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ἤ as introductory particle: standard of comparison


ἦν δὲ καὶ πρὸς οἶνον ἧττον ἢ ἐδόκει καταφερής.

‘He was less devoted to wine than is generally assumed.’ (Plut. Alex. 23)

The particle ἤ (or ἤε) signals a standard of comparison as an adjective complement or an object.

Syntactic usage

If the word following ἤ is a nominal form, it is put in the same case as the first element in the comparison. Functionally, therefore, ἤ corresponds to the English than and the Latin quam.
If two qualities are being compared both the first and the second quality are put in the comparative (e.g. συντομώτερον ἢ σαφέστερον ‘more concise than clear’).

Historical background

As a coordinating conjunction with the meaning ‘or’ ἤ (or ἤε) has disjunctive force, i.e. ἤ contrasts two elements with each other: ‘either the one, or the other’. We find the same disjunctive force in expressions of a standard of comparison.
According to the linguist Émile Benveniste the two ways of expressing a standard of comparison (the particle ἤ and the genitive) go back to PIE. On the specific meaning of the particle ἤ he says: “Le domaine propre de ce type de comparaison est celui du choix entre deux objets en présence, ce qui est accordé à l’un se trouvant refusé à l’autre. C'est donc une alternative, signalée par une véritable disjonction.”

Example Sentences: 

πάντων τῶν ἄλλων ῥᾷον εἴη ζῴων ἢ ἀνθρώπων ἄρχειν

It would be easier to rule over all other animals than over man.

διὰ γὰρ οὐδὲν ἄλλο μοι δοκεῖ παρασκευάσαι τόνδε μοι τὸν κίνδυνον οὗτος ἢ διὰ φθόνον

Because I think he prepared this danger for me for no other reason than jealousy. [provisional translation]

ὁ γὰρ παρὼν καιρὸς οὐκ ἐᾷ μυθολογεῖν, ἀλλ’ ἀναγκαῖον ἦν συντομώτερον ἢ σαφέστερον διαλεχθῆναι περὶ αὐτῶν

The present occasion does not allow me to tell fables, but it is necessary to speak concisely rather than clearly about these matters. ֍

κρέσσονές εἰσιν αἱ τῶν πεπαιδευμένων ἐλπίδες ἢ ὁ τῶν ἀμαθῶν πλοῦτος.

The hope of educated people is stronger than the wealth of uneducated people. ֍