Apophony - Vowel gradation

English translation by Bruna Pogliano

The knowledge of apophony takes on great importance when studying the Greek language. Apophony consists in the vowel alternation which can occur both in the formation and inflection of words and verbs deriving from a single root. Apophony occurs also in Latin and Italian. Consider, for example, the Latin verb conjugation: many verbs have different vowels within present and perfect stems. Here are some examples:

Original stem Lexical form with original stem Translation Apophonic stem Lexical form from apophonic stem Translation
fac- fac-io I do fec- fec-i I did
căv- căv-eo I take care cāv- cāv-i I took care
fŏv- fŏv-eo I warm fōv- fōv-i I warmed
vĕn- vĕn-io I come vēn- vēn-i I came

A similar phenomenon can be observed also in Latin compound verbs resulting from a preverb attached to the original verb stem.The table below provides some examples:

Preverb Original verb stem Compound verb Translation
de căd- de-cĭd-o I fall down
cum făc- con-fĭc-io I accomplish
cum dămn- con-demn-o I condemn
cum caed- con-cīd-o I cut

It can be noted that only vowel duration is affected in many cases; in such instances a short vowel becomes long or vice versa. This phenomenon is called quantitative vowel gradation; whereas qualitative vowel gradation refers to all instances where the original vowel is replaced with a different vowel or even dropped .

In Greek, quantitative vowel gradation occurs mainly in the formation of some verb tenses. For example, verbs with the present indicative stem ending in a vowel undergo vowel lengthening in the formation of both sigmatic future and sigmatic aorist.

Ex. τιμά-ω, I honour, ᾰ of the present indicative stem is lengthened to in the formation of sigmatic future. The form *τιμάσω with then becomes τιμήσω owing to impure alpha, i.e.: not preceded by ε, ι or ρ.

Most of all, mastering qualitative vowel gradation enables us to recognize the one root in cognate words, even when they are seemingly inconsistent. This ability will make it easier to find our way amid the wealth of Greek lexical heritage.

A large number of roots show qualitative vowel gradation in the formation of the lexical system. Sometimes, roots appear in two apophonic grades: the weak grade and the strong grade, which usually feature the vowel sound e and the vowel sound o respectively. The following table displays some roots and their cognates in order to exemplify two-grade apophony. Notice the alternation of ε/ο in verbs and nouns respectively.

Two-grade roots
Weak grade Strong grade
λεγ λέγ-ω, I say λογ λόγ-ος, word, speech, reason
λέξ-ις, speech, style διά-λογ-ος, dialogue
διά-λεκ-τος, dialect, speech ἄ-λογ-ος, illogical, irrational
κλέπ-τω, I steal
κλοπ-εύς, thief
κλέπ-της, thief
κλοπ-ή, theft
σπένδ-ω, I make a libation
σπονδ-ή, libation
ψέγ-ω, I blame, I censure
ψόγ-ος, blame, censure
φλέγ-ω, I burn
φλόξ, torch, flame

Three-grade roots are even more frequent. Apophony appears as zero-grade, weak grade and strong grade. The weak grande and the strong grade show the same ε/ο interchange as seen in two-grade roots, while zero-grade roots are characterized by the absence of vowels. In many instances, nasal or liquid consonants vocalized to α when they were part of consonantal clusters, otherwise they developed a secondary vowel.
See the table below for examples.

Three-grade roots
Zero-grade Weak grade Strong grade
γί-γν-ομαι, I am born, I am begotten
γέν-ος, breed, stock
γον-εύς, parent
γν-ήσιος, legitimate, genuine
εὐ-γεν-ής, noble
πρό-γον-ος, forefather
ἰδ-έα, figure, form
εἶδ-ον, I saw
οἶδ-α, I have seen > I know
δ-τορία > ἱστ-ορία, enquiry, observation
ἶδ-ος, appearance, form
ἔ-λιπ-ον, I left
λείπ-ω, I leave, I foresake
λέ-λοιπ-α, I have left
λιπ-οταξία, disertion
ἔκ-λειψ-ις, eclipse
λοιπ-ός, remaining, rest
*πνθ > παθ
*πάθ-σκω > πά-σχω, I suffer
πένθ-ος, sorrow,mourning
πέ-πονθ-α, I have suffered
ἔ-παθ-ον, I suffered
πενθ-έω, I mourn, I lament
*πίθ-τις > πίσ-τις, trust
πείθ-ω, I persuade
πέ-ποιθ-α, I have relied on > I trust
*πίθ-τεύω > πιστ-εύω, I trust
πειθ-ώ, persuasion

Careful observation of the page on word roots will provide valuable insight into apophonic occurrences in the formation of the Greek lexical system .