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The Ancient Greek word μετά means two very different things. Are there any other examples in world languages of a word for "between, with" being colexified with one for "after, next to"? I find it very unusual since to me those two meanings are almost completely opposite one another. Is it because of borrowing between dialects that inherited the word differently?

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    The more general meaning is ‘with, among, amidst’ (rather than specifically ‘between’), and I’d say a similar dual meaning of ‘among’ and ‘after’ is with (in English, but also in lots of other languages). If you’re ‘with friends’, you’re together with them, among them; if you tell someone to ‘come with me’, you’re telling them to follow you, to go after you. Also compare Chinese , whose primary meaning is ‘heel’ > ‘be at someone’s heels = follow after’ > ‘(be) together with’. There is a lot of overlap between these two semantic notions. Commented May 22 at 7:28
  • Does it actually mean "before"?
    – Adam Bittlingmayer
    Commented May 22 at 9:11
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    Note that those meanings use different cases: "with" is with genitive, "after" with accusative. Greek prepositions often have very different meanings depending on the case of the noun they govern, e.g. πρός is "toward" with acc. but "from" with gen. | Also this question might be better in Latin SE, which also does ancient Greek.
    – TKR
    Commented May 22 at 16:27
  • @TKR Now that this has been migrated, can you write that up as an answer?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 22 at 21:00
  • @JoonasIlmavirta While I think that covers it from a basic, grammatical point of view, it doesn't really explain why the cases affect the meaning. I think adding that in would make for a great answer.
    – cmw
    Commented May 23 at 3:35

3 Answers 3

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A number of Greek dialects, including Lesbian, Boeotian, Arcadian, and a handful of Doric dialects, don't (exclusively) use μετά but grammaticalised πεδά, an adverbial accusative form of a word for 'foot, track' (cf. πούς, ποδ-, which generalised a different root vowel, or Latin pēs, ped-), in its stead, in all meanings. In that case, how an adverb transparently meaning 'in the footsteps' came to be used as a preposition meaning both 'with, among' (+ gen., maybe the original construction) and 'following behind → after' (+ acc. of motion) is probably more obvious.

Given the close contact between the various Greek dialects, and especially the fact that meta and peda both seem to be attested in Mycenaean, it's certainly possible πεδά ended up influencing the uses of μετά, but I don't think it's that unusual a semantic evolution either way.
Specifically, I don't think it's necessary to posit a situation like Latin, where you have a preposition cum 'with' < Old Latin com and a conjunction cum 'when → after' < Old Latin quom that fell together to yield one apparent word that sort of means both 'with' and 'after'. There is no trace of that in μετά's history or usage.

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In the earliest recorded forms of Greek (Homer), case is the primary method of giving this sort of information. The things that we now think of as prepositions were often optional where they are now mandatory in most IE languages, and were still often acting more like adverbs in Homer. The original way of describing the concept of "among, with" would have been the genitive or dative case, while "toward, in pursuit of" would be accusative. Saying "the dog went chasing after the cat" would be expressed in either Latin or Greek using the accusative.

For prepositions, PIE had me, próti, and en, which are the ancestors of English middle, post, and in. There were both spatial and temporal meanings, e.g., Sanskrit smat can mean either together or at the same time. The languages that inherited these words expressed these time and space relationships using usually the same cases, but often different prepositions. This kind of makes sense because the prepositions were a later development.

Latin decided to use inter (from en) to mean "among" for the spatial idea, and post (from próti) to mean "after." The idea of being behind was expressed in the same way as after in time. Latin abandoned the PIE me root.

Greek kept all three of these PIE words. To express simultaneity, it used ἐν+dative, which is unlike Sanskrit's use of the the smat descendant for that purpose. That freed up Greek's smat descendant, μετά, so that μετά+gen/dat could be the spatial "with, among," while μετά+acc came to mean "going to the place where you would be with." This is the "accusative of place to which." So you get phrases in Homer like βῆ ῥ' ἰέναι μετὰ Νέστορα, he went to look for Nestor. So in this way Greek ended up using μετά to handle the "after" meaning that was handled in Latin by the próti descendant; in Greek, the próti descendant πρός+acc was used purely to mean "towards," with no implication of chasing after anyone.

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μετα

  1. I. adv. 1. among between besides 2. behind (local), after (temporal)

    II. praep.

    1. with gen.
  2. a). (local) among, between, sub-

    b) causal with (means, tool, method )

  3. with dat. in conjunction with

  4. with acc.

  5. a.) (local) conjunction to, handling sth. espc. α) behind, following somebody

     β) for the purpose of something
    
     b.) (temporal) after
     c.) (figurativ) 
    
       α) according to an order: next, after  
       β) appropriate
    

The following 240 entries in the Gemoll dictionary with a prefix of 'μετ-' are showing the same irregularities as in most european languages, trying to bring some near-order into the descripton of perception and action in the 5 categories of neighborhood in space and time and analogously into social, causal and logical dependencies.

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