Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (VI)

Well, I hope by this point, I’ve done a few things:

  1. Convinced you that Greek has an active v. middle voice system, in which the middle domain covers a range of different categories, all generally united by ‘subject affectedness’
  2. Convinced you that ‘deponency’ is not a useful concept for explaining verbs that do not appear with active morphology.
  3. Given you a reasonable account of most of those semantic categories, thereby giving an explicit account of why their ‘middleness’ makes sense.
  4. Shown that Latin deponents, by and large, represent historic middles from a PIE origin, and can be accounted for mostly under the same types of categories.
  5. Show that the ‘passive’ forms in Greek are also a category of middle-morphology.

But what does this mean for teaching and learning? I wrote these posts partly to force myself to work through some of the research, partly to make it clearer in my own mind, but also to try and bridge some of the gap between linguistics and general classical-language education. In my experience, a lot of this simply never makes it down to teachers, let alone students, of these languages.

For the grammar-translation context

If you teach in a relatively ‘traditional’ mode of grammar presentation, and translation as exercise, I think there are certain things you can do.

Firstly, change your terminology. Start referring to Greek as having an active vs. middle (or mediopassive) voice system. Explain that ‘middle’ means a range of categories that represent some form of ‘subject affectedness’, and that as your students encounter various types of middle verbs, you’ll point out what those categories are. Don’t try to present them as I have here! Rather, on a case by case approach, simply say, “here’s a new verb ἔρχομαι. It’s middle in its forms, because verbs indicating translational body motion are often middle.”

Greek students need to be met with the idea early that Greek voice is quite different to the Active-Passive system in English, and isn’t best understood with reference to English, but learning to accept it on its own terms. My mantra here, as elsewhere, is meaning comes first, then translation.

I think it’s worth adopting the language of media tantum (‘middle only’) for verbs that lack active counterparts. But I also think it’s worth adopting the language of middle-preferred or middle-primary for verbs that mostly and ‘by default’ appear in the middle, treating their active counterparts as the secondary/subsidiary form (e.g. causatives).

As students meet more middle-only and middle-preferred verbs, you can begin to systematise some of the semantic categories, and give more general explanations for why these verbs tend to show middle morphology as an expression of middle semantics.

It’s still worth preparing them/inoculating them, against the ‘deponent’ explanation, by giving a short historical rationale for why this language was used, and why you don’t. I often say, “middle in meaning active in translation”, to highlight that active translations in English reflect English voice and semantics, not Greek.

For Latin, I think a similar approach can be taken, except that there really is an active vs. passive voice system, and so when historic-middle verbs begin to appear in your classes, it’s worth stopping and giving a short historical explanation, “These are verbs that indicate subject affectedness and often changes-of-state, they have passive morphology because they were originally middle. etc..”

Communicative Language Teaching

In some ways, it’s actually far easier to teach these in a CLT approach. You simply introduce them without comment. You don’t need to explain why orior is an -r formation, or ἔρχομαι has a middle ending, any more than you need to stop and explain verb endings. You just introduce them in ways that are comprehensible, and it’s only if students begin asking questions that you need to pause and give, e.g. some pop-up grammar.

That could be as simple as, “oh, some verbs use these endings instead, because of what they mean.” The ongoing exposure to their usage in regular conversation, and readings, will make clear enough how they are used.

For students that persist, the same approach as any grammar-curious student – a short explanation on the spot, then follow up with a more detailed explanation outside the communicative context, or a written-up version (perhaps not quite the version I’ve done, though you can try!)

My own take-aways

For myself, reading through Kemmer, Allan, Aubrey, and bits and pieces elsewhere has helped crystallise my understanding of voice systems in both Latin and Greek. I have a much clearer understanding of Latin deponency, and a stronger articulation of Greek’s middle system, including how the ‘middle’ forms and the η/θη forms carve up the middle domain. From here on I’ll be using terminology such as mediopassive voice, middle-only, middle-primary, and explaining the selection of voice based on the semantics of the lexical items in question. And, in CLT contexts, I’ll be worrying less about “used-to-be-called-deponents” as being oddities, and treating them more as a normal and regular feature of the language.


A pdf of this whole series is available, slightly edited and formatted. You are free to distribute it under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 licence.

I’d be very happy to hear from you, if you have corrections, suggestions, additions, or just generally in response to this series of posts!

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (V)

So, about Latin then 

All through this series (one, two, three, four) I’ve been careful to include Latin examples of the various semantic categories covered. That’s because I’ve often wondered about Latin – does it really have deponent verbs? The answer is, it’s complicated.

It’s complicated by two factors: firstly, how we define ‘deponency’, and secondly how we understand the Latin middle-only verbs. However, by the traditional description of “passive verb with active meaning”, and “verbs that ‘set aside’ (deponere) their active forms”, no. That’s not true.

But if we mean simply ‘defective paradigms’ or ‘form-function mismatch’, that does appear to be sometimes the case in Latin, because Latin is not Greek. Latin does have an active vs. passive morphosyntactic opposition, not an active vs. middle. So the passive only verbs in Latin are more anomalous. For the most part, they appear to be verbs that were historically middle in an earlier stage of Latin’s development from PIE, and so one can usually see that categorisation at work, though for some verbs it remains elusive (see earlier discussions on loquor for instance). However, Latin deponents often take active morphology for participle and gerundive forms.

Late Latin, however, may be a different situation. There you see verbs switching from active to ‘deponent’ (at least, true deponency!) or vice versa moving from passive-only to active morphology. Generally however the trend is for deponents to become active-morphology verbs. This might be linked to the loss of synthetic passives in place of novel analytic forms.

At the end of today’s post I give a lengthier list of Latin deponents and the kind of middle semantic category I see them as.


“Semi-deponents” are the label often used for verbs that appear to have regular active morphology in one tense-form, but switch to a middle (or passive, in Latin) form in another tense system.

Much as I dislike the term ‘deponent’, I am going to keep using ‘semi-deponent’ at least for this post. There are two categories of semi-deponents, as I see it. The first are words where the paradigm is in fact suppletive. That is, the stem used in one tense is altogether different from the stem used in another. The second, then, are words that do not involve suppletive formations.

Suppletives: ἔρχομαι and ἦλθον

Probably the most well-known Greek example of suppletion is ἔρχομαι. This verb, as most students encounter it anyway, means ‘to come’ (though, a read through LSJ will make you a bit wiser on that score), and its aorist is supplied by ἦλθον, its future in Attic is supplied by present-forms of εἶμι. I’m only going to talk about the present v. aorist alternation here.

Now, the fact that ἔρχομαι is middle-only we referenced back in our second post. It’s a type of translational-body-motion middle, and ἔρχω is found only as a barbarism or as a point of discussion by grammarians. One may translate it regularly as an intransitive active in English, but that’s beside the point, its Greek semantics are middle.

Why then is ἦλθον morphologically active? I would suggest the reason is this: the semantics of that stem encode different features.

Now, let’s do some analogising to see how this works and how you might explain it, to yourself or to students.

Firstly, just because many verbs of translational bodily motion are middle, doesn’t mean that they have to be middle. βαίνω and βαδίζω involve the same idea, but they are active in morphology.

Secondly, in English we have but a few words that involve suppletion. go/went is a nice example. We teach people that this is ‘irregular’, but really ‘go’ and ‘went’ are formed from two separate stems and the past tense of ‘go’ was replaced, with went, in about the 15th century as I understand it.

Thirdly, in English we also have words that occupy roughly the same semantic space. I’m going to use devour and eat as my example. In normal usage, eat can take an object, but it can be omitted (some would call this ‘ambitransitive’. So James eats the apple and James eats are both fine. devour is necessarily transitive. James devours the apple is fine, but *James devours is not normally acceptable (yes, I realise that there are some meanings of devours for which this seems okay, don’t write to me about it).

