I have only studied the very basics of Greek years ago, so the question might be simple, but I couldn't find a clear summary anywhere. Attic Greek has a dual number alongside singular and plural. When was this number used? Was it used whenever there were two items but never otherwise, or just rarely in some archaic expressions? Would it always be safe to use the plural instead or are there situations where the dual is required?

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    Viti 2013 mentions that "In the Classical period, the dual is viable only in Attic. In the Koine and in New Testament Greek, the dual has virtually disappeared. This decay, however, is not unilinear. The dual in Homeric Greek, for example, is mostly retained in pronouns (Viti 2011:596), while in Classical Greek it is more common in noun." – Alex B. Dec 9 '18 at 6:02

I hope someone posts a more thorough answer, but as a starting point, my impression of Attic usage (at least as exemplified by Plato) is as follows. First, the dual is always optional, both in nouns and verbs; it doesn't seem ever to be obligatory and can always be replaced with a plural. On the other hand, it isn't terribly rare, archaic, or limited to specific referents or registers, either. Plato's speakers seem to use it fairly productively, if inconsistently. Overall it looks like in Plato's time the dual was still part of the living everyday language, but was in the process of getting ousted by the plural.


In Homer, the dual seems to be freely used whenever two items are mentioned, but this became rarer as time went on. It's interesting that in Hebrew (which also had a dual), the use of the dual was basically confined to items that naturally occurred in pairs, e.g. Heb. yadayim (a dual form) from yad "hand", but in the Iliad, at least, we have such forms as Αἴαντε, "the two Ajaxes" (in spite of the fact that they merely shared a name). But, even in Homer, the plural always seems to be a possible alternative to the dual.

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    Did Greek's dual eventually reach a point like Hebrew's, where it was only used for natural pairs (such as eyes)? – Draconis Dec 8 '18 at 5:26
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    Unfortunately, I don't think this answers the question, which is specifically about Attic Greek. A note about Plato's use (which is certainly not as consistent as Homer's!) would be helpful – brianpck Dec 8 '18 at 6:03
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    Carlotta Viti (Viti 2011) did a corpus study on the dual forms in Homeric Greek (based on 6,255 verses in the Iliad). It was minor, facultative, and was already in decline (cf. Chantraine 1953), often being replaced by the plural. Viti also argues that the dual in Homeric Greek functions as a paucal. – Alex B. Dec 9 '18 at 6:00
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    She made a very interesting observation, "Non-inherently binary referents more frequently appear in the dual if they are human and salient in the context, while the plural is more common with nouns denoting animals and inanimate referents." – Alex B. Dec 9 '18 at 6:05
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    Though it's strictly off topic as @brianpck says, in case it's useful to anyone I'll link here to a full inventory of duals in the Iliad, distinguished by type: documents.kenyon.edu/classics/current/… – TKR Dec 11 '18 at 19:46

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