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Trask's Historical Linguistics (3rd Edition) makes an off-hand comment that "the Greek word syllabus has a Greek plural syllabontes".

As we know syllabus is actually a spurious word, arising from a misprint of the accusative plural of σιττύβα sittúba in a 1470s edition of Cicero's “Ad Atticum” IV.5 and 8, so this doesn't appear to be a claim about an original Greek etymon.

With that in mind, what is the source of the claim? Does it have a basis in Medieval Greek (either per se or in latinised form)?

I've been unable to find clear sources online searching for syllabontes, just some people suggesting using it facetiously as a spurious plural (similar to how one might jokingly refer to indexii rather than either indices or indexes).

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  • (obviously this is a plausible way to form the nominative/vocative plural of a noun with the nominative singular syllabus, but so equally would be syllabyes or syllabutes, so it's not clear even that this should be taken as a comment about how the word would inflect in Greek
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 30 at 11:14

1 Answer 1

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I think Trask's/Millar's claim is misleading. (Note: From now on, I will refer to the author as "Trask," even though it might be that this comes from Millar's revision.)

As you note, "syllabus" comes from a misprint.

The OED says the following for the etymology of "syllabus":

Syllabos was græcized by later editors as συλλάβους, from which a spurious σύλλαβος was deduced and treated as a derivative of συλλαμβάνειν to put together, collect (compare syllable n.).

Notably, the OED lists "syllabi" and "syllabuses" as the plurals of "syllabus," and Trask's proposed "*syllabontes" only has a handful of other references (as a Google search reveals)--all of which, as far as I can tell, occur in the same pedantic content ("well, akshually...").

So, where does "*syllabontes" come from? I see three possibilities:

1. Aorist participle?

The most likely explanation is that Trask is latching onto the plural nominative/vocative aorist participle of συλλαμβάνειν. This is a common form in Greek, e.g. Luke 22:54:

Συλλαβόντες δὲ αὐτὸν ἤγαγον καὶ εἰσήγαγον εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἀρχιερέως

Translation:

Seizing him, they led him [away] and led him into the house of the high priest.

The problem with this purported plural of "syllabus" is that the corresponding singular form is συλλαβών (masculine) or συλλαβοῦσα (feminine). Though the feminine form is superficially similar the purported form *συλλάβους mentioned in OED (indeed, the TLG corpus attests a few elided forms συλλαβοῦσ'), it is quite distinct, even in accent, and I see no precedent for using a feminine aorist participle to form a noun.

It seems strange to me to posit a "correct" plural of "syllabus" based on a spurious etymology--especially given that the actually attested singular of "syllabus" does not follow the pattern that produces the suggested plural. Trask's claim would only be plausible if the singular of "syllabus" were "*syllabōn."

2. Noun ending in -ους?

If this claim isn't about the plural participle, and instead about the smaller set of nouns ending in -ους, it still isn't right to suggest that -οντες is the correct plural. Here's a sampling of other nouns ending in -ους:

  • πούς -> πόδες (podes)
  • βοῦς -> βόες (boes)
  • οὖς -> ὦτα (ōta)
  • νοῦς -> νοῖ (noi)

In short: I can't find a single (non-participle) noun ending in -ους whose plural is -οντες. Even if there were one, it would still be much too strong a claim to assume it was without knowing anything about the stem.

3. Noun ending in -ος?

This claim can be rejected outright. The plural of -ος is most commonly -οι, which would produce in English the usual patterns "syllabus" and "syllabi" when put through the meat-grinder of Latin transmission. There are some strange cases (e.g. τέλος -> τέλη), but still none that exhibit the pattern -ος -> -οντες.

tl;dr

Given the fact that *συλλάβους and *σύλλαβος aren't Greek words, it's incorrect to say (as Trask does) that "the Greek word syllabus has a Greek plural syllabontes."

  • There is a Greek word that does have that plural, i.e. the aorist participle συλλαβών, but it's strange to apply this inflection to "syllabus," which is not a participial form.
  • The non-existent Greek words σύλλαβος and συλλάβους suggest, by analogy with similar words, different plurals, such as *σύλλαβοι or *συλλάβοδες.

I conclude that this claim crosses the bounds of pedantry ("The plural of octopus is octopodes!") into the realm of imaginative revisionism.

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  • thanks for a very thorough explanation!
    – Tristan
    Commented May 1 at 8:17

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