My Adjunct life

This is a follow-up and personal lament to the book review from earlier this week.

I submitted my PhD dissertation in late 2016, and received my pass in March 2017. I graduated in September of that year, and it’s now 2019. I had already begun to realise how difficult it was going to be to move into any academic position. That awareness of the difficult reality of academic employment dawned on me once I came back to pursue my doctoral studies full-time. In 2016 I applied for 7 positions, without any hint of success. I applied for a further 17 academic positions in 2017. Since then I have barely applied for any, partly because I have seen almost zero positions in my field.

My field, strictly speaking, is patristics. My department was Ancient History, but really I studied patristics, and this puts me at a disadvantage for every job. I’m not familiar with the core areas of “Ancient History” – I couldn’t teach a class on core Roman republican history or classical Greece. I’m not a classicist for Classics departments – it doesn’t look like I know my classical canon of Greek and Latin. And I’m a rough fit for theology and history departments too.

Since 2017, I’ve been working primarily for two institutions, both small colleges. One involves online ‘tutoring’ – the materials for those courses are pre-constructed, and I am on sessional contracts to provide online interaction, guidance, email support, and marking for students. Students main point of ‘human’ interaction is supposed to be me, but it is all mediated, and I do not ‘teach’ material directly. The other involves me teaching my own course, but it is again asynchronous, and feels rather disconnected. A student approached me for a reference recently, a reference I’m reluctant to give because even after serial courses, I barely know them, and my reference is barely going to count for them anyway.

I do these jobs because I don’t know what else to do. If you include the courses I taught while holding a Masters and living in a 2nd world country, I’ve taught 31 instances of 19 courses. I have a specialised doctorate for which they are not even job openings. My current positions provide a liveable wage, only because of Australia’s strong unions, and the minimum hourly wages for academics remain decent. Nonetheless, I work long hours, late nights, and have no time to do research, the one thing that would make me actually employable. I attempted to persevere with research in 2017, with some success though no real publications, but my ability to do that has dwindled to practically none. It took all of 2018 to see an article go from submission to review to resubmit to rejection.

My experiences, and desires, suggest I could be a very effective teacher, but I do not feel capable of realising that potential. Anything I put into personal development comes out of my own time, and my own pocket. I have every reason to believe I could continue to do important, significant, valuable research in my field, but without any capacity to support that, it will also remain unrealised.

During my PhD I began language tutoring, not for the first time, but since then this work has expanded, and this year I have begun to make it as much a business as possible. I’m constantly amazed that people come to me with 2, 3, 4, or more semesters of Greek, and yet by their own admission have not really learnt Greek. That’s thousands of tuition dollars given to institutions that ought to have taught Greek better. I’ve invested heavily in time, and some money, in developing my own Greek and Latin, and ability to teach it communicatively, because I believe it’s truly worthwhile and effective. And yet even here my ability to do so is subject to the real contingencies of freelancing. A lost student is significant. Class sizes determine whether a proposed offering is viable or not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In academic circles, the practice of ‘passing’ is common. Anything to avoid being thought of as an adjunct. Even with those who know your employment, the tendency to ‘flatten’ differences in Australian culture serves to maintain a practice of just pretending these differences don’t exist, that we’re all equal members of an equal club. We’re not, because the salary for an entry level academic position is about 2.5-3x my current earnings. I never lose sight of the fact that we’re not equals, because we never can in our current conditions.

Among friends and acquaintances, the pretence is just as bad, in that there is a regular assumption that I have some kind of job with decent pay, leave, and at least some of the usual benefits of employment in Australia. I have almost none. Last year I fell sick at the end of semester and had to cede much of my marking, and thus part of my income, to someone else. ‘Leave’ means ‘not working and not getting paid’. Few of those around me understand, or could understand, that I am the academic equivalent of a burger-flipper.

I regularly feel exhausted, trapped, and unable to change my circumstances. I’ve trained myself into a career that doesn’t exist, and now work in positions that offer no advancement, and preclude the very opportunities that would allow escape. In response, I have and continue to try to carve out alternate forms of language education that both escape the systemic problems that plague classical-language teaching in universities, and rescue me from the grind of marking identical essays on identical topics by almost identical students. I don’t know if it will work. But the idea that I might once have genuine teaching relationships with students, or produce meaningful and useful research, seems more and more a delusion.

Book Review: Herb Childress, “The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges betray their faculty, their students, and their mission”

This one’s hot off the press, and I read it voraciously over two days. Which given how little time I can normally carve out for reading, is itself a testament to the book. It addresses the American situation. Australia is obviously not identical, but a raft of similar issues apply here. Indeed, over half of all undergraduate teaching in Australia is done by casuals.

Childress’s book strikes me as an important contribution to the growing body of literature dealing with the adjunctification or causalisation of academic labour in higher education, a phenomenon of which I am a part (and which I will write more about in a part 2 to this post).

The book offers us eight chapters, the first hits you like a brick in the dark – the rather grim realities of what it is like to work as a non-tenured non-member of academia – low pay, minimal support, incredible overwork, disposability, and no path out of that situation. The stories that pepper this chapter in particular are depressing, and verge on a kind of ‘adjunct depression porn’, but they are also the reality of the majority of college instruction, and need to be squarely faced.

Chapter two does the work of making clear, especially for those who aren’t familiar with them, of the fundamental ‘categories’ of academics – Tenure Track, Non-Tenure Track, and Adjuncts (of various kinds). Childress does an important service in working through some of the numbers in terms of who teaches, and who is taught by whom, and also about how some representations of these numbers obscure the on-the-ground reality: that most undergraduate teaching is done by contingent academic staff, and that the tenured class is disappearing.

Chapter three plays a similar role of educating the reader, this time not about the hierarchy within institutions, but between them, community colleges, middle-class colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and the big R1 research universities. He also speaks to how these correlate, strongly, to the class origins, and outcomes, of their students.

Chapter four speaks to the hiring side of the problem – the oversupply of PhDs, the incredibly difficulty of getting a position, and how the continued creation of PhD graduates with no job prospects is a cruel bait-and-switch that is being blatantly and recklessly ignored by universities.

Chapter five looks at the economics of universities – where do they get their money, and where does it go, and why isn’t it on hiring staff to actually teach students. While some of the material here is familiar, Childress’ analysis of how ‘transferability’ works to commodifiy college credits – a credit hour is a credit hour and they are basically homogenous, interchangeable goods, puts downward pressure on pricing, and contributes to making adjunct staff likewise interchangeable and indistinguishable. This is one reason SLAC resist adjunctification – they (a) have significantly high incomes, (b) they almost do not engage in transfers, and so students come, stay full time, and graduate with a unique experience. Childress also examines the way colleges’ pursuit of shifting economy and job relevance works against stability. The chapter covers other issues too, all relating to costs: diversity, student supports,

Chapter six talks about life on the inside rather than the outside: the position of Tenure Track faculty, and how this works in favour of keeping (and accelerating) the status quo. It’s easy to think of oneself as a winner of a merit-based game, and everyone outside as not as worthy; the place and role of adjuncts in departments is largely invisible to faculty, and many structures of adjunctification make current TT life possible.

Chapter seven goes on to speak about the ‘third parties’ that suffer. What about students, admin staff, support staff and so on? They too are losers due to increased adjunctification. This is also a chapter where Childress provides another important, indeed crucial, angle – what is happening in higher ed is not an isolated phenomenon. Contingency of employment, the ‘gig’ economy, etc., is occurring across sector after sector, and it’s hugely damaging to employees. Witness, for the easiest example, the rise of Uber and other similar services. By re-writing employees as contractors, driving down wages, and outsourcing practically everything, we commodify everything and the only people who win are consumers. But only those with wealth consume.

Childress also speaks to technological issues here, before turning to a second important point – ‘hope labor’. The emergent model of the web heavily relies upon people producing content for free, in the hopes of gaining enough publicity to monetise it. That works for some, but it works well enough for only a very few. And yet, massive success at the attempt to become well known enough to capitalise on it, comes with enough publicity that it creates an information bias – we only see those who are ‘successful’ (and not how much luck played into that), not the huge number of people producing free content in obscurity.

This is equally true in adjunct-land. Adjuncts live with a deluded hope that teaching and service, and going above and beyond, will get them good will, and a foot in the door, and eventually transformed into genuine faculty. This happens almost never. Indeed, it seems crazy to outsiders, but the longer you are an adjunct, the more experience you have teaching, the less likely you are to gain secure employment.

What about those who aren’t scrapping by on multiple adjunct gigs? Isn’t that just a minority? What about all those industry professionals? Childress offers an analysis in four categories of independent workers.

Primary Income Supplemental
Preferred choice Free agents Casual Earners
Out of necessity Reluctants Financially strapped


A recent (atrocious) article in theconversation, just like many in the higher-education community, wanted to point to the ‘casual earners’ and ‘free agents’ – people who enjoy and choose to adjunct because they want to, because they enjoy the ‘flexibility’ of multiple institutions, or are industry professionals who enjoy teaching on the side. These people exist, without doubt. But they are not representative of the bulk – people who are either reluctants or financially strapped (if you’re wondering, I’m in the reluctant category).

This chapter also speaks to issue of gender rebalancing and devaluation, technology, marketing, and generation demographics as factors.

Chapter eight is hopefully and depressing at the same time. I had wondered whether Childress would offer any ‘solutions’. Or just leave us to wallow in despair. Childress does another notably useful service to us here. Firstly, he doesn’t just say, “well, hire more faculty”. He begins with a parable of a complex problem that required a multi-faceted solution, which worked. Higher Ed needs the same. He also goes on to give some advice to people ‘in the mix’ which is depressing as anything, because it’s (a) prospective undergrads, (b) prospective grads, and (c) colleges. No advice for adjuncts because we’re already screwed. But noteworthy here is one of his pieces of advice to undergrads:

Ask each one of your teachers what their status is. Are they part-time, full-time on contract, or tenure-track?

Would that all students did this as a matter of course.

But beyond that, Childress lays out a vision for colleges that would rejuvenate higher ed and move it to a model that actually had ideals and pursued them. I’ll quote his summary:

A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships. It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of continual learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of that learning.[1]

That’s a place I’d want to study at, or work at. Unlike:

A college should privilege content knowledge over the people who carry it. It is a business shaped and steered by its managers. It places people into fixed roles of fixed expertise. It examines and measures the proxies of learning, evaluated only by an internal disciplinary audience.[2]

which is the default reality of many institutions right now.

Childress’s book concludes with an ‘aftermath’, and 2 appendices. The aftermath relates Childress’s own experience of academia, and it’s heartbreaking to read. And it concludes with this:

All cults, all abusers, work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger as good as the meal.[3]


[1] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[2] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[3] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 163). University of Chicago Press.


What to do about teaching grammar? Four suggestions

Since we’re on a bit of a “let’s talk about grammar” roll at the moment, here are some more thoughts on the vexed problem of when to teach some grammar. But first, what is grammar?

In my view, when we are talking about Latin and Greek in particular, grammar is a surface description of the rules of the language’s morphology and syntax. That, by the way, is not a full-fledged linguistics definition of grammar, but the grammar that most students learn for Greek and Latin is not shaped by linguistics as a modern discipline, it’s shaped by the history of Greek and Latin grammar itself. And in that respect, the ‘rules’ that people learn are very often surface phenomena. They may be right, but they are not the whole story.

And grammar is also descriptive. It’s an attempt to theorise what the rules are based on what people wrote. Which is why my students infuriatingly hear me qualify almost every ‘rule’ with “this applies 95% of the time”. Because even violations of rules may not in fact be ‘ungrammatical’. A very clear example of this is the “genitive absolute” in Greek, which is so often not absolute, that calling it a genitive participial clause is my new preference.

So, if grammar is that, why teach it? I can think of three reasons you might want to teach grammar, and these relate to what I said in my previous post:

  • Learners often want to learn grammar because they feel like they understand what’s going on. (Affective)
  • Learners are going to interact with others (teachers, systems, institutions) where grammar is expected (Sociative)
  • Grammar forms a meta-language that allows speakers to speak meta-linguistically about utterances. It also provides an entrée to the language-user to engage with a history of meta-linguistic commentary on texts and language (Meta-linguistic)

Personally, only (3)  holds great persuasive force. (2) is a function of teaching learners in a variety of contexts and ends, and (1) I am fine to do because I think lowering learners’ affective filters and barriers as much as possible contributes to their overall wellbeing, and progress, as leaners. But for me, (3) is of most interest and importance.

So when and how do you do it?

Option A – you can sideline it and set it entirely as written material for students to read, or not, as they like. You could even set questions on it, worth 0 grades and 0%.

This has the advantage of providing learners all the grammar they want, but it takes it entirely out of the ‘must be learnt’ material. It shows that you genuinely don’t believe they need to learn it. But that you do indeed care enough to provide it to them. Grammar then becomes a kind of ‘bolt-on’ module that students can dive into, as they see fit, but not on ‘learning’ time.

Option B – Teach it all at the end

This approach basically says, “let’s front-load all our language learning, and when we’ve got a ton of that under our belts for the [X amount of Time], we’ll spend a bit of time at the end going over explicitly, what we’ve been doing implicitly.” I think this might work in year long blocks, perhaps semester blocks, but you’ve got two problems: (i) you’re giving up instructional time to do this, (ii) it’s going to be a lot of content.

Option C – Teach it in the Target Language.

This is what Ørberg does, of course. At the end of each Lingua Latina chapter is a section, latine, that explains the grammar of the chapter. It’s surprisingly effective, though I wonder how much that was for me because I already knew these things, and English grammar terminology is predominantly latine anyway.

The advantage of this is that you are giving learners the tools to talk in the language, about the language, as you go. So it’s more comprehensible input, and it creates more communicative possibilities.

The disadvantage, as I see it, is that it shifts learners’ focus back to grammar, and they may feel strong needs to ‘get this stuff down’, and ‘get it right’

One could also do this all in the language, but at the end. This would be like skipping all the grammar in LLPSI, but doing it all from scratch in Latin, once you got to chapter 35. I think the downside of this would be again, a lot of content in a shorter space, without giving learners the lead-up to acquire some of those words, structures, and concepts to talk about the language in the language.

Option D – Teach it as a separate module, and as linguistically informed as possible.

One final approach to this would be to modularise it off. Do your course in Greek, e.g., and then offer a course/unit/module that was explicitly Greek linguistics, designed to cover this material, and preferably in conversation with modern linguistics, not just the grammatical tradition. This could also be conjoined with a version of Option C. Indeed, if I had my way, I would do C ‘as we go’, and then ‘D’ as a separate course.

Or, I guess there’s option E – teach foundational grammar in the target language, until learners reach advanced levels, and then teach full-blown linguistics in the target language. I think that option will have to wait for my 4-year immersion college though….

How grammar-translation might lead to acquisition

Last week I wrote about how I did plenty of grammar-translation, and I don’t believe that it leads to acquisition. This often surprises people. Let me explain why it’s surprising:

Firstly, for those of us who did G-T and did a lot of it, and ended up with some language acquisition after all, it often looks like G-T lead to language acquisition. Just because after a whole bunch of G-T you ended up with some language doesn’t mean that G-T caused that language.

Secondly, for people in general who’ve had some experience of learning any language, grammar is so prevalent, that most people’s impression of ‘language learning’ involves grammar.

Thirdly, as adult learners in particular, we have a strong desire to understand what’s going on in a language. We almost can’t help ourselves. And I don’t actually think we should fight against this in learners. Knowing and understanding explicit structures is great for two reasons: (1) explicit knowledge of a language is not a bad thing! (2) we feel more in control when we have an explanation.

However, if the research consistently suggests to us that it is not grammar + memorisation + practice that leads to language acquisition, but rather exposure to comprehensible input in communicative contexts over time, how do we explain the scarred veteran survivors of G-T? You know the ones, the classics professors who can sight read Greek and Latin texts, or the biblical professor for whom the New Testament in Koine is as familiar as the English, if not more.

I wrote a while back about two different types of translation (, and I think this holds the key. What G-T is teaching you to do is: okay, I have a text in front of me, I don’t understand it, but I can apply (i) syntax + (ii) morphology + (iii) vocabulary = a translation. That is, people who practice G-T are applying a set of rules they’ve learnt, to translate a text in order to understand its meaning.

That, while we’re here, is very different from using grammar, or better yet linguistics, to analyse and discuss what a text is and does and how it means. This is why it’s really useful to get students to do some linguistic analysis on a native language – because they already know what the utterances mean, and so you can use the analysis to look at various parts of language.

So, you apply your G-T to understand a text, and you translate it, and then you understand its meaning. You’ve turned an incomprehensible input into a comprehensible one. Which means it’s now become primary linguistic data and your ability to process it as linguistic data for acquisition is engaged. But it took you X amount of time to do it this way.

Those who do tons and tons of G-T work – an undergrad program, grad school, work their way through a monstrous US college program’s PhD reading list, etc.. keep repeating this process over and over. And they (a) get very good at G-T, no doubt. Because that’s an explicit knowledge system and a skill, and they are practicing it constantly, but (b) they are also providing themselves with tons and tons of input.

Which explains why, in terms of SLA, they do end up with implicit acquisition.

That’s my general hypothesis. I don’t have any research on this, I’m just extrapolating from basic principles. And because it looks like G-T led to acquisition, and the other reasons I mentioned at the top, it’s very hard to dislodge this idea.

In a few posts time I’m going to talk about “what to do about grammar teaching”. Not that I have any definitive answer, but I have some suggestions. In the meantime, let me just ask:

What if input that leads to acquisition was not simply the by-product of the teaching methodology, as in G-T, but the core content of the learning methodology, so that acquisition was the goal, not an accident?

Online courses, starting in April

If you haven’t seen them yet, I am offering a number of small group classes starting shortly in April:

Athenaze A’ – Italian Athenaze from the beginning, Tuesday US Eastern 7pm

Athenaze B’ – Italian Athenaze from chapter 7, Monday US Eastern 7pm

Conversational Greek B – storytelling and other conversational Greek, Thursday US Eastern 9pm.

Lingua Graeca PSI – an beginner’s greek class using my graded reading LGPSI as a starting point. Monday US Eastern 9pm.

Lingua Latina 1 – a beginner’s Latin course, using Lingua Latina per se illustrata. Monday US Eastern 10pm.

Lingua Latina 2 – a continuer’s Latin course, using Lingua Latina per se illustrata, starting at chapter 14. Thursday US Eastern 8pm.

I reserve the right to cancel a course with less than 3 students. I’m also open to running other possibilities, especially if some of these don’t reach minimums.

If you’re in Australia and want to pay me directly in AUD, send me an email and I’ll invoice you directly.


But didn’t you do grammar-translation?

I get this a lot, of variations on it. Yes, it’s undeniably true that I studied Greek and Latin via grammar translation methods. I did 5 years of Latin at university, all G-T. And I was taught Greek via G-T. And at the end of 5 years of Latin I wondered why I couldn’t read anything, and at the end of 4 years of Greek I was fine with a New Testament and lost without it.

And now I’m quite a few years down the track, and people both ask me, “well, aren’t you at the point where you are because you did grammar-translation and then you went on from there?” I think this is really a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and it’s a logical fallacy. But to recognise that you need to come to terms with at least one thing.

In all sorts of contexts I keep telling people that it’s entirely possible to learn ancient languages without learning ‘grammar’. And they don’t believe me. Which is understandable, because (a) most people have very little idea about how languages are acquired, but (b) most people think they understand how languages are learnt. (b) is really quite problematic precisely because people thing, ‘well, you learn some grammar, and some rules, and some vocabulary, and you get better and faster at internalising those things’. And, more often than not, this corresponds to their experience of language learning situations.

This is also compounded because people generally think learning a first language is radically different to a second language. Which, it isn’t. It’s a little bit different but the process is mostly the same.

So, let me bring you to a conversation I had recently with some Latin learners. This is an abstraction of a real conversation.

Me: You don’t need to know what an ablative is to learn Latin.
Them: what??
Me: well, you don’t. most native latin speakers probably didn’t have a specific notion of ‘ablative’ that they learnt.
Them: Ørberg doesn’t even introduce the ablative for a hundred pages or so.
Me: Except, chapter 1 of Familia Romana is full of ablatives!
Them: what? oh yeah, I didn’t even realise.
Me: Exactly. You understood in Italiā just fine, because it was comprehensible in context. You didn’t need to be told what an ablative was beforehand.


How is this relevant? Well, if you circle around to the initial point here, it’s that it’s not only entirely possible to acquire a language through comprehensible input, it’s that acquisition and explicit grammar instruction are such different processes that result in entirely different outcomes, that even if you do explicit grammar instruction, it doesn’t necessarily help language acquisition.

And, we have a whole field of research that supports this. That’s the whole field of Second Language Acquisition. And, at the very least the vast bulk of that research suggests that explicit grammar instruction aids very little to zero the process of acquisition. I’m very happy to concede that it may help somewhat, although some linguists in this field would say “no, not at all, at best it doesn’t hinder”, but well, let’s be generous at this stage.

That’s why I advocate for Communicative Language Teaching and for acquisition – because I read introductory material in SLA, and then I went on and read research papers, and I keep reading as much research as I can find time for. I’m interested in teaching in a way that produces acquisition rather than explicit knowledge, because I’ve experienced both, and I believe genuine acquisition is a more worthwhile goal, that sees students reading texts without translating, with direct access to the language, and understanding with fluency.

However, I do teach grammar. Sometimes, for some contexts:

  • When I have students who need grammar for their courses and employ me to help them learn grammar to pass a grammar-based exam.
  • When I have learners who have already done grammar, and find it useful to use grammar as a meta-language to illuminate things in a text. That’s precisely what grammar is useful for – talking about Ideally this can be done in the target language – then you’re both talking about language while still getting input in the language.
  • People often like to have grammar, in either language, so that they have an explicit knowledge of what they are figuring out implicitly. It is affectively helpful for them to feel like they know what’s going on. I’m fine with that, because I think ‘feeling like you are understanding’ is important for learners.
  • When I have learners who want to be equipped to deal with commentary-type material that uses grammatical meta-language. In this case, I am training learners to acquire a competency in a different area – how does one learn the explicit knowledge of language required to engage in conversations about explicit knowledge of language. To the extent that that’s a goal, that can be taught. It’s not acquisition though and it doesn’t lead to acquisition.

There are good reasons to teach grammar, so that’s why I sometimes do. At the end of the day though, neither research, nor my experience on both sides of grammar-translation and communicative-language-teaching (with historical and contemporary languages, as a teacher and a learner), suggests or supports that G-T leads to acquisition.

Maybe the key to teaching the perfect is not to teach it

As I’ve been working on Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, I’ve had more of a chance to reflect on Ørberg’s methodology in LLPSI, but also principles of SLA, how to sequence a text, and how to shelter vocabulary and/or morphology for students. It also helps that there’s a current, live, and invested group of students currently being subject to the first draft of LGPSI.

If you’ve read LLPSI you’ll know that Ørberg puts off introducing any tenses beyond the present until pretty late: Chapter 19. Then he starts piling them on in a flurry. Which, is fine for what he set out to do and the principles he’s working in. Though, expecting that students can do a chapter, see every future perfect in context, understand them, and then know them, is not a principle or assumption I work with.

Now, what to do with the Greek perfect? It’s a relatively infrequently occurring tense. It’s difficult for students to pick up the nuance of its aspect. It’s often delayed, nay, relegated, to well into the final stages of a grammar-based curriculum.

What if one, er, I, just didn’t “teach” the perfect. Rather, just found an appropriate part of the course to start slipping them in, in contexts that made sense and usages that were perfectly normal. And when students say, “oh, what’s that verb form” you just say, “it’s a perfect, you can understand it to mean X” and move on.

And then when you’ve had another 20 chapters of LGPSI expanded universe, you can throw a table at them so they feel better about it.

Honestly, these days I try to teach grammar only when students ask for it, or to make them feel better about it. Because I know that the benefits, if any, of explicit grammar instruction are minimal to none for the outcome of implicit language acquisition.

So, no, LGPSI is unlikely to have a chapter that’s just “here’s a whole bunch of perfects”. Because ancient Greek speakers didn’t use perfects like that. And modern learners can’t get a robust enough representation from one chapter of input-flooding.

Could one write a communicative curriculum to cover Mounce?

I’ve been a bit behind in my blogging; I have some half-finished materials but the busyness of general life has been rather much lately.

This is a question that was put to me, and I thought it worth making into a post.


The answer is, “only if we unravel the question.”

Mounce, now in its 4th edition, is the market-dominant textbook for a traditional Grammar-Translation approach to New Testament Greek, widely employed in seminaries. It’s what I first used to tackle Greek when I did a year of self-guided study way-back-when. It’s great at what it does, that is it’s a book that is effective within its pedagogical scope of “explicit, grammar and morphology, learning.”

That’s… not what a Comprehensible-Input based approach is about though. CI-based teaching is neither an alternate way to reach the same goal, nor a better way to reach the same goal. It’s a principle of providing communicative input to language learners that enables acquisition – the internal, implicit development of a mental representation of a language, that allows the learner (over time) to process and understand pieces of language (words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, discourses) in the target language.

At the end of Mounce, what can a student do? I know, because I was there! You can translate, with more or less helps, and you can parse. You can analyse, and you can talk meta-language about Greek.

At the end of [X amount of hours of CI-based input], what can a learner do? My goal is that at the end of a reasonable course of Koine-focused instruction (and, I should say, that this is only my goal in the context of teaching seminary students focused on New Testament Koine in particular; other contexts have other scopes), learners can pick up New Testament passages of appropriate difficulty, and read and understand them without analysis.

My secondary goal is to give them the tools to do what a G/T student can do, that is I am also aiming and providing resources for students to analyse and talk about language explicitly. But this is not a CI-based method or outcome.

Now, presuming that a well-designed CI-based approach gets students to an ability to read a reasonable amount of NT Greek, will they have covered Mounce? That question makes less and less sense. The goals are different, the method is different, because the type of learning is different.

But, I will say, that if a student gets to the end of 2 semesters of NT Greek with me, and has been reasonably diligent, that given enough hours, they’ll be able to read more than a Mounce student can. And, if they’re given a bit of grammar after the bulk of CI-based material, they’ll be able to apply that reasonably well to the language they’ve acquired.


I don’t think a CLT or CI-based curriculum should aim to cover Mounce, because I think any well-designed set of CI-based materials will be doing something different, and will cover what Mounce covers by-the-by.

Online courses starting in April (advance notice)

Well, we are just wrapping up week 7 of my first round of online small-group courses, and I think it’s gone rather well all things considered. You could ask my students though.

Here’s what I’m looking to offer as “Term 2” this year:

Athenaze A: this will be an ab initio course, the same as I have run this previous term. We’ll aim to cover chapters 1-6 of the Italian Athenaze. You must obtain a copy of this book yourself to participate.

Athenaze B: a follow-on course, starting around chapter around chapter 7 of Italian Athenaze. You don’t need to have done Athenaze A with me, but you should have covered those chapters, and be prepared for the class to be primarily in (simple) Greek.

Conversational Greek A & B: join me for simple stories, activities, and conversation in Koine Greek. Atticists are welcome too. These two courses are non-sequential, but also non-repeatable. That is, if you did A you shouldn’t do A again, because it’s the same basic skeleton of material. Whereas you don’t have to do A in order to do B.

Latin 1: this is a course in Latin starting from scratch. It requires you to have Lingua Latina: Familia Romana.

Latin 2: this is a follow on course in Latin, starting from around chapter 12, maybe 13, of Familia Romana

Lingua Graeca per se Illustrata: This is a beginners course in Koine Greek, utilising my own LGPSI text.

I’m open to running other things, provided I can get a minimum of 2 students to commit. So that’s a pretty low bar, if you have something in mind.

Follow-on courses will basically keep their current timeslots (if you’re one of my current students), other courses I will be timetabling over the course of the next month, looking to start around mid-April.

Same conversation, same text – a technique

One of the things I have been reflecting on recently, both in reading a fair bit, but also working on the composition of LGPSI, is how useful it is, and would be, to take the WAYK concept of “same conversation” and apply it at the text level.

Same conversation is a technique where you deliberately repeat the same conversation, on a familiar, habitual, repeated topic, practice, habit, occurrence. What might that look like for texts?

Well, take capitulum primum of Lingua Latina, it’s basically a geography lesson, that to some extent leverages of people’s ability to recognise major countries and cities, and of the visual prop of a map. That’s smart (good one, Ørberg!). LGPSI starts with the same basis, though less effectively (because fluvius, oppidum, insula do not work nicely in Greek, eheu).

But what if you did other geography ‘lessons’ after this. You’ve built some basic vocabulary and structures around these things, so you can ‘repeat’ this lesson with a text about somewhere or somewhen else. So, a map of the Mediterranean, but now it’s the 10th century. Or, a map of America. Or a map of the 1960s. And you can start to make things more complicated. Add a geographical feature or two. Build more complex relationships between entities. And so on.

This is the advantage of thinking about ‘reading sideways, but up a little’, you build on the same conversation, to revisit the same language, but a little bit more complicated, with different content.

Or, to be honest, you could come back to the exact same conversation/text, but later. E.g. what if there was a second volume of (e.g.) Familia Romana that was the same storyline and content as the first, but the language was all ‘scaled-up’ to reflect the fact that you’d read the whole book before.

These are some of the ideas floating around and looking for implementation in the broader vision of my LGPSI project. Multiple storylines in multiple times, gives the opportunity to do lots of ‘same conversation’ with different content, and growing complexity.

Reading… sideways?

One of the things I’ve become increasingly aware of as a strategy for developing greater comprehension and fluency, is what I’ve taken to calling ‘reading sideways’. In particular, this has crystallised for me lately while reflecting on my reading through the Lingua Latina Per Se Illutrata materials.

Because ‘reading forwards’ gets more and more difficult. Working through Ørberg’s main volume, Familia Romana, Ørberg introduces a whole new set of grammatical forms in a chapter, say a full set of present passive indicatives. And he uses the in context, with nice alternation, and really shows the learner how they differ and how they function. It’s quite masterful to watch. But, you read a chapter, and then if you are pushing forwards all the time, well for some learners it gets to be a bit of a slog.

Now, I always advocate to people to ‘read backwards’, i.e. any time you get stuck, you just back up as far as you can, and start reading forwards again (I know ‘backwards’ isn’t quite the right word here). By reverting to much easier material, you build up your ongoing exposure to the whole mass of language, and you get some repeated exposure to things that are new.

But this only serves you so well, because you know the material, you get familiar with the content, your brain isn’t trying so hard to understand the messages themselves.

This is why reading sideways is so valuable. And the two supplements Colloquia Personarum and Miraglia’s Fabulae Syrae do this really well. They are keyed to the chapters of FR, containing only modicums of new words and virtually no new structures, and they repeat the new material from the relevant chapter, but they tell entirely different stories. So you’re fresh material, but with the same ‘language’. This is ‘sideways’ – you’re not ‘progressing’ by adding more language, you’re progressing by seeing the same things over and over but in new and varied forms with new and varied stories.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons why my big-picture vision for LGPSI is to end up with multiple storylines. You can be reading multiple stories, all with similar progressions in vocabulary and grammar, mutually reinforcing the language you’re learning, but getting it in new formulations. But that’s a long way off. For now, look out for opportunities not to be reading ‘harder’ material, but just different material at the same level you’re already reading it.

