The New understandings in Greek, Part 4: Voice

This week we’re going to talk about voice in Greek and ‘deponency’. In some ways this is the most radical element of the new understandings, for those training in a traditional scheme. And yet, on the other hand, it is one of the elements about which there is the most consensus.

Here’s how traditional grammars tend to teach voice, overly simplified to what students normally take in.

Active voice refers to sentences where the Subject does the action of the verb.

I study the Greek language. (study is a verb in the active voice).

Passive voice refers to sentences where the Subject receives the action of the verb.

The Greek language is studied by me. (is studies is a verbal phrase in the passive voice).

So far so good, for English anyway. But when we take students to Greek we have the disconcerting problem that there appear, in some tense forms, to be not 2, but 3 voices.

The aorist, in particular, has three voice forms, traditionally labelled active, middle, and passive.

That middle voice is the one hardest for English speakers to grasp, and it’s often taught as ‘kind of in the middle between active and passive, with some idea of the Subject doing the action with some kind of respect to themselves and please figure it out from context.’

Then you have two more features that appear as problems: (1) Quite a few of the tense-forms, including the present, have no distinction between so called ‘middle’ and ‘passive’ forms. (2) Important verbs appear with a middle but no active voice form. ἔρχομαι is a very good example. Traditional grammars borrow from Latin and have called these deponents, meaning a verb that is active in meaning but uses a middle/passive form for the active.

This may well describe how you were taught Greek. Here are the bombshells if you’ve never heard this before:

  • The primary voice contrast in Greek is between ‘active’ and ‘middle’, not ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
  • There are no such thing as deponents.

I would say that the consensus, more or less, is that Greek developed with two voices, one of which we could call ‘active’, though ‘default’ or ‘common’ would also describe it. The focus, if there is any, is on the Subject rather than the action per se.

The second is the middle, which we could also call ‘subject involved’ or ‘subject affected’. The Subject is involved in the action in some way that affects themselves. The focus tends to shift from the subject to the action itself. The subject may or may not have an active role.

The passive, as a voice (not as a morphological set of forms) exists and develops as a subset of the Subject-Affected voice. It is one possibility for it.

Furthermore, the θη forms of the aorist are not strictly passives, and do not always ‘maintain clear boundaries’ between themselves and the aorist middle forms.

Forms that we have traditionally labelled ‘deponent’ did not lose an active, they generally never had one. They might in some cases develop active forms. But the reason they are ‘middle only’ or Subject Affected-voice only is because inherent in their meaning is something about subject-affectedness. To return to ἔρχομαι, it’s one of a number of movement verbs that ‘involve’ the subject in their own propulsion. That’s why the Greek language consistently treats it as middle.

Often this understanding of Greek voice is difficult to show in translation. Because however well you understand Greek voice, if you’re tasked with translation to English, you still have to translate into an English active or passive. So don’t feel like you somehow need to preserve ‘Subject-affectedness’ at all costs. You don’t.

But realising this about Greek voice opens up the possibility of understanding Greek better as Greek and reading middles more ‘naturally’. Get used to their Subject-Affectedness. Dwell in it. Learn to love it.

Two final things:

  • If 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 work.
  • If you want some further reading on the deponency issues, here’s a list:

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Freebies for Students of New Testament Greek | Marg Mowczko

  2. Hi Seumas, question/confusion regarding your description of the ‘focus’ of Active v. Middle voices.
    You describe the Active voice as focused (if anywhere) on the *subject* rather than the action, and the Middle voice as shifting the focus from the subject to the action itself in some fashion.
    My confusion is that that seems to be the reverse of what Decker writes in Reading Koine Greek? He describes Active as focusing on the situation/action/state compared with Middle which are subject-focused (pp.235-6). Conceptually Decker makes more sense to me given the subject-affectedness of the Middle seems to throw the focus back on subject.
    Have I understood you and/or Decker correctly?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d probably rephrase what I’ve written above, I can see how it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be.

      I’d say Decker and I are in agreement that the Active is more ‘default’, and the Middle shows ‘subject-affectedness’. The active treats the subject as ‘agent’, whereas the middle treats the subject as patient, experiencer, beneficiary, and possibly other roles. This may or may not involve still being the agent (i.e., the middle covers both true passives, in which the subject is not the agent, and impersonal change of state type-verbs, in which the subject cannot really be thought of as an agent either).

      On this basis, I wouldn’t say the middle is “focusing” on the subject necessarily, I don’t think “focus” or, worse, “emphasis”, is the right term. It’s not “subject” vs “action” so much as “subject as involved in the action in a number of possible non-agent roles”.

      I’d read this post here (https://thepatrologist.com/2015/03/16/the-middle-voice-greek-thoughts-and-pedagogy/) though it’s also quite old. I’ve found Kemmer, Allen, R. Aubrey all quite helpful in shaping my understanding of the middle.

      Liked by 1 person

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