Now… (imagination caps on): imagine that in the 15th century we’d stopped using the present of devour and we’d also stopped using the past of eat. So we started to supply devoured as the past of eats.

James eats the apple

James devoured apple

James eats

*James devoured        (better>) James devoured the meal

So that we considered it incorrect English to express the past without supplying the object.

Do you see how this is a case where two roots can be used together with suppletion, but different syntactical entailments? I know it’s a little bit of a stretch, but I hope you got there.

This, I think, is the best way to conceptualise ἔρχομαι/ἦλθον. The present derives from PIE *h₁ergʰ- , the aorist from *h₁ludʰét, and the two roots encode different voice.

Non-Suppletives: the Greek ‘middle futures’

While the prior explanation of why some verbs are middle in some tense/aspect systems but not others works with suppletive verbs, it does not explain why some verbs are active in one system, but middle-only in another. In particular, a reasonably large number of Greek verbs become middle in the future. I confess, I found this puzzling, and while I have come across some answers, they are not entirely satisfying.

I first turned to R.J. Allan’s thesis on the middle voice. Again, I don’t have published book version, perhaps he had more to say in that than in the thesis. Nevertheless, at the start of chapter 4 on the future, he has this footnote:

Another interesting issue is the occurrence of middle future forms of – mostly intransitive – active presents (εἰμί – ἔσομαι). From a synchronical point of view, the middle inflection of these futures can be explained by their semantics. All verbs in question involve a physical or mental affectedness of the subject, e.g.. perception ἀκούσομαι, motion βήσομαι, receiving λήψομαι, change of state θανοῦμαι. Ἔσομαι appears to be the only exception. Historically, these middle futures may be explained as former desideratives. The middle voice, then, expressed the mental involvement of the subject. For further details, I refer to Rijksbaron (2002: 156).

Now, for the most part that makes some sense. (a) It’s common to say that the future system (and the subjunctive) developed out of a desiderative (< desire, for those who don’t love jargon) form at an earlier stage of the language (aka PIE), and (b) you can see that all (really, all?) the verbs involved in this form of semi-deponency fit into the semantic categories already established: subject affectedness, especially mental involvement, which is heightened in the desiderative, enough perhaps to ‘tip’ an active into a middle only.

Rijksbaron does treat this, on pages 156-57 of his The Syntax and Semantics of the Greek Verb (an excellent read, by the way). For his part, he classifies them as verbs “denoting essential functions of body and mind”, in categories related to sound, various types of excretion or extrusion, physical-and-mental grasping-and-taking, movement, and bodily affection. You can see how most of these are close to the ‘middle’ domain already.

He then says, “This phenomenon” that is, the middle only/dominance in the future) “is not easy to explain”. Following C.J. Ruijgh, he attributes it to the σε/σο suffix for these having an originally desiderative value, and thus also have a preference for middle endings. Thus, the diachronic development hypothesised is that the σε/σο suffix preferred middle endings first, and then was applied to corresponding active forms, but only when the active form would have a meaningful opposition to the existing middle form.

That, I have to say, is quite interesting, if only because of the way the middle form is prior and primary in the diachronic development. Is it true? Hard for me to say. Does it have some explanatory power for middle-only futures? Yes, it seems to.

Although, at the end of the day (and this post), it’s worth remembering that in trying to understand the middle (or any apparently unusual feature of a language), we’re trying to describe what is, and it’s not up to a language to give us some neat system that justifies its logic to us. Yes, often there is a logical explanation for why linguistic phenomenon X is X, but there doesn’t have to be some kind of “this is the way the language thinks about this thing.” Sometimes you just have to say, “well, it’s just like that”.


Non-Suppletives: the Latin perfects

There’s a third set of semi-deponents which I confess have resisted my attempts to find a good accounting of. These are the Latin perfects. They are few, being primarily audeō, fīdō, gaudeō, soleō, and their compounds, which switch to a periphrastic passive in the perfect system: ausus, fīsus, gāvīsus, solitus + sum.

I don’t have any answer for these. I’ve tried a few avenues of exploration, but have so far come up empty-handed. I’m very open to hearing from someone a historical-linguistic explanation for these!

Latin middle-only verbs categorised

abitror to think Cognitive, Mental Process
cōnor to try, attempt indirect reflexive (cf. ἐργάζομαι – e.g. self-exertion for benefit)
hortor to encourage, urge Emotive Speech
moror to delay Body motion?
mīror to wonder at Perception, or cognitive
testor to witness Emotive speech
polliceor to promise Emotive Speech
videor to seem Sp-Pr, or Passive-Middle
vereor to fear Mental Process, Emotion
mereor to deserve, earn Indirect
loquor to speak << derived from colloquor ??
colloquor to converse Reciprocal
patior to suffer Passive-Middle
queror to complain Emotive speech
proficīscor to set out, depart Translational body motion
aggredior to approach, attach Translational body motion
congredior to meet, come together Collect. Motion M.
ēgredior to go out, disembark Translational body motion
prōgredior to advance Translational body motion
sequor to follow < PIE chaining-middle ?
ūtor to use, make use of Indirect Reflexive
morior to die Sp-Pr
nāscor to be born, be found Sp-Pr
revertor to go back, return translation body motion? or
orior to rise, arise Sp-Pr (but also, change of body posture?)
potior to get possession of Indirect Middle
opperior to await, wait for ?
ordior to begin ? cf. ἄρχομαι
osculor to kiss naturally reciprocal
conflictor to fight naturally reciprocal
amplector to embrace naturally reciprocal
luctor to wrestle naturally reciprocal
altercor to wrangle naturally reciprocal
copulor to join, be linked naturally reciprocal; stative
misceor to assemble, unite naturally collective
congregor to gather, assemble naturally collective
colligor to gather naturally collective
venor to chase < PIE chaining middle.
consolor to take consolation Mental Event: Emotion
delector to delight in Mental Event: Emotion
misereor to pity Mental Event: Emotion
illacrimor to weep over Emotive Vocalisation
fateor to confess Speech Act
meditor to ponder, meditate Simple Cognitive
interpreter to interpret Simple Cognitive
comminiscor to think up, devise Simple Cognitive
conspicior to perceive, descry Perception
odōror to smell Perception
obliviscor to forget Complex cognitive
polliceor to promise commissive/intentive (complex mental)
scindor to split (intr) spontaneous event
tremblor to tremble spontaneous event, non-volitional movement

So, you want to log hours of language activity

How can you practically do this? How will I be doing this?

This is a follow-on post from this one.

Firstly, let me address an issue raised by my wife, which is comparing my Latin experience with Mongolian is apples and oranges. Because time spent in Mongolia was overwhelmingly communicative exposure, not ‘book time’. That’s precisely my point, in terms of that’s why it took a couple of years not decades to become competent. It’s both quantity and quality of input.

Of course, it’s hard to measure everything, and I don’t want to create paralysis by analysis. So here’s how I’ll be tracking language time in 2019:

I have a spreadsheet set up with the following fields:
Date, Language, Category, Quality, Time, Notes

Category is a drop-down box of Audio, Video, Reading, Communicative, and Grammar. That is, what type of activity did I do during the time.

Quality is a subjective rating from A to E, or 1-5, as you prefer. So “A” is something like a communicative session where we were in the target hour 90%+ of the time. B is an Audio/Video/Reading block in which I stayed mentally in the target language and processed at a decent speed. Etc.. You need to work this out for yourself a little. Grammar is always E. maybe even F.

When I say ‘count hours’, I mean A-quality hours. So I plan to also use the Quality rating to produce “weighted hours”. e.g. B is worth 80% of A time.

Time is measured in minutes.

Notes is where I record what I actually did during that time period. e.g., listening to Latin podcasts, reading some easy Greek, working on a text with a student.

I think this, or a similar system, is easy enough for anyone to implement. I’ll be posting some monthly reports and analyses myself. So at the end of January you’ll see what a month of this looks like.

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (IV)

We’ve spoken so far about a range of various ‘middle-domain’ events and actions, and in this post I focus in on our final group, related to Spontaneous Processes and Passive-Middles

(See posts onetwo, and three to get up to speed. All this work derives primarily from Suzanne Kemmer and Rutger Allan, with some others thrown in for fun)

Spontaneous Process events and the Passive-Middle

Kemmer moves on in her monograph to cover a range of ‘other’ categories that “impinge” on the middle (142), the categories of the “spontaneous events” and the “passive middle”.

A spontaneous event is one in which “the entity undergoing the change [of state] is the chief nominal participant” and “in which no Agent entity receives coding.” That is, there’s a subject, who undergoes a change of state, and no agent is mentioned. There may or may not be a ‘conceivable’ agent.

Allan notes that a spontaneous process thus differs from the passive-middle, because the latter implies an unspecified agent, the SP tends to exclude one. SP often have active counterpart verbs in Greek that are causative.

This includes various possible subcategories. E.g. biological processes: dying, growing, aging; physiochemical: melting, freezing, rusting; changes in properties: ‘greening’, ‘squaring’ (okay, I made that one up, but presumably there exists a language where you can regularly form a verb from the adjective ‘square’ and express the change of state that results in a square).

ἀπόλλυμαι – die
αὐξάνομαι – grow
γίγνομαι – come into being
τρέφομαι – grow up
φύομαι – grow
καίομαι – burn
τήκομαι – melt
λευκαίνομαι – become/grow white
θέρομαι  – become warm
φαίνομαι  – appear (Allan includes verbs of appearing & disappearing)

Allan also outlines reasons to adopt the “Spontaneous Process” label in preference to anticausative or similar (44) in that the middle form here is not secondary and derivative to a causal version or an active.

For Latin, we find

morior – to die
scindor – to tear, split
nascor – be born
orior – arise    (possible, certainly in its existential sense rather than posture)

Kemmer explores why these are middle in terms of the choice between portraying such an event as having an external Initiator (not always possible), or otherwise selecting the Patient as the chief participant and thus the event as ‘autonomous’.(145) In the case that there is an external Initiator, that participant is deemphasised. So “I die” might be an autonomous spontaneous process, or I might be killed by an angry proponent of grammar-translation, but even in the latter case, I have deemphasised the agent of the action.

Some types of non-volitional movement (e.g. shaking, cf. tremblor) may also be treated under this category; as well as generic ‘happen’ type verbs (γίγνομαι).

Kemmer goes on to consider passive-middles, in which an agent is understood to exist, but is deemphasised, whereas Allan treats that category prior to the SM. Allan also helpfully notes that several verbs in the SP category can be considered to occur with or without an external agent, and so categorisation is difficult in absolute terms. Nonetheless, in both cases, the Patient, and the change-of-state event, are the highlighted or dominant features of the presentation.

That basically concludes all the semantic categories treated in Kemmer, and mostly in Allan. And, I hope by now, you have some sense of how most Greek middle verbs readily fall into these categories.

The η/θη “passives” in diachronic and semantic focus

In the rest of today’s post I want to highlight the work of Allan, and Rachel Aubrey, in considering the η / θη aorist and future “passive” forms.


Allan’s work is broader, considering various morphological realisations of η vs θη as well as sigmatic aorists vs ‘passives’. In particularly, he does several interesting things: (1) considers the semantic distrubtion of alternatives, i.e. which categories of middle usage are found with which markers, (2) the morphological distribution, i.e. which stem-formations take which endings, (3) the diachronic development, i.e. how these forms shift over time from Homer onwards.

In Homer, he finds that SP favours η, passive or body motion favours θη. In classical, the distribution of all formation types shifts heavily from η to θη.

Over time, the collection of ‘middle-type’ categories, including the ‘passive-middle’, which are represented by the η/θη types, expands across the middle domain. Notably, Allan finds that the sigmatic aorist middle does not occur for Spontaneous Process or Passive-Middles in Homer, (111) but rather for animate subjects with volitional actions (111). There is overlap for mental process, collective motion, and body motion (112). By the classical period, the sigmatic is being used primarily for (indirect and direct reflexive, perception, mental activity, speech act, and reciprocal action), the θη type for (passive, spontaneous process, mental process, body motion, and collective motion) (117).

Why does this matter? Well, (1) the θη types are not a morphologically encoded passive as opposed to the sigmatic middle. Rather, the passive is a semantic subcategory. (2) that means there are simply two middle morphological forms in Greek, with the θη forms emerging from a “spontaneous process + passive-middle” core, but over time expanding to include other middle-type categories. (3) diachronically, the θη forms come to devour the sigmatic middles altogether; (4) in some verbs, contrastive sigmatic-middle vs. θη middle has semantic contrast, between different types of middle usage.


Rachel Aubrey, as I understand it, has been at work on a Masters’ thesis on the middle voice in Koine for some time, and I’m looking forward to it. She gives some anticipation of it in her article ‘Motivated Categories, Middle Voice, and Passive Morphology’[1]. She begins by highlighting the ways in which (θ)η forms break their expectations in not expressing passive syntax (566) and the fundamental problem with called (θ)η forms ‘deponents’ in expressing an ‘active’ meaning and ignoring the middle (567). On Aubrey’s construction (θ)η entered the language as expressing change of state, then extended to prototypical passives, and onward from there (571-2). Aubrey expresses it well in considering a semantic continuum, and that the sigmatic middles tended to express more agent-like or agent-active events, the (θ)η types as more patient-like. (573)

The -(θ)η- form is better understood as sharing a division of labor in the middle domain with the sigmatic middle forms than as an exclusively passive marker with defective, deponent exceptions. It marks the same set of middle event types subsumed within the semantic middle domain with respect to the other middle-passive morphology in the present and perfect paradigms.[2]

She also reaches further back, to PIE, in seeing the origin of (θ)η in the state-predicate marker *-eh1– which grammaticalizes into an aspect-voice inflectional marker (578-9).

Both Allan and Aubrey suggest that the (θ)η emerged in the aorist (and future) but not present because (θ)η is associated with telicity (i.e. the event has a conceptual ‘end-point’ which is reached), which the imperfective aspect forms (e.g. the present tense), do not.

Aubrey’s article goes on to give a robust prototypical explanation of semantic categories, participant roles, and the like, focused on the (θ)η forms. It concludes robustly with a reconsideration of the (θ)η forms along the same lines as Kemmer and Allan point us to.

Changing our categorization of -(θ)η- from the analogous English counterpart (passive) to a typologically attested middle form alters our view of Greek voice. Instead of seeing it as a passive marker with defective active outliers in an active-passive system, -(θ)η- is rightly treated as marking the less-transitive middle events—including passives—within a larger transitivity continuum in an active-middle system. The middle share of the space divides the labor across two morphological forms in the aorist and future compared to one in the present and perfect.[3]

And with that, I leave you for this post. In coming posts I will discuss some varieties of semi-deponency, talk about Latin’s voice system in more depth, and conclude with some application for reading and for pedagogy.


[1] Rachel Aubrey, “Motivated Categories, Middle Voice, and Passive Morphology,” in The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, ed. Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 563.

[2] Rachel Aubrey, “Motivated Categories, Middle Voice, and Passive Morphology,” in The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, ed. Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 575.

[3] Rachel Aubrey, “Motivated Categories, Middle Voice, and Passive Morphology,” in The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, ed. Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 620.

Logging hours in a language, not ‘years’

How many years have you been studying Greek?

18 years. Which is useless information. One of the things that has lodged deep in my brain from listening to Bill VanPatten et al., is that measuring ‘years’ is not actually very useful. And here’s a simple comparison. After 1 year in Mongolia I started teaching, not entirely in Mongolian, but certainly in a predominantly Mongolian classroom. By 18 months, I was running at least some of my classes entirely in Mongolian, and at about 2.5 years in, I not only ran my classes 100% in Mongolian, but I preached several times in Mongolian. That was the height of my Mongolian proficiency, and it was all achieved within 3 years.

So, what’s better than counting years? Hours.

I suppose one could count minutes but that’s going to be hard. Hours are more manageable, and here’s where this post is going:

In 2019 I’m going to actually log the hours I spend on language. I already log working hours on several projects, so I’m used to logging my time, I’m going to take that and expand it to logging every block of time I spend on Greek, Latin, and Gaelic, over the year. I’ll probably set up some sub-divisions (reading, grammar, communicative, teaching, learning) as well.

I think this will be a useful experiment for myself, and I am hoping the observation effect will push me to spend some more time on these languages too. And, here is an invitation to you – try logging your own hours for a month or two in 2019, and see what you discover about your own language habits.

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (III)

We’ve spoken so far about direct reflexives, and grooming actions, and three categories of body-action middles, including changes in body posture, non-translational motion, and translational motion.

(See posts one and two to get up to speed. All this work derives primarily from Suzanne Kemmer and Rutger Allan, with some others thrown in for fun)

In this post I’m going to talk through (i) Indirect reflexives, (ii) naturally reciprocal events, including collecting and chaining events, and the (iii) cognitive middle. In a 4th post, we’ll cover the important category of change of states and spontaneous processes, and a few odds and ends. A 5th post will treat some categories of semi-deponency.


Indirect Reflexives

A prototypical transitive event involves A (Agent) acting on B (Patient). While a direct reflexive occurs when B is also A.

Similarly, a prototypical indirect event involves A (Agent) acting on B (Patient), where C is a recipient or beneficiary. This becomes an indirect reflexive where C is, in fact, A. Kemmer treats this in pages 74-81. It becomes an indirect middle where the action involves is normally, usually, or typically undertaken with A as the beneficiary or recipient. E.g., just as direct reflexives tend to be marked with a reflexive marker (‘oneself’) unless customary/habitual/usual, so too indirect reflexives. She writes, “the indirect middle situation type comprises actions that one normally or necessarily  performs for one’s own benefit”.


αἱρεῖσθαι         to choose
κτάσθαι           to acquire for oneself

εὔχεσθαι          to pray


liceor              to acquire by bidding
apiscor            to get, acquire
potior              to get possession of

Allan has a fuller list of Greek verbs, which importantly includes δέχομαι, ἐργάζομαι, ἰάομαι, and ῥύομαι (at least in Homer). The ‘healing/preserving’ verbs may originally, he suggests, have had a sense of self-benefit built into the action.

In all these cases, the middle (and it’s very often a middle-only verb in view), indicates without any particular emphasis, that the subject stands as beneficiary and/or recipient.

Naturally reciprocal events

These are events which, by the very nature of the action itself, involve reciprocity. That is, whatever A is doing to B, B is doing to A. This draws on Lichtenberk (1985), and then expanded by Kemmer (p96-9101) to cover collective and chaining type events as well (see below).

Personally, I find the ‘fighting’ verbs a great example of this. In Greek, verbs like μάχομαι, ἐρίζομαι; but the category is not limited to fighting, as evidenced by the inclusion of διαλέγομαι and similar in this category.

Kemmer also considers actions such as meeting, joining, touching, kissing, etc., and the way that a difference in meaning may appear between expressing these with middle marking, versus explicit reciprocal marking. E.g. “They lovers kissed” vs. “The lovers kissed each other” (see page 111-4 for an in-depth discussion of the distinguishability of kisses)

Into this category fall Latin verbs such as:

osculor            to kiss
conflictor        to fight
amplector        to embrace
luctor              to wrestle
altercor           to wrangle
copulor           to be joined


A collective event differs in that where a naturally reciprocal event involves A > B, B > A, in the collective event, the action as a whole “is carried jointly be the participants involved”, and yet not individually (that is, not a distributed action), but as a group (i.e. the participants have low distinguishabilty from each other). Allan focuses in on particularly collective motion (2.1.5), primarily gathering and dispersing. λύομαι, interestingly, falls into this category, as do similar verbs of dissolution, as does (συλ)λέγομαι .

For Latin, examples such as misceor, congregor, colligor may be adduced.

This is an appropriate place to stop and discuss the troublesome Latin verb loquor. There’s no straightforward category for loquor to fall into. It doesn’t appear to be an emotive speech act (a category coming up…), nor is it easy to categorise as a speech act in which the Agent is normally the indirect beneficiary. It may be derived from a naturally reciprocal verb.

Thus Latin loquo-r, instead of containing an arbitrary instance of -r, can be explained as descended from an old verb of the naturally reciprocal type, possible meaning ‘converse (with each other)’. [Seumas: colloquor?] If this semantic reconstruction is correct (it must be noted there is no direct historical evidence for it) then the Latin verb at some point lost the sense of mutuality and began to occur with singular subjects with the meaning ‘speak’. A similar hypothesis could be invoked for the Latin deponent fo-r ‘speak’. (Kemmer, 108)

Of course, a reconstruction without any evidence is speculative, but it does account for a rather odd middle-only form in Latin.


I find this a fascinating subcategory. Instead of a relationship of where A stands to B as B stands to A, or a collective in which individual participants acts as a whole, this is the situation where A stands to B, as B stands to C, as C stands to D. There are not that many verbs (or situation-events!) that typically encode this idea. But one that consistently does so across Indo-European languages is ‘follow’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is sequor in Latin, and ἕπομαι in Greek, both media tantum forms. Even Old Irish maintains this as a middle form. Sihler, we may as well note, thinks its PIE root meant “keeps in sight” and is related to hunting (New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin, 449). Kemmer sees a different hunting connection, in that venor may have a similar ‘chain’ type semantics.


The cognitive middle

We now come to a rather broad category, which appears to depart from the kinds of ‘middle domain’ situations that can be easily related to the direct and indirect reflexives. What is it about these that tends to create middle-dominant or middle-only verb usage?

Kemmer begins with simple events, and the type of event going on. We have an Experiencer (i.e. the animate being having the mental experience), and a Stimulus (which brings about the mental event). The Stimulus may not be expressed, encoded, or it may be internal to the Experiencer. In any event, the entity involved as Experiencer is decisively the Endpoint for the event, and to a greater or lesser degree, they are (often) the Initiator. That is, it very often tends to be an event that the Experiencer initiates (hence middle), or else passively experiences (a kind of mental passive event, which Greek would encode as morphologically middle anyway).

This meta-category includes emotion events (conolor, delector, misereor, vereor), emotive speech-acts (queror, testor, ὀλοφύρομαι, μέμφομαι, αἰτιάομαι, ἀρνέομαι).

We might note here that Allan splits emotive speech acts from the cognition middle, and treats speech acts as their own category altogether, very often with the Subject as beneficiary or recipient, hence a form of indirect middle. Under that umbrella, he includes verbs of promising, commanding, asking, answering, and begging (e.g. εὔχομαι, ὑπισχνέομαι, ἐντέλλομαι, ἀποκρίνομαι, πυνθάνομαι, δέομαι). But neither are these absent from Latin, e.g. frustror.

