Augment (linguistics)

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In linguistics, the augment is a syllable added to the beginning of the word in certain Indo-European languages, most notably Greek, Armenian and Indo-Iranian languages such as Sanskrit, to form the past tenses.

Indo-European languages[edit]

Historical linguists are uncertain whether the augment is a feature that was added to some branches of Indo-European or whether the augment was present in the parent language and lost by all other branches (see also Proto-Greek).


Ancient Greek[edit]

In Ancient Greek, the verb λέγω légo “I say” has the aorist ἔλεξα élexa “I said”. The initial ε e is the augment. When it comes before a consonant, it is called the "syllabic augment" because it adds a syllable. Sometimes the syllabic augment appears before a vowel because the initial consonant of the verbal root (usually digamma) was lost:[1]

  • *έ-ϝιδον *é-widon → (loss of digamma) *ἔιδον *éidon → (synaeresis) εἶδον eîdon

When the augment is added before a vowel, the augment and the vowel are contracted and the vowel becomes long: akoúō "I hear", ḗkousa "I heard". It is sometimes called the "temporal augment" because it increases the time needed to pronounce the vowel.[2]

Homeric Greek[edit]

In Homer, past-tense (aorist or imperfect) verbs appeared both with and without an augment.

  • ὣς φάτο — ὣς ἔφατο
    hṑs pháto — hṑs éphato
    "so he/she said"
  • ἦμος δ᾿ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
    êmos d' ērigéneia phánē rhododáktulos Ēṓs,
    "And when rose-fingered Dawn appeared, early-born,"

Modern Greek[edit]

Unaccented syllabic augment disappeared during the Byzantine period as a result of the loss of unstressed initial syllables. However, accented syllabic augments remained in place.[3] So Ancient ἔλυσα, ἐλύσαμεν "I loosened, we loosened" corresponds to Modern έλυσα, λύσαμε (élisa, lísame).[4] Temporal augment has not survived in the vernacular, which leaves the initial vowel unaltered: Ancient ἀγαπῶ, ἠγάπησα "I love, I loved"; Modern αγαπώ, αγάπησα (agapó, agápisa).


Sanskrit had the augment अ- / a-, prefixed to past-tense verbs (aorist and imperfect). [5]

stem present aorist imperfect English
ध / dhã दधति / dadhãti अधत् / adhãt अदधत् / adadhãt put
गम् / gam गच्छति / gacchati अगमत् / agamat अगच्छत् / agacchat go


Non-Indo-European languages[edit]

The term has also been extended to describe similar features in non-Indo-European languages.

In Nahuatl, the perfect ō- prefix is called an augment.

In certain Bantu languages such as Zulu, the term "augment" refers to the initial vowel of a noun class prefix such as (in Zulu) umu-, ama-. That vowel may be present or absent, according to grammatical rules.

Constructed languages[edit]

In J. R. R. Tolkien's High Elvish, the repetition of the first vowel before the perfect (for instance utúlië, perfect tense of túlë, "come") is also called an augment.


  1. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth. Greek Grammar. par. 429: syllabic augment.
  2. ^ Smyth. par. 435: temporal augment.
  3. ^ Browning, Robert (1983). Medieval and Modern Greek (p58).
  4. ^ Sophroniou, S.A. Modern Greek. Teach Yourself Books, 1962, Sevenoaks, p79.
  5. ^ Coulson, Michael. Teach yourself Sanskrit. p. 244. Hodder and Stoughton, 1976, Sevenoaks.
  6. ^ Clackson, James. 1994. The Linguistic Relationship Between Armenian and Greek. London: Publications of the Philological Society, No 30. (and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)