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

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


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

e.g. Mike stabbed himself.

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

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

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

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

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

ornor               to adorn (oneself)
perluor            to bathe

κοσμοῦμαι      to adorn
λοῦμαι             to bathe

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

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

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

κλίνομαι          lie down (CiBP)

στρέφομαι       turn around (nTrans-motion)

πορεύομαι       to go (translational-motion)

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

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

στρέφομαι                                              > στρέφω        to turn (something else)

πορεύομαι                                              > πορεύω to cause to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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