Simple acts of cognition fall here too (meditor, interpreter, comminiscor, ἡγέομαι, βουλεύομαι, σταθμάομαι, and many more Greek verbs in Allan (p47)).

So too do perception verbs, especially (per Allan) where the subject is volitional in perceiving. ἀκουάζομαι, γεύομαι, θεάομαι, σκέπτομαι, though not necessarily, αἰσθάνομαι, ὀσφραίνομαι. Cf. also conspicior, odoror.

Complex mental events are those where there is a dependent event, normally expressed as a proposition encoded in a dependent clause (Kemmer, 137). e.g. English, “I forgot that I put my keys in my pocket”. There are two events here “I put me keys in my pocket” – the dependent event, and “I forgot X” – the primary mental event. Cognition type events (rather than emotion or perception, Kemmer p138) are most likely to be middle here.

Kemmer’s analysis differs from Allan’s in carving up the terrain of these various types of events. For example, what Allan takes as speech acts of promising, Kemmer treats as ‘commissive’ events in which the mental source initiates a dependent event. e.g. “I promise to learn how to use the middle voice properly” has a dependent event, “learn to use the middle voice properly” which I, as Mental Source, undertake to put into place. Hence, polliceor in Latin, ὑπισχνέομαι in Greek.

What’s key, in all these cognition middles, I’d say – and by way of concluding today’s rather expansive post – is that the Subject stands as Experiencer and so is “subject affected”. That, and the corresponding commonality that the Subject is very often the Source or Initiator of the event, is why these events are typically marked as ‘middle’. And that’s what this series is mostly about – unraveling the ‘logic’ of what types of events fall in a broad conception of ‘the middle domain’, so that you have a better grasp of that domain’s “realm” and all that falls in it.

Online courses, now available

I’ve now finalised details for online courses in the first quarter of 2019. You can find details and sign up under the Online Courses page. Pay careful attention to the times listed. Class sizes are capped at 5. If a course fills up, I’ll consider offering a second offering of the same.

I plan to offer follow-on courses as well as re-runs of the intro courses throughout the year.

Any questions, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to let you know.

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (II)

In today’s post, following on from the last, I’m going to walk through some initial semantic categories which Kemmer presents as mostly or typically used for middle-type situations. I had hoped to get through more categories, but it seems that will need a couple more posts.
I’ll provide some Greek and Latin examples, drawn from Kemmer, and from R.J. Allen’s work on Greek.


Kemmer starts with the Direct Reflexive. This is an event where one participant does the action to themselves.

e.g. Mike stabbed himself.

In English, we need to mark this with a reflexive form – Mike stabs implies that he stabs someone else (as a habit, probably).

In Greek (and Latin), actions that are normally performed on someone else (er, ‘stabbing’) take a reflexive marker. Allen gives this example:

ῥίπτει αὑτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλατταν (Dem 32.6)[1]   He throws himself into the sea.

But there are actions that are normally carried out on oneself that appear in the middle. These are “body action middles” including several sub-categories.

The first category are ‘grooming’ actions. Actions like dressing, bathing, shaving, decorating, etc.. Here we see typical middle-marking.

ornor               to adorn (oneself)
perluor            to bathe

κοσμοῦμαι      to adorn
λοῦμαι             to bathe

In all these, the participant is both acting upon themselves, but acting upon themselves using themselves. The sense in which you can distinguish ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ is low. For this reason, too, these verbs often lack an active. When you do find an active voice form, its usage is often contrastive – of course I might usually bathe myself, but I can bathe someone else. λοῦω v λοῦμαι shows that kind of contrast.

A second category involves various types of bodily movement. Between Kemmer and Allen you can see three sub-categories of this: change in body posture, non-translational motion, and translational motion.

  1. Changes in body posture involve actions like sitting up, standing, reclining. Again, here the agent is acting upon themselves, but in such a close unity that the difference between ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ is minimal, the event is unitary.
  2. Non-translational motion involves movement of the body but not along any ‘path’. Things like turning, twisting, bending, bowing, nodding, etc..
  3. Translational motion involves moving the body through space along a path.

κλίνομαι          lie down (CiBP)

στρέφομαι       turn around (nTrans-motion)

πορεύομαι       to go (translational-motion)

Where there is an active form it often has a causative meaning:

ἵσταμαι            to stand up/still           > ἵστημι           to cause to stand

στρέφομαι                                              > στρέφω        to turn (something else)

πορεύομαι                                              > πορεύω to cause to go

What’s common about all these verbs is that encoded in the verb is the sense that the Initiator and Endpoint are the same, with low distinguishability, and generally these actions do not involve an external endpoint.

There are less examples of these in Latin, though I think some appear to fall into this category. For instance, the –gredior compounds, e.g. progredior, as well as proficiscor. orior (to rise) seems to me a borderline instance, though it may also fall into the “spontaneous process” category.

This is a good place to stop and talk about deponency for a minute. Is πορεύομαι ‘deponent’? Not by traditional definitions because an active form exists. But the middle form is so prevalent that it may as well be learnt as the primary form. It hasn’t ‘assumed’ an active meaning that has been left vacant by a defective paradigm. Within the ‘logic’ of the Greek language, it’s a typically middle form.

Whether any particular verb is middle only or not depends, in part, just on attestation. If we had no instances of πορεύω, we’d conclude it was deponent. But that’s not really true, is it? ἔρχομαι seems deponent because we don’t have active instances of it. Except for grammarians saying things like:

οὐδεὶς γὰρ λέγει ἔρχω ἢ εὔχω ἢ πέτω ἢ δέχω ἢ ὀρχῶ καὶ τὰ λοιπά, ἐπειδὴ τὸ σημαινόμενον κωλύει.

For no one says “I ‘go’, or I ‘pray’, or I ‘fly’, or I ‘receive’, or I ‘depart’ and the rest, since the meaning prohibits it. (Georgius Choeroboscus, Prolegomena et scholia in Theodosii Alexandrini canones isagogicos de flexione verborum.[2])

The meaning of ἔρχομαι prohibits an active meaning. That’s why there’s no active, not because an active form has disappeared and the middle has picked up the meaning, but because the meaning of the verb is itself middle in its meaning, and an active does not make sense. One supposes that speakers could have coined an active version of this verb with a causative sense, but they didn’t. That’s why this, and similar verbs, are better termed media tantum, ‘middle-only’, rather than deponent. They lack a morphologically realised active form.

So, what does this mean for deponency and terminology? It seems best to lay to rest the term ‘deponent’ if we mean “a verb that has no active morphology but uses a middle or passive form with active meaning”. That’s not accurate to these verbs, especially if conceived of as verbs that actually ‘set aside’ their active forms. It’s far better to conceive of these verbs as media tantum, i.e. verbs that only have middle forms, never active. And then, you have verbs that are primarily used in the middle, where the active is less common precisely because what the active is expressing is less usual. Some verbs prohibit an active form, others disprefer an active form.

Lastly, at least for today, cautioning students that ‘active in meaning’ is not the same as ‘active in English translation’. Because English does not exhibit a ‘middle-voice’ system, in translation the best options will often be an English intransitive active, or an English reflexive. That’s about the best way to render something in English, not about what the Greek means.

In the next post in this series, I will cover some more semantic categories, and then talk more specifically about the Latin middle-only verbs.

[1] R.J. Allen, “The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek. A study in Polysemy”, PhD Thesis. 2002. 65. There is a published version of this but frankly I don’t have a copy.

[2] A. Hilgard, Grammatici Graeci, vol. 4.2, Leipzig: Teubner, 1894 (repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1965): 19: 27-28.

Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (I)

I’ve long been of the view that there’s no such thing as deponency in Greek, just verbs that are ‘middle’ and don’t have an active. But recently I was asked (twice) about deponency in Latin, and it got me reading again, which is a great thing. Personally, I’d been helped a great deal by R.J. Allen’s work on the Middle in Greek, and the elaboration of semantic categories. But to deal with Latin, I needed to do more.

And that meant reading the key work by Suzanne Kemmer, The Middle Voice, which “approaches the middle voice from the perspective of typology and language universals research” (1).

In this post and some subsequent ones, I’m going to do my best to translate Kemmer into some more accessible language, and at some point I’ll specifically talk through Latin deponents.

The problem with Greek voice

All my problems started, or continue to start with Greek students, and Greek grammars, especially pesky NT Greek ones. NT Greek courses do a particularly bad job at the nuances of Greek, I find. So, students are very often taught, or at least end up with, a view of Greek that is:

Active:            I hit Mike.

Passive:           Mike is hit by me.

Middle:           “something vaguely in the middle where I am benefited by hitting Mike”

This is usually a very English (vel sim) -driven view, in that the middle is an awkward third-voice squished between the Active and Passive.

Two things, in my own long growth in Greek knowledge, helped get over this. Learning that (a) Greek has an active-middle voice system, and that “passive” is a semantic, not a morphological realisation. e.g. there are no forms that actually mark “passive” in Greek, there are just two sets of middle-voice in the Aorist and Future. (b) that middleness is basically some form of “subject affectedness” (the core of Lyons’ definition, see Kemmer, 1-4).

So, with Greek we are dealing with active v. middle. But even before we get to Greek, let alone Latin, Kemmer helps lay out a broader semantic understanding of events and their participants which provides a lot of the basis for understanding how the “middle” works across various languages.

Kemmer uses a cross-language approach to map out the kinds of semantics associated generally with the middle voice. That is, what kind of meanings tend to be expressed with middle-type structures. She also lays out a bit of a map of how languages mark the middle.

One thing that I found exceedingly helpful was how Kemmer laid out a spectrum of events (at least their conceptualisation).

  1. One-participant
  2. Middle
  3. Reflexive
  4. Two-participant.

If we take the last category first, this is the classic situation where X does something to Y. Let’s use a made-up verb for a little while, grazhonks.

A reflexive event occurs when X grazhonks X. Here grazhonks is the event, and its Iniator and Endpoint are the same. So a language will mark this reflexively, if possible.

At the other end of the scale is the one-participant event. Either there is no Y, or Y is deleted. So, “X grazhonks” or “X bedtweeops”, where no external endpoint is, or can be, in view.

The middle then, as a constellation of subject-affected actions, lies between the reflexive and one-participant, in that an event occurs in which X acts on or with regard to X, but X is conceptualised as one participant, not “two” like in the reflexive.

What ends up in ‘the middle voice’ depends in part upon how a language marks different voice options. Is there a reflexive form, is there a middle form separate or related to a reflexive form? Greek, for the most part, has both an expansive middle system that is separate from reflexive, and which encompasses the passive. Latin, I would say, has an active-passive opposition, but the -r forms also mark some middle uses, especially among historic deponents.

In my next post I’ll walk through the semantic categories that tend to be expressed in the middle or with reflexives, and why that might be so. But let me finish with a nice English example that illustrates some of those 4 categories.

α) I hide
β) I hide the book
γ) I hide the book first, then I hide myself
δ) I was hidden by the rebel alliance.

α is an intransitive active, being used to express a middle-type meaning – an event in which initiator and endpoint are conceived as a single entity. But hide also works as a transitive verb, as in β. We also use it reflexively, as in γ, but primarily when we want to provide contrast (this matches with Kemmer’s observations about how languages with both reflexive and middle markings tend to use them in relation to each other). Lastly, to express the passive in English, we must switch to a passive construction, the intransitive-active-as-middle won’t cut it.

Reflections on teaching Greek 102

Now that semester two is finally wrapped up across my diverse colleges, it seems an apt time to write some reflections on teaching Intro to Koine Greek 2.

At the start of semester I was met with a conundrum – zero of my students were face-to-face. It was to be all distance, all asynchronous. Hmm, what to do?

I’d also been talking to James Tauber, of course, about many things Greek, digital, and pedagogical. We’ve been talking for some time about how to sequence Greek pericopes by ‘least new vocab’, and also about reading environments. In my context, I was partly hamstrung by the need to provide video’d lectures tied to powerpoint slides, but through semester one I’d at least become accustomed to that.

So, I tried something new. I took our current sequence of pericopes, and I taught these texts one by one through the semester, ‘talking through’ each text. It was more grammar-driven than I’d like in other contexts, but I couldn’t see a way around that given the parameters. It was very interesting though.

We read almost entirely Johannine texts, ‘out of order’, even at times reading the back half of a chapter right before the front half. Early on the vocab is quite limited, and Johannine texts are wonderfully (pedagogically speaking) repetitive. They repeat not only key words, but phrases, and structures. Sure, we met things in the first week that textbook students wouldn’t see for months, but we were dealing with real Greek, and the number of exposures both to forms and to structures was very high. And as we went to each new text, the same elements would reappear again and again, just with a few new features, a few new words.

At the end of semester, we’d covered more Greek text than I think any comparable first year (New Testament Greek) course or textbook does. Our word count was high, but our vocabulary count was somewhat lower, though still covering a solid core. And I have no doubt that the repetition numbers were much, much higher.

I think this could be improved upon. And I think it could be made more CI-based, communicatively driven. If the first half of the course had gone better, or if students had a more active grasp of Greek, then a sequenced reading of texts could also be matched with discussion in Greek of those texts.

Reading all of LLPSI (extended remix edition) in 2019

I like plans. And I like ambitious ones.

In 2019 I intend to read, or re-read, all the various Lingua Latina per se Illustrata books, including the Ørberg supplements and the not as official Ørbergesque supplements. I’ve read some of this material in the past, certainly the core books, but not that much in the supplements.

Here’s a list:

Familia Romana
Colloquia Personarum
Fabulae Syrae
Epitome Sacrae Historiae
De Bello Gallico
Sermones Romani
Roma Aeterna
Ars Amatoria
Elegiae (Tibullus)
De Rerum Natura
Bucolica (Vergil)
Cena Trimalchionis

That’s a lot of reading. I still have to work out how to get hold of DRN and the Bucolica. They are  Accademia Vivarium Novum editions, and among other things I’d like to order through Alas, Amazon’s policy of not shipping from any international site to Australia makes that impossible. I’ve been exploring other options, but no success yet.

Anyway, regardless. Perhaps you’d like to read along with me? I’m always up for various types of shared reading.

And, as always, a great way to start a ‘new year’s resolution’ is to start it in November…

Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (a translation)

(Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum)

1. In the consulship of Praesens (the second time) and Condianus, on the 14th Kalends of August, in Carthage, the following were led into the proconsul’s chamber: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda, and Vestia.
Saturninus the proconsul said, “You can gain the pardon of our lord emperor, if you return to your senses.”

2. Speratus said, “We have never done wrong, put forth no effort for iniquity; never cursed, but when we have received ill treatment, we gave thanks; because we heed our own emperor.”

3. Saturninus the proconsul said, “We also are religious, and our religion is simple, we swear by the genius of our lord emperor, and offer supplications for his health, which you also ought to do.

4. Speratus said, “If you lend your ears calmly, I will tell you the mystery of simplicity.”

5. Saturninus said, “I will not offer my ears to you, maligning our sacred rites; but instead swear by the genius of our lord emperor.”

