A note on ζάω/ζῶ

June 23, 2012

Yesterday I noticed this comment in Danker’s Concise Lexicon in his entry for ζάω:

this form is an invention of grammarians; see ζῶ.

And that’s all you find in CL s.v. ζάω; the lexical entry is found under the spelling ζῶ.

(The same info may be implied in BDAG where ζάω is listed in square brackets, but it is not nearly as explicit.) With that clue, I’ve since discovered that Liddell & Scott also lists the word as ζῶ instead of ζάω. I’ve also canvassed Smyth’s discussions over several scattered sections. I’ve learned something about the morphology of this word that I probably should have known long ago.

The original formation was ζη-ιω (with consonantal iota) which contracted to ζῶ. Other than the lexical form, however, every other inflected form still shows the original eta in the stem. This word appears to act like an alpha contract verb (alpha lengthening to eta), but either the eta is retained from the original root, ζη-ι ̯ω (not a lengthened alpha), or this is a rare example of an eta contract verb which acts much like an alpha-contract except that the contraction of η + ε = η, and the contraction of η + ει = ῃ, thus: ζῶ, ζῇς, ζῇ, ζῶμεν, ζῆτε, ζῶσι(ν). (BDF§88 says the eta was retained due to the substantive τὸ ζῆν, which seems speculative to me.)

As a result it has long been traditional to treat the word as if it were spelled ζάω since that was thought to account for the eta (as a lengthened alpha). Most NT grammars, lexica, and tagged texts list the lexical form as ζάω despite the fact that this is a fictitious form. I have concluded that we ought to follow Danker’s example and list this word as ζῶ, not only in the lexicon, but also in first year grammars. (Danker’s CL is now by far the best lexicon to use for first year Greek. If you don’t use it, you should.) Unfortunately, since the word is so often listed incorrectly, students will also need to learn that ζῶ will usually be found under or listed as ζάω.


Carl Conrad tells me that this word appears in Homer as ζώω, but that this

was never a real form, rather it’s a case of what is called “diectasis” … : it is the artificial re-lengthening of a contraction into a double vowel for the sake of the meter (older grammarians used the Latin phrase
“metri gratia” — it’s sort of like someone exclaiming “boo-oo-oo-ti-ful!”

Thanks to Carl for helping me sort through this morphological puzzle yesterday.

9 responses to A note on ζάω/ζῶ

  1. If “this form is an invention of grammarians,” what about normal contract verbs? On this reasoning, why not list ἀγαπῶ in the lexicons rather than ἁγαπάω?

  2. Because ἀγαπάω does have an alpha as part of the stem; ζῶ does not nor does it fit the definition of a contract verb: a verb whose stem ends with a short vowel. The morphology of the two words is quite different. If we wanted to follow the pattern of ἀγαπάω for pedagogical purposes, we should list not ζάω, but ζη-ι ̯ω.

  3. Agreed, Rod. But I was commenting on the artificial nature of even ἀγαπάω and the fact that it is in the lexicon. I assume, maybe wrongly, that if someone asked Paul what the verb is for love, he would not have said ἀγαπάω, since it is an artificial form that no one, I assume, in ancient Greece ever said. But maybe I am wrong here.

    • True, no one in the first century ever said ἀγα-πα-ω. But the actual morphology of the word does have an alpha. Our lexicons list the uncontracted form, not because it was spoken or written, but to indicate the morphology—which we can see in the results of the contracting vowels. ζάω is different: by giving an alpha as part of the stem in the lexicon we are giving wrong information. There is no alpha. Of course most speakers of ancient Greek did not not know any more about the morphology of their words than speakers of contemporary English do about the morphology of English.

  4. “Our lexicons list the uncontracted form, not because it was spoken or written, but to indicate the morphology—which we can see in the results of the contracting vowels.”
    Exactly. The lexicon entry is this way to help us non-native speakers.
    “ζάω is different: by giving an alpha as part of the stem in the lexicon we are giving wrong information. There is no alpha.”
    True. But would listing ζῶ be as helpful for us non-native speakers as ζάω? In other words what I am asking, which one is better for us non-native speakers, ζῶ or ζάω. Maybe it would not make any difference.

    • I understand pragmatic, pedagogical explanations, but I don’t think we’re wise to give wrong information when we simplify. ἀγαπάω is a pragmatic entry, but still an accurate one. ζάω is not. The question then becomes, how to list this in a lexicon designed for beginning students and in a first year grammar. I spent a fair bit of time working on this yesterday and I’ve decided that Danker’s choice for a lexicon is a good one: list ζάω alphabetically (since that’s been the standard approach for a long time in NT studies [but not in classical, viz, L&S] and it’s a form that many people will look for), but include the note as I cited above. Then include the correct form, ζῶ, alphabetically. The remaining question then is, how to handle it in a first-year grammar. That’s more complicated since users of a grammar will not all be using the same lexicon. That makes it almost inevitable that both forms will have to be listed. I think it makes best sense to treat it as ζῶ and not list it as an alpha contract verb, though wherever it is treated, there needs to be a note explaining why. For vocab purposes, I think I’d list it as a double entry: “ζῶ (often listed as ζάω).” You’ve taught Greek for even longer than I have, do you think you could work with something like that in a first year grammar?

  5. Yes. Thinking about it a little, that does seem like a good way to go. I assume, then, you are writing a first-year grammar.

  6. Stephen Carlson June 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    All the uncontracted forms are artificial for Koine and even Attic. Ionic, however, in the age of Homer and Herodotus, did have uncontracted -αω and -εω forms, but not -οω.

    Now, I realize the tradition of lexicalizing verbs by the first person singular present indicative is an old tradition, at least five hundred years old, but if I had to do it over, I’d use the present infinitive, which (a) is a real form and (b) unambiguously indicates the conjugation. Plus, the accent indicates whether we’re looking at a barytone or circumflex conjugation.

    Thus, instead of ἀγαπάω, the lexical form would be ἀγαπᾶν. Instead of ποιέω, it would be ποιεῖν. Instead of *δηλόω, it would be δηλοῦν. Instead of *ζάω, it would be ζῆν.

    Unfortunately, that ship has sailed, so we’re left with wondering what the second-best solution for *ζάω/ζῶ is.

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