Stele marking the boundary (ὅρος) of the Athenian Agora; ca. 500 B.C.

Being and Saying

Two Greek verbs, εἰμί and φημί, are inflected much like δείκνυμι. Following the general Greek principle of spelling words as they sound, each shows spelling changes that reflect changes in pronunciation over time. These verbs are common, and important to master.

I. εἰμί

The most common verb in Greek is εἰμί, to be. Like most Indo-European languages, the verb to be tends to exhibit irregular forms. Consider the present indicative of to be in English: I am; You are; (S)he/it is…

The Present Indicative Active of εἰμί likewise exhibits irregularities of form and accent that require memorization (S 768; GPH p. 178).

εἰμί  I am

ἐσμέν we are

εἶ you are

ἐστέ you all are

ἐστί(ν) (s)he, it is

εἰσί(ν) they are

Present infinitive active: εἶναι

As you memorize the inflection of this verb, it may be helpful to understand the sound changes reflected in these forms. Recall that a Greek verb builds out from its VERB STEM, which designates the action that the verb describes. The verb stem for εἰμί is:

  • ἐσ = “be”

Recall also the personal endings that indicate person and number of the present, indicative, active:

μι = I (1st person singular)

μεν = we (1st person plural)

ς = you (2nd person singular)

τε = y’all (2nd person plural)

σι(ν) = (s)he, it (3rd person sg)

ασι(ν) = they (3rd person pl)

Present Active Infinitive: –ναι

At first glance, then, this verb appears to be behaving badly; only ἐσμέν and ἐστέ appear to be regular. One of the problems, no surprise, is the sigma. Since the verb εἰμί has a stem ending in a –σ, contractions and irregularities in pronunciation – and therefore spelling – occur once the personal endings are added.

Consider, for example, the following changes:

  • ἐσμί → εἰμί  (1st person, singular)
  • ἔσναι → εἶναι (present infinitive)

Note the pattern: each of these forms begins with εἰ-, and the –σ has been lost. This process – in which a short vowel is lengthened (here, ε + ε = ει) in order to make up for the loss of a consonant during pronunciation – is called COMPENSATORY LENGTHENING (S 37). More often than not, the consonant loss that led to compensatory lengthening was –σ– (S 105).

The most unusual forms of εἰμί are εἶἐστί and εἰσί. The form εἶ comes from ἔσσι, which reflects an old form of the 2nd Person Singular, –σι. Over time, the σ‘s dropped out, producing έἐεἶ (S 770). The form ἐστί is actually regular; it just uses the prehistoric 3rd Person Present Indicative Active ending, –τι (S 463c). In fact, εἰμί is the only verb in Classical Greek to retain this prehistoric personal ending unchanged. Similarly, the personal ending –ντι is the original 3rd Person Plural Present Indicative Active ending; εἰσί is the result of gradual changes in the pronunciation of the putative verb form ἐσντί (S 463). In other words, the irregularities found in εἶἐστί and εἰσί in fact reflect survivals from an earlier period of spoken Greek!


II. Enclitic Accents

Note that εἰμί appears not to conform with the RECESSIVE ACCENT rules that we learned. In fact, for the Present Indicative Active, only the 2nd person singular, εἶ, follows the accent rules that apply to verbs (see above).

All the other Present Indicative forms of εἰμί were pronounced as though they were suffixes to the words that preceded them, much like Latin –que. Such words are called ENCLITIC, meaning they lean on the preceding word for their accent. The rules for accenting ENCLITIC WORDS are as follows:

Rule 1:

If an enclitic has ONE or TWO SYLLABLES, and the preceding word has an ACUTE accent on its ANTEPENULT, the preceding word adds an acute accent on its last syllable, and the enclitic word receives no accent.

  • ἝλληνεςἝλληνές  ἐσμεν. (= Ἕλληνέσεσμεν)
    • We are Greeks.