6. Speratus said, “I do not recognise the empire of this world; but I serve that God instead, whom no human has seen nor is able to see with these eyes. I have committed no theft; but whenever I purchase anything, I pay the tax; because I recognise my lord, king of kings and emperor of all the nations.”

7. Saturninus the proconsul said to the others, “Cease to be of this persuasion.”
Speratus said, “It is a bad persuasion, to commit homicide, to speak false testimony.”

8. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Don’t participate in this madness.”
Cittinus said, “We have no one else whom we fear, except our Lord God who is in heaven.”

9. Donata said, “I shall honour Caesar, as Caesar; but I shall fear God.”
Vestia said, “I am a Christian.”
Secunda said, “I am precisely that which I desire to be.”

10. Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus, “Will you persist to be a Christian?”
Speratus said, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

11. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Do you desire some time for deliberation?”
Speratus said, “In a matter so just, there is no deliberation.”

12. Saturninus the proconsul said, “What are the things in your cases?”
Speratus said, “Books, and the letters of Paul, a just man.”

13. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Take a delay of 30 days, and think it over.”
Speratus said again, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

14. Saturninus the proconsul recited a decree from a tablet:
“Speratus, Nartzlus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and others have confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, and since they have obstinately persevered despite being offered the opportunity of returning to the Romans’ way, it is decreed that they be punished by the sword.”

15. Speratus said, “We thank God.”
Nartzalus said, “Today we are martyrs in heaven: Thanks be to God.”

16. Saturninus the proconsul ordered the following to be said through a herald, “Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Ianuaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Seconda, are ordered to be led to death.

17. They all said, “Thanks be to God.”
And they were forthwith beheaded for the name of Christ.

Learning to live with your Monitor, aka dealing with error correction

The Monitor Hypothesis is part of Stephen Krashen’s theory of Second Language Acquisition. The hypothesis is that the ‘monitor’ acts to apply conscious, explicit, learned grammar to ‘edit’ your output. The Monitor only does so when (a) you have enough time, (b) you focus on form/correctness, (c) you know a(n explicit rule) to apply. (you could know an implicit rule and apply it to, to be fair)

In Gaelic there is a structure called ‘the inverted nominal’. When your sentence begins with some kind of modal or modal-like construction, e.g. “I want, I need, I like, I dislike” etc.., then a direct object of the verb will precede it (the verb in question takes a form called the verbal noun).

Tha mi ag iarraidh cèic ithe – I want cake-to-eat.

Feumaidh tu bainne òl – You’ll need to drink milk.


I’m very familiar with the grammar rules that govern inverted nominals, I could explain them to you over and over. But when I’m speaking ex tempore and at pace, I often get them wrong. It doesn’t help that there are other verbal noun constructions that don’t invert. I suspect that in terms of order-of-acquisition, this one takes a while.

But this, of course, does not and has not stopped a teacher or two along my many-years Gaelic learning journey from both (a) explicitly correcting me, (b) marvelling, ‘How can you know this rule so well but you keep getting it wrong in speech? More practice needed!’

Now, I can tell you exactly why the second statement occurs. It’s not that I need more skill-practice, though it does help my monitor to do explicit skill practice. It’s that I need more and more comprehensible input. I need to hear those inverted nominal structures again, and again, and again, until they get deeply acquired, and not just explicitly learnt. ‘Cause I already learnt them, right? And any time you test me on them, with enough time, a focus on form, then I’ll apply the rules and get it ‘right’. But get my speaking at speed, and they’ll occasionally come out wrong.


As for dealing with teachers that like to error correct, even when you knew you said the wrong thing the moment it left your lips! (a not uncommon occurrence)? I’ve learnt to let it go. It depends on context, of course. In some circumstances, you could ask/tell a teacher/tutor to not correct you. In others, that ‘upward’ instruction/management might not be appropriate. Learning a language is relational, and this is one relationship you must navigate. So, as best you can, don’t take error correction to heart – it’s usually well meant, and if you can not get down about it, it probably won’t hurt you!

Online small group classes in Greek (and Latin) for 2019

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be offering small-group classes in Ancient Greek, online, in 2019.

This post is something in the way of ‘advance notice’ and to float some possibilities.


I plan to start with a 10-week term beginning the week of January 21st.


Depending on demand, I will look at a couple of time slots, keyed either to the US evening, or to the Australian evening


I plan to offer at least one class that focuses on Active Greek in tandem with the AVN (Italian) Athenaze. That is a class that will require some homework and additional activity on your behalf. It’s designed to get you going with Athenaze at a solid clip, and will both leverage off the English supplements for Athenaze that we’re working on, as well as individual support from me.

If it seems like there is interest, I will look at also (a) a ‘conversational Greek’ for those who have some Greek but are beginners in conversation, (b) a possible text-focused reading-type group.

If I receive some interest, I’ll offer a similar Active Latin class in tandem with Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. It will be similar to the Athenaze class in terms of intent.


Class sizes will be small, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 6. This ensures you are part of a lively, engaged communicative context.


It’s not set in stone, but I’m looking to price these at USD$150 for 10 sessions. The Athenaze class will price marginally higher, because I plan to build it with more support and resources than just the class hour itself (audio recordings, homework, email support).


If you’d like to register some initial interest for these, feel free to send me an email:


If the times/courses don’t work for you, but you can get at least 2 other people together, I’m very open to running some other bespoke course for you.

Greek for ‘that’s interesting’…

There’s two types of modern expressions that present difficulty for speaking ancient languages:

  • names for things they didn’t have
  • expressions for things they didn’t say

In many cases (1) isn’t so bad. You just have to neologise. How do you say helicopter, television, mobile (=cell) phone, etc etc..? Even coffee, tea, present problems, but not insurmountable ones. For Latin, with its longer continual history, it’s often easier. For speaking ancient Greek modernly, various strategies can be used: adapting an ancient word with a similar meaning; using the Greek equivalent to a Latin word used for the same modern thing; deriving a (sometimes entirely fictive) ‘ancestor’ form for a contemporary Greek word.

The second issue is much more problematic. Consider the expression, “It’s interesting…”. In Latin, we can use phrases involving studiumstudium me tenet, studium me excitat, and the like. Greek is, it seems, more tricky.

I asked my good friend Στέφανος about this, as I often do, and he proffered a few suggestions:

διαφέρει — it’s important

ἄξιον σπουδῆς — something worthy of zeal/esteem/effort

προσέχω τινὶ τὸν νοῦν, τὸν νοῦν ἔχω πρός τινα – expressions for paying attention to something.


None of these, as he recognised, quite fits. We want something for “here is a thing that is worth paying attention to/thinking about”.

But perhaps we can build off these. ἄξιον + infinitive makes a good impersonal structure for “worth doing X”. So…

ἄξιον τοῦ τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν – worth paying attention to

ἄξιον διαλέγεσθαι – worth talking about

ἄξιον ἐπὶ ᾧ νομίζειν – worth thinking on,

ἄξιον μελετᾶσθαι – worth contemplating


Take these out for a spin, let me know what you think.

Podcasting: my process

We’re now six podcasts deep, and I thought I’d write a little this week about what it looks like for me to put together a podcast.

1: An idea

It takes a while for me to come up with ideas, which maybe isn’t a good sign! It needs to be something moderately interesting, and moderately within my speaking ability. I try to draw from things going on in the rest of my Greek-oriented life. So far that’s working okay.

2: ‘Practice’

Depending on my schedule, I spend some time talking to myself ex tempore on the topic, in Greek. Either while driving, or in the shower, or wherever. It’s often at this stage that I stumble across things I want to say but can’t. I make a note (mentally, usually) to address that.

