Ancient Greek lexical semantics: Word meanings as a function of context

Tanner, Harry
In 1989, Johannes Louw highlighted several problems in the study of Ancient Greek Lexical Semantics; 3 many remain unresolved. Louw’s rst diculty was that the etymology of a word is seldom a reliable indicator of its meaning in a given context; 4 in the study of living languages, this is not remotely controversial — the knowledge that the origin of the term ‘calculus’ lies in a small pebble used on an abacus is mostly irrelevant to its many applications in modern mathematics; 5 Louw criticized etymology’s continued presence as a mainstay of thinking in students of Ancient Greek. Secondly, Louw criticized the tendency among lexicographers of Ancient Greek to group all senses of a word together under a ‘basic meaning’, which is to say that they assume that most senses of words have some shared features. 6 These features are often presented as the fundamental meaning of the word. For example, in the LSJ’s entry for γραφή, the authors provide the denition “representation by means of lines”, followed by a list of possible translations for the word. Tellingly, the authors append this deniens with the word ‘hence’, followed by a list of translations of the word in various contexts. Alternatively, in the case of the verb ἐπίκειμαι, the authors of the LSJ provide the basic meaning “to be laid upon, and so”, with each of its various translations following, as if they originated from that phrase. The LSJ’s authors conceived of γραφή and ἐπίκειμαι as having some fundamental, basic, unifying sense which was then manipulated into each of the translations enumerated in the word’s entry in the lexicon. It has never been clear whether the dictionary’s authors believed that native speakers of language do manipulate basic senses into contexts on-the-y, or whether this is merely an artifact of the lexicographical process. Positing a basic meaning is also a common means for etymologists to distinguish between homonyms and cognate words. 7 Basic meanings provide neat accounts of the complex variety of uses provided for by a single lexeme, which adds to their attractiveness in an entry so necessarily concise as that of a dictionary. The third problem Louw identied is that much of our understanding of Ancient Greek words rests on glosses into English and other languages. In other words, we understand the meaning of Ancient Greek words through the lens of a modern language. Fourthly, Louw argued that the context in which a word is found constructs its meaning, and the word does not have a meaning outside of that context, and that the available scholarship on Ancient Greek Semantics does little to address this reality.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland