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The Middle Voice (Greek): Thoughts and Pedagogy

Recently I’ve been thinking and reading more about the middle voice. It was first occasioned by some by-the-way comments in Aubrey’s thesis, p204-6. There he gives a typological table derived from Kemmer. Also, in some email exchange, he suggested I check out R.J. Allen’s doctoral thesis, “The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek. A study in Polysemy”, as well as Rachel Aubrey’s forthcoming thesis dealing with it.

I also had the chance to think about the middle in my “Methods” class, since the 1st year students are just hitting the issue of voice, and so I had the opportunity to interact with 2nd and 3rd years students and talk about the difficulty of teaching Greek voice.

I’m going to briefly summarise the typology of the middle voice that you find in Kemmer and Allen. Allen basically gives us 11 or 12 categories:

  1. Passive Middle: The Patient has subject status
  2. Spontaneous Process Middle: the subject undergoes an internal change of (physical) state.
  3. Mental Process Middle: The subject experiences a mental affectedness.
  4. Body Motion Middle: The subject causes a change of physical position to themself.
  5. Collective Motion Middle: The (plural) subjects move, i.e. gathering or dispersing.
  6. Reciprocal Middle: The (plural) subjects act so that A does to B what B does to A.
  7. Direct reflexive middle: The subject acts upon themself, usually in a habitual/customary action.
  8. Perception Middle: The subject perceives by means of the senses and so is both agent and experiencer.
  9. Mental Activity Middle: The subject acts within and upon their own mind, and so is both agent and experiencer (and possibly patient). This differs from 3 in that 9 is more reflexive, whereas in 3 the process may have an external stimulus.
  10. Speech act middle: The subject acts as speaker, but is involved also as beneficiary or experiencer.
  11. Indirect Reflexive Middle: The subject performs a transitive action but also functions as beneficiary of the action.
  12. At some point, Allen seems to treat δύναμαι as a distinct group.

I think having this kind of typology helps a student in their intermediate stages see how middles “involve the subject”, rather than the often place-holder explanations given in a beginner’s course. In each of these, except 1, you can begin to understand how the subject of the verb also takes a role as patient, experiencer, or beneficiary. This helps relate how these ideas are “middle” in the ‘logic’ of the Greek language.

It also helps to explain why deponency is a bad explanation for middle-only verbs. Middle-only verbs are ‘middle’ in the internal-logic of the Greek. We would call them middle verb-forms with middle ‘meaning’. It’s only in, say, English, that they are “middle in form but active in translation”. Translation and native-language meaning are two different things here.

One of the problems, pedagogically, is that when the middle voice is introduced in most textbooks, they have a fairly unclear way of explaining what to do with it. Basically, students are usually told: look at the active meaning of the verb, and come up with a way to ‘make it middle’. This doesn’t really help that much, I would say. It’s often better to (a) look up the word in a lexicon and check if there’s an entry for the middle, (b) consider the context of the word and how middleness might function, (c) if you’re a “think of the category” type person, having the kind of typology above would help you actually think through the various options.

The other thing about Allen’s thesis that’s nice is that it is about the diachronic changes in Greek, and he maps out some of the shift of the θη passive stem. I think it’s deadly confusing for Koine students in particular to talk about the passive as the passive. I can see now why it is that textbooks call this a passive stem; I would conjecture that it’s because when θη appears, it appears as a subset of the middle voice, but particularly expressing category 1, the true passive. But English learners function with an active/passive dichotomy, and so are more likely to overstate the passivity of the middle category. Learning/teaching that the passive is a subset of the middle helps to dislodge this idea.

On page 110, and 123, Allen has a couple of diagrams that show how, chronologically, the θη stem is ‘eating up’ other middle usages, a trajectory that continues beyond classical Greek, into the Koine period and beyond, until the middle gets devoured. θη is like the ‘cancer of the middle voice’ that cannibalises and colonises the other usages. Realising this for NT students is important because the passive marker isn’t distinctly passive and so does not necessarily carry exegetical significance. I think R. Buth made this point somewhere about ἐγείρω and the form ἠγέρθη(ν). (Sorry, I can’t recall where, and apologies if it wasn’t Buth). What’s the difference between Christ “being raised” and Christ “arose” (in the middle sense)? The θη doesn’t tell you which is meant. Exegetical restraint demands that you don’t try and make a theological point from a grammatical feature that won’t ‘bear that weight’.

What to do in the classroom? I’m still figuring that out. I think, personally, that I would go with these things though:

  • Teach two voices: Active and Subject-Reflexive.
  • Teach the passive as a subset of S-R.
  • Teach θη as an alternate middle stem, and give some reading material for advanced/interested students explaining its history.
  • Teach middle-only forms as just middle only, without making a big deal out of them.

6 Comments

  1. jdhomie says:

    Seamus, I agree with you on the problems of teaching middle voice. After two and a half years of Greek I still have the impression that middle voice means something different for every different verb. If you could recommend any concise resources (not a dissertation!) that would be great.

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    • Well, rather than reading all of Allen’s thesis, reading just chapter 2 gives a good overview of how one might classify and understanding the various middle usages. You can see the contents of the thesis here and selectively read chapter 2.

      There are a couple of papers floating around the internet just on the middle/deponency issue, but I suspect you probably won’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

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  2. pnitz says:

    Your conclusion sounds good to me: teach 2 voices as the Theta forms as a subset.
    The way I approach it is to teach 3 Patterns, 2 Voices.
    We use the Infinitive endings as names for the three patterns;
    1) σαι ειν, 2) ασθαι, εσθαι, & 3) θηναι.
    We use Greek terms for the voices:
    κοινή, ἑαυτική.

    In your list of middle uses, #11 is incomplete.

    You say each use can be seen as patient, experiencer, except #1 (Passive). The passive use fits together with all the rest in my mind… it’s just an εαυτικη pushed to the limit by context or regular usage.

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    • I do like using the two Greek terms κοινή and ἑαυτική for the names, and I will often call them this in English as well, Common and Subject-Reflexive.

      I’m not sure how I feel about using the infinitive endings as names for the patterns, but it’s neither here nor there.

      My point about #1, the passive, is that because it is actually a passive, it’s the only “middle” usage that is not middle precisely because the grammatical subject is not acting as the agent, not that it is missing the other elements of patient, experiencer, etc.. I suppose if you reconfigure how you talk about it, then the whole ἑαυτική usage involves the subject as experiencer/patient/etc, and optionally as agent.

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    • Thanks for pointing out #11, I don’t know where the end of that sentence went! It was in my draft.

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  3. […] you want a bit of a map to the different kinds of middle usage in Greek, here’s a link to my summary of Rutger Allen’s […]

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