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

Well, I hope by this point, I’ve done a few things:

  1. Convinced you that Greek has an active v. middle voice system, in which the middle domain covers a range of different categories, all generally united by ‘subject affectedness’
  2. Convinced you that ‘deponency’ is not a useful concept for explaining verbs that do not appear with active morphology.
  3. Given you a reasonable account of most of those semantic categories, thereby giving an explicit account of why their ‘middleness’ makes sense.
  4. Shown that Latin deponents, by and large, represent historic middles from a PIE origin, and can be accounted for mostly under the same types of categories.
  5. Show that the ‘passive’ forms in Greek are also a category of middle-morphology.

But what does this mean for teaching and learning? I wrote these posts partly to force myself to work through some of the research, partly to make it clearer in my own mind, but also to try and bridge some of the gap between linguistics and general classical-language education. In my experience, a lot of this simply never makes it down to teachers, let alone students, of these languages.

For the grammar-translation context

If you teach in a relatively ‘traditional’ mode of grammar presentation, and translation as exercise, I think there are certain things you can do.

Firstly, change your terminology. Start referring to Greek as having an active vs. middle (or mediopassive) voice system. Explain that ‘middle’ means a range of categories that represent some form of ‘subject affectedness’, and that as your students encounter various types of middle verbs, you’ll point out what those categories are. Don’t try to present them as I have here! Rather, on a case by case approach, simply say, “here’s a new verb ἔρχομαι. It’s middle in its forms, because verbs indicating translational body motion are often middle.”

Greek students need to be met with the idea early that Greek voice is quite different to the Active-Passive system in English, and isn’t best understood with reference to English, but learning to accept it on its own terms. My mantra here, as elsewhere, is meaning comes first, then translation.

I think it’s worth adopting the language of media tantum (‘middle only’) for verbs that lack active counterparts. But I also think it’s worth adopting the language of middle-preferred or middle-primary for verbs that mostly and ‘by default’ appear in the middle, treating their active counterparts as the secondary/subsidiary form (e.g. causatives).

As students meet more middle-only and middle-preferred verbs, you can begin to systematise some of the semantic categories, and give more general explanations for why these verbs tend to show middle morphology as an expression of middle semantics.

It’s still worth preparing them/inoculating them, against the ‘deponent’ explanation, by giving a short historical rationale for why this language was used, and why you don’t. I often say, “middle in meaning active in translation”, to highlight that active translations in English reflect English voice and semantics, not Greek.

For Latin, I think a similar approach can be taken, except that there really is an active vs. passive voice system, and so when historic-middle verbs begin to appear in your classes, it’s worth stopping and giving a short historical explanation, “These are verbs that indicate subject affectedness and often changes-of-state, they have passive morphology because they were originally middle. etc..”

Communicative Language Teaching

In some ways, it’s actually far easier to teach these in a CLT approach. You simply introduce them without comment. You don’t need to explain why orior is an -r formation, or ἔρχομαι has a middle ending, any more than you need to stop and explain verb endings. You just introduce them in ways that are comprehensible, and it’s only if students begin asking questions that you need to pause and give, e.g. some pop-up grammar.

That could be as simple as, “oh, some verbs use these endings instead, because of what they mean.” The ongoing exposure to their usage in regular conversation, and readings, will make clear enough how they are used.

For students that persist, the same approach as any grammar-curious student – a short explanation on the spot, then follow up with a more detailed explanation outside the communicative context, or a written-up version (perhaps not quite the version I’ve done, though you can try!)

My own take-aways

For myself, reading through Kemmer, Allan, Aubrey, and bits and pieces elsewhere has helped crystallise my understanding of voice systems in both Latin and Greek. I have a much clearer understanding of Latin deponency, and a stronger articulation of Greek’s middle system, including how the ‘middle’ forms and the η/θη forms carve up the middle domain. From here on I’ll be using terminology such as mediopassive voice, middle-only, middle-primary, and explaining the selection of voice based on the semantics of the lexical items in question. And, in CLT contexts, I’ll be worrying less about “used-to-be-called-deponents” as being oddities, and treating them more as a normal and regular feature of the language.


A pdf of this whole series is available, slightly edited and formatted. You are free to distribute it under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 licence.

I’d be very happy to hear from you, if you have corrections, suggestions, additions, or just generally in response to this series of posts!

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