The Greek Perfect, Learners, and you (part 1)

Having been asked about how you teach the Greek perfect, or even how you figure it out, I thought I’d start by surveying a range of books that I have to hand or easy access to, to see what they say about the Perfect.


The Greek perfect tense for learners

In the first of this mini-series, I wanted to look at how a number of introductory Greek texts introduce and explain the perfect forms.


Zuntz (English ed.):

“The Greek perfect, unlike the Latin perfect, does not refer to completed past actions. In Greek, such actions are referred to in the aorist. The Greek perfect refers, in a particular manner, to a situation now existing, and hence might appropriately be called the ‘present perfect’.

He focuses on the reduplication as conveying either a ‘feeling of intensity’, (πεπίστευκα ‘I firmly believe’, or ‘a state now reached and maintained, usually as the effect of a preceding action. e.g. ηὕρηκα.

JACT Reading Greek:

RG introduces it with

“At an early stage of the language, the perfect means ‘I am in the position of having -ed’. (§ 262)

In Classical Greek, the perfect also acquired the meaning ‘I have -ed’.” (§ 262)

Then, in § 418

“The ‘presentness’ of the original perfect arises because it was used to denote a state, in particular a present state resulting from a past action.”

But, it goes on to provide some ‘wrinkles’ –

  • states not involving past actions δέδοικα
  • presents which do not appear to be stative κέκραγα
  • ‘stative’ in the passive system ‘it is -ed’, γέγραπται
  • passive meaning in active morphology: κατέαγε ‘it is broken.

Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics

“The aspect of the perfect and pluperfect is sometimes called stative, resultative, completed, or perfective-stative. Whatever it is called, the kind of action portrayed (in its unaffected meaning) is a combination of the external and internal aspects: The action is presented externally (summary), while the resultant state proceeding from the action is presented internally (continuous state).(p573)

Wallace categorises uses into Intensive (Resultative) – emphasises the results or present state of a past action, and Extesnive (Consummative) – emphasises the completed action of a past action or process, from which a present state emerges. Then he includes ‘Aoristic Perfect’, ‘Perfect with a Present Force’ (e.g. οἶδα), Gnomic, Propleptic, Allegorical (?).

Athenaze (English) (chapter 27)

Athenaze, interestingly, introduces perfect middle/passive and participles first.

“enduring states or conditions resulted from completed actions” (p215)
“Greek thus distinguishes clearly between progressive, aorist, and perfective aspects”
“states or conditions existing as a result of completed actions. The state or condition described is ongoing or permanent” (p240)

Comment: This is really where I think Athenaze is the worst of all these. I know that it’s not uncommon to use the progressive/aorist terminology. But using ‘perfective’ for the perfect, is actually deeply misleading. The aorist system is perfective in aspect, and when you treat the aorist as ‘aoristic’ or ‘simple-past-time’ or ‘undefined’, you are confusing the Greek verbal system and confusing your students (if not now, then down the track).It is unfortunate that the English labels ‘perfect’ and ‘perfective’ are so close, and yet refer to quite distinct things in the Greek aspectual system.

Mastronarde (1993), p280-281

“the aspect of completed action with a continuing or permanent result”

In early Greek, “principally to the continuing state brought about in the subject of the action” e.g. μεμάθηκα. “In classical Attic, however, the use of the perfect was extended so that it could also express a permanent result affecting the object” e.g. τέθηκα.

Decker, Reading Koine Greek

Firstly, Decker is nice in that he uses perfective and imperfective labels throughout, though not always strictly correctly.

“The aspect of the perfect is stative: it describes a state/condition rather than an action – a situation described with no reference to change or expenditure of energy” (p329)

It is true, he concedes that a previous action is likely the cause, but Decker says that the verb implies nothing about that action, only about the condition that exists.

Mahoney First Greek Course (p174)

“The perfect tense has stative aspect. That is, it refers to a state that the subject is in, typically as a result of a prior action.” Or… “the perfect denotes the continuing consequences of a previous act.”

“τὸ βιβλίον γέγραφα means something like “I have the status of writer: I wrote the book and am therefore now a writer.”

Comment: I think this example is over-drawing the stative idea. Indeed, for γράφω I would think that the perfect normally applies to the completeness of the book, not to the state of the writer.

Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

p297, ‘Stative’, though their presentation draws from Porter, Wallace, Dana & Mantey, and focuses on the idea of (a) the state that results from a previous action, and (b) the combination of perfective and imperfective aspects. They then provide subcategories largely reflecting Wallace: Intensive, Consummative, Dramatic (Aoristic), Present-State, Gnomic, and Iterative.[1]



There’s wide agreement among the intro grammars that the perfect is stative in aspect. How well that’s expressed varies though. I think some of these grammars struggle with how this actually contrasts with the imperfective and perfective aspects. In particular, the kind of approach in Athenaze is problematic, precisely because the perfect is not perfective, and I think having a schema that thinks Greek’s aspect system is progressive v aoristic v perfective is going to lead you astray.

Reading Greek has the advantage of recognising various ‘wrinkles’, but does nothing to help the learner sort them out.

Decker is good for using perfective/imperfective, though I think he overstates the fact that the perfect has no reference to a previous action. In verbs that are not themselves stative in semantics, I don’t see how you could suggest the stative does not necessarily entail prior action.

