A Handbook of Homeric Greek Word Order: Expressing Information Structure in Homer and Beyond

Nicolas Bertrand

  Citation with persistent identifier: Bertrand, Nicolas. “A Handbook of Homeric Greek Word Order: Expressing Information Structure in Homer and Beyond.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:BertrandN.A_Handbook_of_Homeric_Greek_Word_Order.2019


Whereas word order in Ancient Greek has long seemed to be an unsolvable crux of ancient grammar, recent advances in general syntax and the development of research on Information Structure made it possible to understand it in a new light. The aim of this report is to describe the book I have been writing at the CHS to tackle the issue of word order in the Homeric poems.



It has been more than twenty years since the publication of the ground-breaking book by Dik (1995) on word order in Ancient Greek (AG). Since then, although the bulk of her results have been widely accepted, many scholars have refined her model (e.g. Matić 2003a, Allan 2014, 2012, Bertrand 2009, 2010, 2014a, b, c, Goldstein 2016), for internal as well as external reasons: internally, there are still many sentences that her model cannot explain satisfactorily; externally, the literature on Information Structure (IS) has greatly developed, so that H. Dik’s original framework (Dik 1997) appears now outdated. However, the linguistic literature on that topic is notoriously crowded with technical terms that may be difficult to grasp. As a result, it is still difficult for many scholars or students of AG to understand what the word order of a given sentence may mean. What would be useful, then, is a book explaining the state-of-the-art on word order and IS, in a clear and reader-friendly fashion, in order to be accessible both to linguists and to other people interested in understanding what word order expresses in AG.

Outline of the Book

During my stay at the CHS, I started writing a book both complete and concise on word order in AG; a handbook of sorts, which carefully and clearly explains the technical terminology, and shows, through numerous examples, how the notion of IS and its expressions by word order improve our understanding of AG texts.

Each discussion of the concepts and their application in AG grammar are summarized as a Linearization Rule, stating where a given constituent will appear in an utterance according to its IS function. This series of rules are summed up at the end of the book, to provide an easy way of grasping the workings of IS expression.

This book covers both Homeric and Classical Greek at the same time. As I have shown in my PhD dissertation (Bertrand 2010), the great majority of the principles governing word order in Classical Greek obtain in Homeric Greek: the language was quite stable in this regard. Only a few Homeric peculiarities need further explanation. Those considerations lead to the following structure of the handbook:

Part One: The Concepts of Information Structure

The theoretical framework I adopt in this inquiry is the—now classical—book by Lambrecht (1994), enriched by more recent literature (especially Lambrecht and Michaelis 1998, Matić 2003b). All the main IS notions are explained along this functional line: presupposition and assertion; focus, i.e. the assertive part of the utterance; topic, i.e. the part(s) of an utterance expressing what a speaker indicates as the most adequate referential frame(s) for its interpretation; ratification, i.e. the process by which a speaker validates the use of a referent as a topic.

Part Two: General Rules

Part Two explains all the Linearization Rules that are valid both for Classical Greek and Homeric Greek, with examples driven from both states of the language. Furthermore, I describe how the resulting construction are used in AG discourse: the aim of the handbook is not only to provide a useful explanation of word order variation, but also to show how it might enrich our understanding of AG texts.

Focus Constructions

There are two focus constructions in AG (Matić 2003a, Bertrand 2014a, b). In the first one, the narrow focus construction, only one (part of a) constituent is focused, and is located immediately before the verb. In the second one, the focus domain construction, everything from the verb to the rightmost constituent builds up a focus domain. However, this focus domain is underspecified as to its focus construal. This theoretical move is important, since it allows to understand why some narrow focus expressions may surface at the end of a sentence. Once the existence of two focus constructions and the underspecification of the focus domain, is recognized, the IS structure of AG sentences, is easily explainable, even those which were considered irregular both by H. Dik (all the focus domain constructions) and by Matić (the sentences with a narrow focus expression at the end of a sentence).

Topic Expressions

Topic expressions, denoting the referents deemed by the speaker the most useful frame in which to interpret his/her sentence, are in turn of two different kinds. Non-ratified topic (NRTop) expressions are used to introduce a referent as a topic of a given sentence, and are located at the beginning of the utterance. Ratified topic (RTop) expressions, on the other hand, denote referents which have already been introduced as a topic, and are being restated for a number of reasons. The latter are, as a rule, located immediately after the verb, even when that means interrupting the focus domain.

The Word Order Template

The results of the above description may be summarized in the following template, in which each constituent of a given sentence is located in the slot corresponding to its IS function:


Clause-embedding and questions

The last section of Part Two will tackle the problem of the order of words within embedded clauses and the position of question-focus.

