Robert Browning’s ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral’, first published in Men and Women (1855), describes some of the grammarian’s achievements:

He settled Hoti’s business—let it be!—
      Properly based Oun
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
      Dead from the waist down.

In context, Hoti, Oun and De are puzzles of ancient Greek grammar which the grammarian had solved, or at least believed he had solved. Are these real philological puzzles, or are they Browning’s inventions? The Browning Cyclopedia says only that “these are points in Greek grammar concerning which grammarians have written learned treatises” (p. 197) which is no more than a reader might guess from the text of the poem.


1 Answer 1


Enclitic De

For this allusion we have an explanation from Browning himself:

The following letter by Browning appeared in the London Daily News of Nov. 21, 1874: “To the Editor of The Daily News. Sir,—In a clever article this morning you speak of ‘the doctrine of the enclitic De’—‘which, with all deference to Mr. Browning, in point of fact does not exist.’ No, not to Mr. Browning: but pray defer to Herr Buttman, whose fifth list of ‘enclitics’ ends ‘with the inseparable De’—or to Curtius, whose fifth list ends also with ‘De (meaning “towards” and as a demonstrative appendage).’ That this is not to be confounded with the accentuated ‘De, meaning but,’ was the ‘doctrine’ which the Grammarian bequeathed to those capable of receiving it.—I am, sir, yours obediently, R.B.”—Browning Soc. Papers, Part I., p. 56

Hiram Corson (1889). An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry, p. 298. Boston: D. C. Heath.

The cited works are these:

§14.1. A number of monosyllabic and dissyllabic words, owing to their signification and pronunciation, may be so closely joined with the preceding word, as to throw the accent on that word. And as these words in that case lean or incline, as it were, (ἑγκλίνεσθαι,) on the preceding word, they are called Enclitics […]

2. Such enclitics are:— […] 5) The particles πὼ, τὲ, τοὶ, θὴν, γὲ, κὲν or κὲ, νὺν or νὺ, ϖὲρ, ῤὰ, with the inseparable δε. […]

As such a word through inclination coalesces almost into one with the preceding word, many words, commonly combined with an enclitic for a peculiar meaning, are also written close together […]. The enclitic δε (which is very different from δὲ, but,) occurs merely in this way in ὅδε, τοσόσδε, ὥδε, δόμονδε, &c.

Philipp Karl Buttmann (1792). Dr. Philip Buttmann’s Intermediate or Larger Greek Grammar, pp. 28–29. Translated by D. Boileau (1833). London: Black, Young & Young.

§92. The following are enclitics: […] 5. The particles γέ, quidem; τέ, and; τοί, truly; νύν or νύ, now; Hom. κέν or κέ, perhaps, I suppose; ῤά (ἄρά), then; Hom. θήν, truly; πέρ, very; and δέ (meaning toward, and as a demonstrative appendage).

Georg Curtius (1852). A Grammar of the Greek Language, p. 32. Translated by William Smith (1872). New York: Harper.

Hoti’s business

David Jasper says that this is an allusion to a difficulty in Mark 4:12:

Browning’s lines come as a dire warning to all who still think it worthwhile to teach Greek grammar. They alone, perhaps, will recognise what a stroke of genius it takes to settle Hoti’s business. How is this so?

The reference is to one of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels, Mark chapter 4, which is concerned with Jesus’s teaching about the parables and in particular refers to verse 12, which refers back to the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 6:9. Here Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples that parables are told ‘so that (íνα) they may look and look but see nothing, and listen and listen, but hear nothing, lest (μηποτε) they shall turn again and be forgiven.’ The implication appears to be that parables are told to prevent these people from understanding! The writer of Matthew’s Gospel, who was almost certainly working from the text of Mark, appears to be trying to overcome the problem of Jesus’s deliberate mystification of the people by replacing íνα (‘in order that’) with ότι (‘because’), and with this small change, the whole sense is turned around. Parables in the Matthean version are told precisely because people try to look but fail to see.

David Jasper (2005). ‘Settling Hoti’s Business: the Impossible Necessity of Biblical Translation.’ In Lynne Long, ed. Translation and Religion: Holy Untranslatable?, p. 76. Multilingual Matters.

I am not convinced that Jasper is correct, because (i) it’s not clear that Browning means the poem to be a “dire warning”—it is more ambiguous and ironic than that; (ii) the puzzling word is not ὄτι in Matthew 13:13, but ἵνα in Mark 4:12, and so if Browning had wanted to refer to this, he would have done better to write “Hina’s business”; and (iii) I am not convinced that this was a well-known puzzle in the 1850s: the only early reference to it that I have been able to find is this one:

These texts of St. Mat. 13.13. St. Mark 4.12. and St. Luke 8.10. do in the Greek all agree; but are differently and wrongly translated in the English, and seem to make our Saviour speak to the Multitude in Parables, that is, in a plain and familiar Way, that they may not perceive or understand them, which is contrary to the Design of Christ’s coming into the World, and continuing so long in it; which was to reform Mankind, and, by his holy Life and heavenly Doctrine, to turn Men from their wicked Ways, and put them in the Way that leads to eternal Happiness. The Mistake in the Translation must proceed from the false rendring the Word ina in St. Mark, and St. Luke, which St. Matthew expresses by hoti, both which Words signify in this Place because.

Laurence Howell (1725). A Compleat History of the Holy Gospel, 4th edition, volume II, p. 84. London: E. & R. Nutt.

Howell says, arguing only on doctrinal grounds, that ἵνα needs to be translated “because”, but a look at a concordance will show that it cannot be as straightforward as that.

Properly based Oun

I have no good ideas on this one, unless it is that οὖν is a discourse marker with many senses, so that it can be hard to determine what it means in a given context.

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