Note that the acute accent on the ultima does NOT change to grave. It is as if the whole combination of preceding word and enclitic were pronounced as one, and accented recessively.

Rule 2:

Similarly, if an enclitic has ONE or TWO SYLLABLES, and the preceding word has a CIRCUMFLEX accent on its PENULT, the preceding word again adds an acute accent on its last syllable, and the enclitic receives no accent.

  • παῖδες → παῖδές  ἐσμεν. (= πάὶδέσεσμεν )
    • We are children.

Rule 3:

If an enclitic has TWO SYLLABLES, and the preceding word has an ACUTE accent on its PENULT, the enclitic retains its own accent on its ULTIMA. If the enclitic has only ONE SYLLABLE, it does not receive an accent.

  • φίλοι  ἐσμέν.
    • We are friends.
  • λέγεις  τε  καὶ  γράφεις.
    • You speak and you write.
    • (note: τε is another enclitic word, meaning and)

Rule 4:

If an enclitic has ONE or TWO SYLLABLES, and the preceding word has ANY ACCENT on the ULTIMA, then the enclitic usually receives no accent.

  • ἁλωτοί ἐσμεν.
    • We are captured.
  • εἰ οἱ λῃσταί εἰσιν ἀγαθοί
    • If the pirates are good…


Sometimes ἐστι is found with a recessive accent: ἔστι. This is usually done either because the verb is at the beginning of a sentence to emphasize that something exists, or to serve as the equivalent of there is

  • ἔστιν ἡ ἀλήθεια. 
    • The Truth exists.
  • οὐκ ἔστιν. 
    • No there isn’t!


For a download of all the accent rules for verbs, click here: Greek Accents Verbs.


III. φημί

Like εἰμί, φημί, to say, assert, is another common verb that exhibits a few irregularities.

  • φη– is the stem for singular forms.
  • φα– is the stem for plural forms (and the infinitive).

Note here that the long vowel of the stem in the singular forms has been shortened for the plural. This is also a characteristic of the verbs that we cover in the next lesson.

The Present Indicative Active of φημί (S 783; GPH p. 169):

φημί  I say

φαμέν we say

φῄς (iota subscript!) you say

φατέ you all say

φησί (s)he, it says

φασί ( = φαασι) they say

Present infinitive active: φάναι

Note that the accent pattern of φημί is the same as εἰμί, which indicates that φημί is – with the exception of the 2nd person singular – also an ENCLITIC. The Present Indicative forms of these two verbs are the ONLY ENCLITIC VERBS in Greek.

  • ὡς οἱ Ἕλληνές φασιν, … (= Ἕλληνέσφασιν)
    • As the Greeks say
  • ὥσπερ φασίν
    • As they say…

– τὸ τέλος –


Key Terms and Concepts



  • εἰμί be
  • φημί say


Ι. Conjugate from memory εἰμί and φημί in the present, indicative, active, and provide the present active infinitive for each.

ΙΙ. The following are nouns followed by enclitics. These nouns have forms that we will learn later; do not worry about translating them. Provide the additional accent (if any!) for each noun-enclitic pair, based upon the enclitic accent rules.

  1. ἄνθρωπος ἐστιν
  2. μολπῆς φημι
  3. ὁπλίτης φησι
  4. ἡμέρα ἐστι
  5. ἀγαθοί ἐσμεν
  6. στρατιῶται εἰσιν

ΙΙΙ. For each form, give the person and number, and translate.

  1. φαμέν
  2. εἶ
  3. εἰσίν
  4. φησί
  5. φατέ
  6. εἰμί

IV. Provide the appropriate Greek verb form for each of the following.

  1. to say
  2. they are
  3. he is
  4. they say
  5. to be
  6. you all are saying
  7. it exists
  8. she is
  9. I say
  10. you (singular) are



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Ancient Greek for Everyone Copyright © by Wilfred E. Major and Michael Laughy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.