Part Three: Specifically Homeric Rules

The third part of the book is focused on specifically Homeric constructions. First, what I called “unmotivated” hyperbaton i.e. hyperbaton that cannot be explained by the localization of two parts of a complex constituent in their normal positions in the word order template (see further Bertrand 2011). Second, lexical tmesis (when a lexical word occurs between the preverb and the verb) is shown to be, synchronically, a kind of noun incorporation (Bertrand 2014c). Third, I explain discontinuous topic expressions and expletive topic expressions, which confirm rather than disprove the validity of the word order model in Homeric discourse (Bertrand 2017).


Following an idea of Laura Slatkin, a short epilogue is added to comment on the IS of a continuous stretch of Homeric text and showcase the insights that a better understanding of word order can give a modern reader.

My stay at the CHS

During my stay at the CHS, I was offered a wonderful opportunity to use the library and e-resources provided there to update my bibliography and incorporate the latest references to the book. My conversations with Gregory Nagy, Laura Slatkin and the other Senior Fellows allowed me to enrich my thinking with new ideas. It was also a great pleasure to share some ideas and to get illuminating feedback when I presented my talk in April.

Besides, I must thank also all the other fellows who were present on the campus: our conversations, serious or not-so-serious, helped me tremendously in my work in ways that cannot be easily expressed.

Last, I must thank the whole staff of the CHS who provided the best material conditions and allowed me to work intensely within a warm and welcoming environment.

Select References

Allan, Rutger. 2012. “Clause Intertwining and Word Order in Ancient Greek.” Journal of Greek Linguistics no. 12:5–28.

———. 2014. “Changing the Topic: Topic Position in Ancient Greek Word Order.” Mnemosyne. Bibliotheca classica Batava no. 67 (2):181–213.

Bertrand, Nicolas. 2009. “Les pronoms postpositifs dans l’ordre des mots en grec: domaines syntaxiques, domaines pragmatiques.” Lalies no. 29:227–252.

———. 2010. L’ordre des mots chez Homère: structure informationnelle, localisation et progression du récit. PhD diss., Université Paris–Sorbonne (Paris IV).

———. 2011. “Unconstrained Discontinuity in Homeric Greek: Dealing with Unmotivated Hyperbaton.” Presentation at the International conference on Ancient Greek linguistics 7, held in Gand.

———. 2014a. “Focus.” In Encyclopaedia of Greek Language and Linguistics, ed. Giorgios K. Giannakis, 595–599. Leyde: E. J. Brill.

———. 2014b. “Information Structure and Greek.” In Encyclopaedia of Greek Language and Linguistics, ed. Giorgios K. Giannakis, 238–243. Leyde: E. J. Brill.

———. 2014c. “On Tmesis, Word Order, and Noun Incorporation in Homeric Greek.” In The Greek Verb: Morphology, Syntax, Semantics (Proceedings of the 8th International Meeting on Greek Linguistics, Agrigento, October 1–3, 2009), ed. Anna Bartolotta, 11–29. Louvain-la-Neuve: Peeters.

———. 2017. “Discontinuous topics and expletive topics in Homeric Greek.” In Ancient Greek linguistics: new approaches, insights, perspectives, ed. Felicia Logozzo and Paolo Poccetti. Rome: De Gruyters.

Dik, Helma. 1995. Word Order in Ancient Greek: A Pragmatic Account of Word Order Variation in Herodotus. In Amsterdam Studies In Classical Philology, ed. Albert Rijksbaron, Irène de Jong, and Harm Pinkster. Amsterdam: J.-C. Gieben.

Dik, Simon. 1997. The Theory of Functional Grammar. Part 1: The Structure of the Clause. 2nd ed. Rev. Kees Hengeveld. In Functional Grammar Series, ed. A. Machtelt Bolkestein, Casper de Groot, and J. Lachlan Mackenzie. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. Orig. pub. 1989.

Goldstein, David. 2016. Classical Greek syntax: Wackernagel’s Law in Herodotus. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and The Mental Representations of Discourse Referents, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lambrecht, Knud, and Laura A. Michaelis. 1998. “Sentence Accent in Information Questions: Default and Projection.” Linguistics and Philosophy no. 21 (5):477–544.

Matić, Dejan. 2003a. “Topic, Focus, and Discourse Structure: Ancient Greek Word Order.” Studies in Language no. 27 (3):573–633.

———. 2003b. Topics, Presuppositions, and Theticity: An Empirical Study of Verb-Subject Clauses in Albanian, Greek, and Serbo-Croat. PhD diss., Universität zu Köln.

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