, but also for other moods. The use of the infinitive as an indeclinable noun is subsequent to Homer; it became possible with the later use of the article. Some of the conditions, however, out of which it grew may be traced in Homeric language. The first of these was the complete separation of the infinitive from the case system, so that it ceased to be felt as a case form, and could be used in parallel construction to the nominative or accusative.

Il. 2.453 τοῖσι δʼ ἄφαρ πόλεμος γλυκίων γένετʼ ἠὲ νέεσθαι

Il. 7.203 δὸς νίκην Αἴαντι καὶ ἀγλαὸν εὖχος ἀρέσθαι

Again, an infinitive following a neuter pronoun, and expressing the logical subject or object, easily came to be regarded as in apposition to the pronoun.

Od. 1.370 ἐπεὶ τό γε καλὸν ἀκουέμεν ἐστὶν ἀοιδοῦ

Od. 11.358-59 καί κε τὸ βουλοίμην, καί κεν πολὺ κέρδιον εἴη,
                        πλειοτέρῃ σὺν χειρὶ φίλην ἐς πατρίδʼ ἱκέσθαι

The only instance which really comes near the later "articular infinitive" is Od. 20.52 ἀνίη καὶ τὸ φυλάσσειν (§ 259). The use of the infinitive with an article in the genitive or dative is wholly post-Homeric.

  • 1. So Delbrück and others; but see Max Müller's Chips, vol. IV., p. 58.