Describing the Greeks (Adjectives)

Here is a song describing Greeks from Horrible Histories:

Like English, the Greek language has adjectives. School House Rock has a song if you are struggling with what these are. I think most of us studying Greek as first year students would unpack “frustrated” first too. Of course adjectives describe nouns and thankfully they function in the same way in both languages. But School House Rock left out some other things adjectives can do as there are actually three functions that adjectives play.

  • attributive – the typical usage, which is to describe a noun
  • predicate – also describes a noun but it implies the verb “to be”
  • substantival – in this case the adjective is also the noun. The noun is implied.

For example in English the word “bad” is the adjective describing house (attributive):

The bad house

In Greek that would be written as:

ὁ κακός οἰκος


ὁ κακός ὁ οἰκος

The key here is that the adjective has the definite article in front of it.

However if we wrote the following the adjective form changes:

κακός ὁ οἰκος

Notice that all we did was remove the definite article from the adjective. Now the adjective is in the predicate case. This would be translated “the house is bad”. However notice that the verb “to be” is implicit since the word ἐστιν is not supplied.

Finally we could write this in another form:

ὁ κακός

Notice here that there is no noun. Now the adjective is in the substantival case. This would be translated “the bad (thing)”. What is bad would have to be derived from the context. Here there is no context supplied.

As you may (or may not have noticed) adjectives use the same case ending as the nouns. This is how we can identify the noun that the adjective describes. However, adjectives are “weird” in that the Greek word can be used in all three genders. Nouns can’t. This is because the adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in case, number, and gender. And thankfully the Greeks did not invent a new word for each gender.

For example we could write “the bad house” using the feminine Greek word for house, instead of the masculine word above. Don’t ask me why there is a different Greek word for house in the masculine and in the feminine rather than one word in the neuter. In any case that would be result in:

ἡ κακια οἰκια

Here the important thing to notice is that the adjective κακός, -ἡ, -όν took on the feminine definite article and the case ending for the feminine nominative singular case.

Three simple rules to help identify how the adjective is functioning in the sentence:

  1. if the adjective does not have a definite article (and there is a noun with a definite article) then it is a predicate
  2. if the adjective has the definite article (and there is a noun with or without a definite article) then it is attributive
  3. if the adjective has the definite article (and there is no noun) then it is substantival

Here is a chart I have been using to work on the vocabulary in BBG2. And here is the answer key generated from Bible Works.

What do you think?

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