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In Attic Greek, "rough breathing" (/h/ at the start of a word) was apparently phonemic: it couldn't be predicted from context, and had to be memorized as part of the word. Byzantine scribes later invented a diacritic for it, which we still use today.

But are there any minimal pairs distinguished by the rough breathing? That is, are there any two words that are completely identical in all respects, except that one has a rough breathing and the other has smooth?

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    Would something like "ὦ" ("oh!") and "ᾧ" ("by which") fit the bill? – brianpck Apr 19 '20 at 17:56
  • @brianpck If possible I'd prefer one without the iota subscript, but that would still be a fine answer! (I know at least a few minimal pairs exist, so I'm mostly curious to see which ones people come up with, since the ones I can think of are very boring.) – Draconis Apr 19 '20 at 17:59
  • @brianpck. This only works if the loss of aspiration postdates the loss of the /i/ component of the long diphthongs. – fdb Apr 19 '20 at 18:07
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Here's a list I was able to generate from the Perseus lemma list. This only looks at headwords, so it might exclude a few words that have similarly declined forms. Some of the words are also a bit non-standard, but the LSJ has them all listed:

ἅλινος - relating to salt
ἄλινος - without a net

ἀνία - grief
ἁνία - reins

ἐδανός - eatable
ἑδανός - sweet

εἴλη - troops
εἵλη - the sun's heat

ἔνος - year
ἕνος - belonging to the former of two periods
(Also worth noting: ἑνός)

ἤκιστος - the gentlest
ἥκιστος - least

οἶος - alone
οἷος - such

ὄρος - hill
ὅρος - boundary, definition

ὤρα - care, concern
ὥρα - time of day

ὦρος - sleep
ὧρος - year

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    Out of curiosity, how did you access the full Perseus lemma list? – TKR Apr 19 '20 at 19:11
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    @TKR I downloaded the lemma dump from here: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/opensource/download It requires some SQL knowledge, though. – brianpck Apr 19 '20 at 19:44
  • If you don't mind a technical question, what did you use to query the SQL file? I tried to import it into PostgreSQL but kept getting errors. But I'm very new to SQL and probably am doing something wrong. – TKR Apr 26 '20 at 18:53
  • @TKR Actually, I cheated and did a few find+replaces to turn the query into a CSV file. The data dump uses MySQL format, so I'm not surprised that you're getting errors. – brianpck Apr 26 '20 at 19:58
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The verb ἵημι is notoriously fertile ground for such minimal pairs, when compared with εἰμί and εἶμι, e.g.:

  • εἷναι aor. act. inf. / εἶναι pres. act. inf. of εἶμι
  • ἱέναι pres. act. inf. / ἰέναι pres. act. inf. of εἶμι
  • ὧ pres. act. subj. / ὦ pres. act. subj. of εἰμί (in all persons/numbers)
  • εἵην pres. act. opt. / εἴην opt. act. subj. of εἰμί (in all persons/numbers)
  • also ἕς 2sg aor. act. impv. / preposition ἔς (when accented before an enclitic)

Some other examples:

  • αὐτοῦ / αὑτοῦ (contracted from ἑαυτοῦ) and other case forms of these pronouns
  • οὐ 'not' / οὑ enclitic gen. of 3sg. pronoun
  • ᾗ 'whither' / ᾖ 3sg. pres. act. subj. of εἰμί
  • searching for words consisting of single vowels / diphthongs in the Perseus morphology tool will find lots more like these
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A few more:

ὄσσα "rumor"
ὅσσα "as much as" (poetic form of ὅσος as neuter nominative/accusative)

ἐνί "in" (poetic form of ἐν)
ἑνί "in one" (dative masculine and neuter of εἷς)

ἤ "or"
ἥ "which" (feminine of ὅς)

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