3: ‘Practice’ part 2

On a Saturday or Sunday evening I sit down at the computer; I have some rough notes for the intro and outro, I get a Latin>Greek dictionary open, and I fake-record first. That is, I open up Audacity and hit ‘record’ and talk for around 10 minutes. The first version is always terrible, but it allows me to do what I did in the step above, but with more focus. I generally use the Latin>Greek dictionary to figure out things I don’t know (it’s easier and better than English>Greek).

4: Recording

I try not to do too many fake recordings if only because I get bored of myself. Usually 1 or 2 is enough, and then I record a proper version. I accept, immo, embrace the fact that it’s still well-short of perfect, but that’s okay, that’s part of the deal here.

5: And send

I rarely relisten to them, I will only get overly critical. So I just fill in the details and upload them directly.


And that’s it. Nothing marvellous or magical, just a very stripped-down process to get Greek audio out my mouth and onto the internet.

On neglecting, or choosing not to learn, new languages

I always marvel when scholar X talks about ‘picking up a new language’ like it’s nothing. Or even like it’s something. Perhaps I’m actually bad at languages. (I don’t believe that people are good or bad at languages, aka language aptitude).

For myself, I made a conscious decision to not continue investing in more languages. I’ve written previously about my experiences, learning (to one degree or another) some Japanese, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, and Scottish Gaelic, and superficial dabblings in French and German.

I’ve reached a point in life where I know that I do not have the time, either week by week, or long term, to truly learn French of German to a useful point. I have largely abandoned them. My Hebrew is… rusty. 3 years of grammar and exegesis at seminary were indeed useful, but the apex of my Hebrew ability is gone.

And yet, I do not mourn these, except insofar as I mourn the opportunity lost of many good things in this life. But my choice is not a passive one, it’s a very intentional and active one.

It’s the choice to pursue few languages deeper. I want to know Greek, Latin, and Gàidhlig really, really well. ‘Superior Speaker’ well. ‘Read any text with relative ease’ well. Converse with comfort well. And that takes a lot more focus, dedication, and narrowing, than ‘learning’ 15 languages would, or worse, 15 grammar + dictionary usage abilities.

I’ve been at these three a long time now. And not always efficiently. Well, not always optimally. The longer I’m in this game, the better I understand the game itself, getting better at learning languages, and learning these three better.

On a kind of return to classics…

Most of my classics background involved a 4 year stint as an external student working almost entirely on Latin. I took intro Latin as an adult, and then 3 years of text-based classes. I wish I had kept better notes! It was still being done with postal services when I did it. But I did cover the gamut – Vergil, Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Lucretius, Tacitus, Lucan, Seneca, Livy, Pliny.

Since then, I haven’t had occasion to read extended selections of Latin, or even classical Greek, texts. But starting in a couple of weeks I have two high school students headed into their 12th year (I guess, Senior Year for you Americans), one in 2019, one in 2020. That means, as their tutor, I’m gearing up to cover:

  • Livy, Book V
  • Tacitus, Agricola
  • Vergil, Aeneid 1
  • Horace, selected Odes
  • Catullus, selected poems
  • Cicero, Pro Archia
  • Homer, Iliad 3
  • Euripides, Electra
  • Thucydides, Book IV.

(I should mention, almost all of these are ‘selected portions’, but they are substantial portions in most cases).

That’s a fairly solid list! I’m looking forward to it, as it will force me to read some genuine literary Latin and Greek; I’ve never read extensive portions of Homer or of Greek drama really. Also, I really do enjoy reading texts. Who knows, maybe I’ll acquire some more private students along the way! Or maybe I’ll do some recordings or videos. Or blog post. Or… we’ll see.

(Italian) Athenaze Supplement Project

I’m keen to revisit my idea from some time ago, about a collaborative project providing English-language supports for using the Italian edition of Athenaze, for those without any Italian.I’ve set up a Google Drive folder, and it’s basically ready to go. I have in mind particularly the following three (non-copyright-infringing) tasks:

1. vocab list per chapter with English glosses

2. commentary style notes on constructions, references to page and line.

3. grammar explanations that map to the chapters but do not translate the Italian material

If you’d be interested in helping out/getting involved, send me an email and I’ll send an invite.

Can you bootstrap a speaking ability when you have limited communication options?

Yes, but its (very-)sub-optimal, hard, and the results might be less than stellar.

But you might also have not that much choice. There are few Latin speakers in Australia. A few Gàidhlig speakers. Less ancient Greek speakers. Opportunities for communication events are limited. And what if your situation is even less tenable? The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but there are an estimated 1800 speakers today? Plenty of indigenous languages have <10 speakers, and some are actually dead but well-recorded. I’m not even an educated amateur on language revitalisation, so I’m going to stick to talking about Greek in this post, but I suspect the principles are generalisable.

Comprehensible Input is still king. If you don’t have speakers giving that to you in conversation (and even if you do), you need to get as much rich , appropriate, language content as you can. So, read everything you can, work within your abilities as much as possible and resist the desire to tackle difficult texts unless you have to; rad aloud, to get your mouth moving. And get as much audio as you can – conversation material is best, soliloquies are okay; written literature being read-out is good but arguably not the best thing; oral exercises aren’t the worst thing either. Listen, comprehend, listen again.

Learn the basic of question and answer. This is easier than you think and the pay-off is great. If you can construct questions, you have a means of turning any text into a conversation piece. All you need is to get used to asking questions: start with sentence-type questions, then move on to the interrogatives (In English: who, what, where, when, why, how; Greek: τίς, τί, ποῦ, πότε, τί (διὰ τί, ἵνα τί), πῶς; and others…). Questions can be done in Greek, at the level of story, paragraph, sentence, even clause. This lets you (a) have a conversation with yourself, (b) have simple conversations with others, (c) compose simple sentences and stories that build off texts you’re already working with.

If you’ve come through a traditional grammar-translation curriculum, it’s also not that taxing to learn basic grammatical terminology, especially for Latin or Greek, since they are almost all Latin terms anyway and the Greek forms basically are equivalents. And that permits you to have grammatical conversations about texts too, if that’s what you love.

If you have friends, ahem, students, then start inflicting spoken Greek on them. Start easy, simple, and fun. Prepare well – script up as much as you can before hand so you have phrases to mind/hand. Doing some of the WAYK universal speed curriculum is a good way to do this. When I first did this, I would keep a cheat-sheet handy. It’s no shame to say, “hey, we’re all trying to do this thing, and this little reference sheet is to keep us speaking Nice Pure Attic not some degenerate barbaric language, ahem, Koine.”

Related to the above, develop a habit of note-taking when you are trying to say something and can’t find the right word or structure. And then after a session of whatever, take that list and figure out how to fill in the gaps. I use English > Greek, and Latin > Greek lexica for that, or go away and find the right syntax structure, or ask a friend.

Talk to yourself about whatever you can. If you don’t have other people to talk to, and even if you do, you need to talk to yourself. Why? Because you’re the conversation partner who is always available, and who always understands what your trying to say. Talk about things around you, talk about things you have vocabulary for. Just get talking.

Lastly, look and pursue opportunities to talk with others, or at least listen to others talking. There’s audio resources (not much, let’s be honest), videos on youtube, there is spoken Greek out there to listen to. There’s also a weekly online chat that is freely open: you don’t even need to speak. I’m never there (alas) as it’s a terrible time for my schedule. And lastly, yes, you can sign up to classes. CKI, which I mentioned in the last post, also I see that BLC is starting to run some classes in Koine not just Hebrew. There’s also some conversational Greek offered through Telepaideia, again terrible for my schedule so I can’t tell you what they’re like from experience.

I don’t have a repository of links for communicative ancient Greek; there’s one here ( but it’s a little out of date. Perhaps its time to make a repository, there’s not lots of material, but there’s stuff out there, and its often a matter of scouring the internet for it….