Homeric Language Notes

By Rob Hardy

Note: more detailed explanations of Homeric grammar can be found using Monro’s Homeric Grammar.

1. Paradigms. To review paradigms of Homeric adjectives, nouns, participles, pronouns, and verbs, see the DCC Homeric Paradigms pages.

2. Unaugmented Verb Forms. Verbs in the imperfect and aorist often appear without an initial augment. This frequently changes the accent. For example: λεῖπε (9.338) = ἔλειπε, the 3rd singular imperfect active indicative of λείπω. Occasionally an imperfect form will appear identical to a present form (for example: βαίνομεν, 11.5). The historical present is absent in Homer (Smyth 1883), so these must always be treated as imperfects when they occur in the narration of past events.

3. Infinitive Used as an Imperative (Smyth 2013, Monro 241, Palmer 154). The infinitive is frequently used in place of an imperative in the 2nd person.

4. Infinitives Ending in -μεν and -μεναι. For example: ἀκουέμεν (9.3) for ἀκούειν, and παυέμεναι (10.22) for παύειν.

5. The Homeric τε (Smyth 2970, Monro 331, Palmer 176). The particle τε often appears in subordinate clauses, where it is usually postpositive, and should not be translated. According to Smyth, it merely shows that there is a connection between the relative clause and the preceding clause. According to Palmer, it denotes “habitual (natural, expected) action.” For example:

σχέτλιοι, οἳ ζώοντες ὑπήλθετε δῶμ᾽ Ἀίδαο,

δισθανέες, ὅτε τ᾽ ἄλλοι ἅπαξ θνῄσκουσ᾽ ἄνθρωποι (12.21–22)

You wretches, who descended alive to the house of Hades,

Twice-dead, when other humans die once.

Here, the temporal clause (ὅτε τ᾽ ἄλλοι ἅπαξ θνῄσκουσ᾽ ἄνθρωποι) expresses what is usually the case.

6. κεν for ἄν. κεν or κε (κ᾽ in elision) is the usual particle in Homer used to mark a statement as conditional or potential, where ἄν would be used in Attic. ἄν is also used in Homer, most frequently in negative sentences after οὐ or οὐκ (Smyth 1763, Monro 362, Palmer 178).

7. Uncontracted Forms. Words that are normally contracted in Attic are frequently uncontracted in Homer. For example, ἀρόωσιν (> ἀρόω) for the contracted Attic ἀρῶσιν (9.108). (Monro 105, 378)

8. Distinctive Case Endings

1st Declension:

genitive singular masculine -αο or -εω

genitive plural: -άων or -έων

dative plural: -ῃσι(ν) or -ῃς

2nd Declension:

genitive singular: -οιο

dative plural: -οισι(ν)

3rd Declension

dative plural: -εσσι(ν)

9. ὁ, ἡ, τό as Demonstrative Pronoun, 3rd Person Personal Pronoun, and Relative Pronoun (Smyth 1100–1105, Monro 256–261, Palmer 136-138). The definite articles ὁ, ἡ, and τό are regularly used as demonstrative pronouns (“this”) and as the personal pronoun of the 3rd person. This use of the article is common when there is a change of subject. For example:

ὣς ἐφάμην, δέ μ᾽ οὐδὲν ἀμείβετο … (9.287)

So I spoke, but he made no reply …

The articles are also used in place of a relative pronoun when the antecedent is definite (Smyth 1105).

10. A Note on Some Particles.

ἄρα, ἄρ᾽, ἄρ, ῥα, ῥ᾽: “now, then, next, thus” (Smyth 2789, Palmer 173). In Attic Greek, ἄρα has three main uses: (1) transitional, “then,” “next,” “and,” (2) consequential , “then,” “so then,” (3) and epexegetical, “thus,” “that is to say.” Smyth says that, in Homer, ἄρα often defies exact translation, but is generally used to mark “immediate connection and succession, a natural consequence of something already said or done; gives an explanation of an antecedent statement; or is used in recapitulations and transitions.” Palmer says that it “signifies ‘interest’ and ‘excitement’ of every kind, whether in the novel, the unexpected, the disappointing, etc.” If translated, ἄρα’s meaning will depend on context. Sometimes “believe it or not” or “check it out!” seems most appropriate; for example:

οὔτ᾽ ἄρα ποίμνῃσιν καταΐσχεται οὔτ᾽ ἀρότοισιν (9.122)

[the land of the Cyclopes] is occupied—believe it or not—neither by flocks nor by plowed fields…

As Palmer says, ἄρα points out something interesting to the reader or listener.

τοι: “certainly, exactly, really, look, believe me” (Smyth 2984–2986, Monro 346, Palmer 177). The particle τοι may have its origin in the dative of interest (> σύ). It is often to be rendered with the tone of voice. It most commonly appears in speeches and is used when the speaker wants the listener to remember something or pay particular attention (“listen up!).

11. A Note on Relative Clauses (Smyth 2488–2573, Monro 271–272). Relative clauses have either a definite or an indefinite antecedent.

a. Definite Relative. The antecedent is a particular, definite person, place, or thing. For example: οὐ γὰρ ἐάσει φάρμακον ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι δώσω (“For the good drug, which I will give to you, will not allow it,” 10.291–292). Here, the antecedent is a particular thing. 

b. Indefinite Relative. The antecedent is indefinite. It may refer to a class or something in general. For example: οὐ γάρ μοι θέμις ἐστὶ κομιζέμεν οὐδ᾽ ἀποπέμπειν / ἄνδρα τόν, ὅς κε θεοῖσιν ἀπέχθηται μακάρεσσιν (“For it is not permitted for me to rescue or send off a man who is hateful to the blessed gods,” 10.73–74). Here, although the statement applies specifically to Odysseus, it also has a more general force: it is not permitted to rescue any man, including Odysseus. Indefinite relative clauses like the one in this example have a verb in the subjunctive (with or without ἄν or κε), and have conditional force (hence the term, sometimes used, “conditional relative”). In the example given above, the relative clause could be recast as the protasis of a condition: “if he is hated by the blessed gods.”

12. Anastrophe (Smyth 175, Monro 180). In Homer, some propositions can follow the noun they modify, usually with a shift in accent. For example, Κικόνων ὕπο (9.66) for ὑπὸ Κικόνων.

13. Tmesis (Smyth 1650). Frequently compound verbs, composed of a verb and a prepositional prefix, will be “split,” that is, the preposition will be detached, and another word or words will intervene between it and the verb to which it belongs: ἐπὶ κνέφας ἦλθε (9.168), “dusk came on,” for κνέφας ἐπῆλθε. Many scholars (including Smyth) deny that tmesis occurs in Homer and argue that the prepositions which appear to be in tmesis are actually to be treated as adverbs. In this commentary, for ease of translation if nothing else, tmesis will be recognized and noted.


Monro, D.B. A Grammar of the Homeric Dialect. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891. Digitized at DCC.

Palmer. L.R. “The Language of Homer.” In A.J.B. Wace and F.H. Stubbings, A Companion to Homer. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Smyth H.W. Greek Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920. Digitized at the Perseus Project

Suggested Citation

Rob Hardy, "Homeric Language Notes," in Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 9-12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 20122. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7. https://dcc.dickinson.edu/homer-odyssey/intro/homeric-language-notes