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In a comment on this answer, TKR brought up an interesting point of grammar I'd never heard of.

Αἴαντε [Ajax-DUAL] is an interesting case. Though readers of Homer since antiquity have interpreted it as "the two Ajaxes", this seems to be a misunderstanding: it originally meant "Ajax and Teucer", an Indo-European "elliptical dual" (where dual of X means "X and someone closely associated with X").

This sounds interesting, but I've never heard of an "elliptical dual" before. How and when was it used in Greek? Clear, unambiguous examples (i.e. where it's clear it doesn't mean "the two X") would be especially appreciated.

  • I think the term associative is much more common in contemporary linguistic research, whereas elliptical is redolent of the Junggrammatiker, imho. – Alex B. Dec 12 '18 at 1:25
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I don't think there are any really clear uses in Greek; the elliptical dual is an archaic Indo-European construction which is no longer productive in Greek, and the elliptical interpretation of Αἴαντε (and the parallel Μολίονε) is based on the usage of other IE languages, mainly Sanskrit.

In Sanskrit, however, the usage is pretty clear. Basically, the idea is that you can refer to a pair of people or things that go together by using the dual form of one of the pair. Some examples:

  • pitarau "father-DUAL" = "father and mother"
  • mātarau "mother-DUAL" = "mother and father"
  • Mitrā "Mitra-DUAL" = "Mitra and Vāruna"
  • ahanī "day-DUAL" = "day and night"
  • dyāyā "heaven-DUAL" = "heaven and earth"
  • aulūkhalau "mortar-DUAL" = "mortar and pestle"

There are similar examples in Avestan, and possibly in Lithuanian and Tocharian. And even Latin, which has lost the dual, has examples using plural morphology: Castorēs "Castor and Pollux", Cererēs "Ceres and Persephone".

  • In Old Norse "A noun (usually a proper name) was often put in apposition, or partial apposition, to a dual pronoun of the first or second person ... as vit Hǫttr 'Hǫtt and I'; þit móðir mín 'you and my mother'" - E. V. Gordon, introduction to Old Norse. – Colin Fine Dec 11 '18 at 23:05
  • @ColinFine Some dialects of French have this too: nous deux Jean 'Jean and I'. It's a somewhat different construction, though. – TKR Dec 11 '18 at 23:10
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    (Called ekaśeṣa (एकशेष) by the Sanskrit grammarians, if anyone wants to read more about the Sanskrit case.) – ShreevatsaR Dec 12 '18 at 7:07
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Common also in classical Arabic, e.g.:

al-qamarāni “the two moons” for “sun and moon”

al-ʼabawāni “the two fathers” for “father and mother”

al-furatāni “the two Euphrates” for “Tigris and Euphrates”

al-ʻumarāni “the two ʻUmars” for the first two caliphs, Abū Bakr and ʻUmar.

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