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

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Re-conceiving the middle voice for Greek and Latin students (V) — The Patrologist | Talmidimblogging

  2. The Latin verbs that use the periphrastic forms in the perfect system may be doing something akin to split ergativity. In fact, it was deponent verbs that in high school led me to invent ergative alignment for myself.

    • I suppose it might be conceived of along similar lines. The difficulty, as it seems to me, is that it is such a limited class of verbs in Latin that do this.

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