Help with Advanced Greek: Smyth’s Greek Grammar

You passed intro Greek! Now you’re ready to do some reading. And the world has something to throw at you: nonstandard spelling, a bunch of dialects, unaugmented perfects, and a cartload of forms that don’t show up in textbooks. Even with a student edition of a text, you might find yourself lost. This is when you want to find yourself a Smyth. 

What is “a Smyth”? Smyth was the editor of Greek Grammar, which is the most widely-used classical Greek grammar book.

picture of smyth's greek grammar

Smyth, in all its red-bound glory

If you’re thinking But I have a textbook — why do I need a grammar?, you’re not alone: they’re somewhat similar, and both are expensive on a student budget. But there are a few key differences between a textbook and a grammar.

  1. A textbook is meant to teach Greek; a grammar collects the permutations of Greek. Textbooks are necessarily selective. It’s rare that they offer a list of every exception to every rule (the very comprehensive Learn to Read Greek is an exception). Smyth is (mostly) comprehensive, with the caveat that the edition I have was last updated in 1984, so can’t take account of recent discoveries.
  2. A textbook is meant to teach Greek. That means it explains things. Smyth assumes you already know Greek. It’s for when you really want to be able to say that this verb takes the genitive, but the dictionary says it only takes the accusative. Or that the lack of ἄν doesn’t submarine your interpretation of this optative.
  3. A textbook is meant to teach Greek (I hope the repetition isn’t too obvious). It expects you to read it all the way through, with chapter 5 building on chapters 1-4, chapter 6 building on chapters 1-5, etc. Smyth doesn’t expect that at all. This is a reference tool. Reading Smyth from start to finish is like reading the dictionary.
  4. Textbooks are primarily grammar aids: they introduce forms and some syntax (that is, they tell you how to combine forms to make meaning). Smyth offers a complete grammar, in that he offers full verb paradigms for selected verbs. But he’s even more useful for syntax: that is, if you ever need to reconstruct a (classical Athenian prose) Greek sentence, Smyth is your best guide to do it.

So now that we’re clear on why you might need more than a textbook, let’s take a look at the book itself. (And yes, it is a book: even the online version of Smyth is just a scanned copy of the first edition.)

Probably the first reason you’d consult Smyth is because someone else cited it. It’s relatively common practice in student editions, and you can even find it in journal articles:

page 549 of classical world 103 citing smyth

From R. Baker, _CW_ 103 (2010):529

In the article “The Accentuation of Greek Enclitics,” Renan Baker cites several Greek reference works; he’s been nice and given you both the page number (42) and the section number (183) for Smyth. Typically, Smyth is cited just by reference number. If you go to page 183, you will not find anything about enclitics –that page is dedicated to periphrastic verb forms. But if you thumb through to section 183, you find yourself in accentuation.

 

smyth section 183

What you’ll notice is that this book is incredibly detailed. This level of detail runs throughout the book. When you look at the section on verb conjugations, for example, you’ll see an explanation of why contract verbs end up contracting into the forms they do. Smyth provides both the uncontracted form and the contract, which (if you’ve absorbed the section on accents) also helps explain why these verbs are accented in the way they are.

smyth section on contract verbs

You’ll also note that Smyth has cited the less common dialect forms along with Attic forms. So if you’re just trying to get a handle on contract verbs, this might be less useful; if you’re trying to figure out why in the world Perseus’ parsing tool has given you the answer it has, the dialects might be more helpful. And if you’re used to Attic and encounter a weird form, there’s a handy verb list at the back:

smyth greek verb forms

These paradigms are similar to what you’d find in a good dictionary (like the LSJ).

Smyth is also happy to cite himself. Again, the numbers in parentheses here refer to section numbers, not page numbers.

smyth mi verbs

And you can follow those references to learn about dropping medial sigmas, second aorist endings, or how weird τίθημι is in the aorist optative (that’s 746c, if you were wondering).

 

So you hopefully have realized by now that the key tip for Smyth is to use section numbers, not page numbers. But how do you know where those sections are?

Well, you could use the table of contents.smyth greek grammar table of contents

But honestly, I’ve always found it easier to open the book and flip back and forth. I do own a hard copy, though, and if you’re using a PDF, the contents will be much more helpful. They also give you a good sense of what’s in the book.

If you haven’t stumbled across Smyth in a footnote, and you’re actually trying to look up a grammar bite for its own sake, you’re best off checking the index. There are two: a Greek index (if you’re looking for a particular word) and an English index (for grammatical concepts).

smyth greek grammar index

As you can see, the Greek index catalogues common words and any grammatical rules or problems associated with them. This is not a dictionary, and not every word appears in here — and most of the time, words that do appear aren’t defined. But if you’re confused or curious about the usage of individual and common Greek words (nouns, verbs, particles, you name it), the index will tell you where to find it. The index, by the way, indexes to section number, not page number.

The English index is useful for when you’re not sure about a grammatical concept. So if you’re wondering about how enclitic accents work, or want a list of the uses of the accusative, you should check here first.

smyth greek grammar english language index

Again, these references? Section number.

The syntactical sections of Smyth are much like the grammar sections. Smyth breaks down constructions into a number of subgroups. Here, for example, is part of his take on the purpose (‘final’) clause:

smyth on greek optative

He offers a series of different ways to construct the clause and notes whether individual constructions are regular or rare. If you’re taking Greek prose composition, these distinctions are really helpful — but be aware that Smyth is primarily interested in classical Attic grammar. If Lysias liked it, Smyth probably approved.

 

So now you know that Smyth is really useful as a grammatical aid. This book is also helpful for very basic stylistic questions. There’s a section on rhetorical figures and a section on particles. These are solid, but not exhaustive — I wouldn’t vote for Smyth over Denniston. But for a non-specialist or intermediate, Smyth is more than enough. Here’s an example:

smyth greek figures rhetorical poetic

Smyth offers a literal definition, a definition of what the term means as a figure, and a few examples from ancient texts. Although most examples are poetic, the terms apply to prose literature as well (and sort of to Latin, although Romans also came up with their own terms for some of the figures — but that’s a more advanced topic for a later post).

Similarly, Smyth lists all particles alphabetically and then groups them by function. He offers a brief definition and explains what makes this particle different from particles with similar meanings.

smyth greek particles

Note that these stylistic sections follow immediately upon the grammar and syntax sections, and that they are all numbered with continuous section numbers. This is why, for what I promise is the last time, section numbers are crucial for Smyth. If you find yourself citing Smyth, you should use the section number alone — or do what Baker did and give us both.


 

~J.

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