Aubrey on the Middle Voice (2)

Carrying on with our read-through of Rachel Aubrey’s thesis on the Greek middle. Part 1 here. Numbers in brackets are page references.

The rest of chapter 1 provides an overview of approaches to the middle. Aubrey commences this by highlighting two issues – (i) the semantic basis of the middle is unclear, (ii) its “formal expression is uncertain” (5). Traditionally (6) voice is treated “as a relationship between subject and verb” (6).

Active: the subject does the action as agent.

Passive: the subject suffers the action, as patient.

Middle: ???

The middle shows such a diversity of semantic relationships that it is difficult to summarise it. It is also often treated as equivalent to a reflexive. However that tends to belie an important distinction – the middle typically occurs with things that are customarily done by people on themselves (hence the ‘bodily grooming’ verbs), the reflexive structure (e.g. ἑαυτόν) involves both active and middle verbs, that are not customarily done to oneself. Other categories of middle-type verbs fit even less well in the ‘reflexive’ notion (9). Aubrey goes on to work through a number of other different categories or types of action generally found or treated as middle, which traditional schemes have tried to abstract as a single overall ‘middleness’ : “self-interest, personal involvement, participation, special focus, or subject-affectedness” (10). She notes that the problem with all these is that they are so abstracted that they fail to capture the variety of middle functions, as well as how the middle relates to voice alternations.

The second challenge has to do with “the formal expression of the middle”, especially morphosyntax. For example, the existence of active-only verbs that lack middle-passive forms, as well as middle-only verbs that lack active forms. Similarly, the existence of the -(θ)η- middle-passive perfectives. Traditionally, this means that imperfective (‘present’, ‘imperfect’) forms are presented as an opposition between active and middle-passive, and perfective (‘aorist’, ‘future’) as a tripartive alternation between active, middle, passive. But perfective -θη- often does not conform to expectations that it is properly passive semantically (13).

Aubrey’s interest is bringing the analysis around to transitivity. These two things (voice, transitivity) have not traditionally been treated together, voice being a relation of subject and verb, transitivity of verb and object. Voice, Aubrey says, “entails distinctions in process, regarding how an event transpires” (14). By considering event structure – how an event is understood to unfold, voice distinctions allow us to view, and portray, an event unfolding in different ways.

In particular, a semantic approach allows us to consider three parameters (drawing on Shibatani):

  • how events unfold in the flow of energy: how they begin, progress, and end
  • how participants are related within event development
  • how their involvement affects the relative salience of participants (15)

What does that mean? In short, we consider where, how and whom events start, and end. We consider the roles that various participants take in the event. The middle re-orients out understanding and placement of the subject, in a way that differs from the active.

Aubrey’s approach to transitivity more generally, then, treats it as a continuum, from a prototypical transitive event “where a volitional agent purposely acts on a distinct patient, causing a physical change of state/location in the patient” (18). The middle is a voice alternation that departs from that presentation. It may depart from it in various ways though. Generally though, the origin and endpoint role of a middle event is filled by the same participant (19).

Aubrey summarises, or subsumes, the three parameters (above) into two motivations for how we portray events (and thus choose to use or not use middle forms): energy flow (a and b above), and focus of attention (c above) (20). This also deals with, or subsumes, ‘subject-affectedness’, by also treating a participant as more or less affected by the event, and their nature as an endpoint.

Thus Aubrey’s treatment is to view “the middle as a multifunctional category grounded in human cognition” and this “allos us to engage the construal process and the nature of event categorization” (21).

In our next post, we’ll look at chapter 2, which considers the Greek middle into a cross-linguistic typology context.

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