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

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

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

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

The problem with Greek voice

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

Active:            I hit Mike.

Passive:           Mike is hit by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Pingback: Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (II) « The Patrologist

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