Wallace, and his not-quite-heirs, are useful in that sub-categorisation at least allows one to see the variety of usages and put them under some umbrella labels, though the general view that the Perfect is some kind of ‘combination’ of imperfective and perfective, I think is untenable.


In my next post I’ll turn to how I understand the Perfect, and some thoughts on teaching it.

[1] I think this last one is doubtful, based on their examples.

How to teach students the aorist vs. imperfect

Or, how to teach students aspect not time….

Here’s how 95% of Greek textbooks teach Greek verbs.

  1. Start with the present indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to your L1 present indicative.
  2. Introduce the imperfect indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to “was X-ing” or another L1 equivalent.
  3. Introduce the aorist indicative. Explain it’s basically equivalent to a simple past, “X-ed”.
  4. Introduce the present imperative.
  5. Introduce the aorist imperative.
  6. “Teacher, how can you have a past-time imperative?????????”
  7. Fail.

When you sequence your grammar to build students’ understanding of the Greek verbal system on tenses and start with the indicative where they do indeed carry temporal indications, then when you get out of the indicative, students struggle to make the leap. Because they learnt tenses and they associate them with time so they never know what to do with the aorist. So you need to ‘unlearn’ them – teach them “yes, I know that I said they are present and past, but that’s not actually what’s going on.”

Now, it’s not always a bad idea to introduce a simple version of what’s going on in a language, and then complicate it up later. But I think we can do better. And the best way to circumvent this problem is to start with imperatives early.

This is one reason I like the opening sequence in the Polis book. It starts with TPR and starts with commands. And most of those are aorist imperatives, because they represent perfective events: κάθισον. ἐλθέ. δεῖξον, κτλ. This also has the good effect of introducing aorist imperatives early and as ‘default’. But there are some presents in there too, τρέχε, περιπάτει, κτλ. And those represent imperfective actions.

Which means, if you stop and do a pop-up grammar, you can briefly explain that, e.g. περιπατεῖν is an ongoing, continuous, imperfective thing. κλεῖσον τὴν θύραν is by default a perfective, wholistic event.

And, voila, you’ve taught aspect before tense, and you can carry that forward. And every time you meet an non-indicative, you point them back to aspect. And you’re also a leg-up in teaching the indicative, because you can point them to aspectual contrast, e.g. in the past-time indicatives.

State of the Projects, Jan 2019

It’s been a long time since I wrote a post like this. But I think it’s time to resume an end-of-month personal reflection.

Language Logging

January was always going to be a bit weird on this spectrum. I logged 58’33” altogether. 6’31” for Gaelic (not very much), 38’60” for Greek, and 13’12” for Latin. This was skewed in a couple of ways – firstly I took a week of holidays to start the year. Technically I was working that week, but not very much. Then I taught a full intensive week of Greek, 5 hrs a day. So, that has certainly altered my stats.

In the coming month I am looking to increase some of these hours, but just as importantly, shift as many of the ‘quality’ categories up as possible. That is, the more of these I can make high-volume, high-comprehension, in-target-language as possible, the better.


Teaching and Tutoring

This year I’ve tilted a fair bit more to teaching and tutoring Latin and Greek. I only truly have a handful of students, a mix of online and a few in-person, high-school kids and independent adult learners. It’s nice to have some upper-level high-schoolers, because they are doing texts and that forces me/means I get paid, to read classical literature.

I’ve also kicked off this year with online group classes. I’m really excited about this, for several reasons. Firstly, the opportunity to teach a few things I’ve long wanted to explore more: (1)  a continuous course using the Italian Athenaze, taught primarily in Greek; (2) a more free-flowing communicative Greek class. Secondly, I’m pleased to be able to offer a somewhat more affordable option than one-to-one sessions. Thirdly, I’m interested in expanding it to a series of connected courses that range across the levels.


Apostolic Fathers

Tauber and I started work on a project to do a new, open access, version of the Apostolic Fathers. This is designed to feed in to some broader work on a Greek reading environment, particularly oriented to learners, but also as a project in its own right. Tauber and I have completed the initial work of correcting our text, which you can see here:

Next will be the process of lemmatisation, morphological analysis, and then incorporation into some of our broader work.

It’s also been a good experience in some of the work that will go into resurrecting and moving my ‘Digital Nyssa’ project forwards this year.


Last (August?) I started a koine greek language podcast ( which has been going (strong) since then, weekly at any rate. But it has been quite a struggle. I struggle both with having enough linguistic competency to talk about things, and with having things to talk about. But it’s been a good experience overall and I intent to continue with it. I have some plans to improve things, but it will take some time (and effort)


The year ahead

This year I’m continuing with doing some online adjuncting for one college, and if a minimum class size is reached, teaching Greek for another. These help pay some of the bills. I enjoy teaching. I do not quite so much enjoy marking piles of student papers.



Sad to say there is precious little research being done by me. It took virtually a whole year for a good quality article to go through review, get a revise-and-resubmit, and then get turned down last year. I don’t get any funding, resources, or time to put towards research, and the nature of my work, and my home life, tends to eat up almost all my time.

Research, except for funded academics, is entirely unpaid labour. And, while I vocationally committed to carrying on genuine research, the simple conditions of labour more than anything else constrain what I can achieve.


That’s all from my office this month.

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.