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.

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.

Reflections on teaching Greek 102

Now that semester two is finally wrapped up across my diverse colleges, it seems an apt time to write some reflections on teaching Intro to Koine Greek 2.

At the start of semester I was met with a conundrum – zero of my students were face-to-face. It was to be all distance, all asynchronous. Hmm, what to do?

I’d also been talking to James Tauber, of course, about many things Greek, digital, and pedagogical. We’ve been talking for some time about how to sequence Greek pericopes by ‘least new vocab’, and also about reading environments. In my context, I was partly hamstrung by the need to provide video’d lectures tied to powerpoint slides, but through semester one I’d at least become accustomed to that.

So, I tried something new. I took our current sequence of pericopes, and I taught these texts one by one through the semester, ‘talking through’ each text. It was more grammar-driven than I’d like in other contexts, but I couldn’t see a way around that given the parameters. It was very interesting though.

We read almost entirely Johannine texts, ‘out of order’, even at times reading the back half of a chapter right before the front half. Early on the vocab is quite limited, and Johannine texts are wonderfully (pedagogically speaking) repetitive. They repeat not only key words, but phrases, and structures. Sure, we met things in the first week that textbook students wouldn’t see for months, but we were dealing with real Greek, and the number of exposures both to forms and to structures was very high. And as we went to each new text, the same elements would reappear again and again, just with a few new features, a few new words.

At the end of semester, we’d covered more Greek text than I think any comparable first year (New Testament Greek) course or textbook does. Our word count was high, but our vocabulary count was somewhat lower, though still covering a solid core. And I have no doubt that the repetition numbers were much, much higher.

I think this could be improved upon. And I think it could be made more CI-based, communicatively driven. If the first half of the course had gone better, or if students had a more active grasp of Greek, then a sequenced reading of texts could also be matched with discussion in Greek of those texts.

Reading all of LLPSI (extended remix edition) in 2019

I like plans. And I like ambitious ones.

In 2019 I intend to read, or re-read, all the various Lingua Latina per se Illustrata books, including the Ørberg supplements and the not as official Ørbergesque supplements. I’ve read some of this material in the past, certainly the core books, but not that much in the supplements.

Here’s a list:

Familia Romana
Colloquia Personarum
Fabulae Syrae
Epitome Sacrae Historiae
De Bello Gallico
Sermones Romani
Roma Aeterna
Ars Amatoria
Elegiae (Tibullus)
De Rerum Natura
Bucolica (Vergil)
Cena Trimalchionis

That’s a lot of reading. I still have to work out how to get hold of DRN and the Bucolica. They are  Accademia Vivarium Novum editions, and among other things I’d like to order through Alas, Amazon’s policy of not shipping from any international site to Australia makes that impossible. I’ve been exploring other options, but no success yet.

Anyway, regardless. Perhaps you’d like to read along with me? I’m always up for various types of shared reading.

And, as always, a great way to start a ‘new year’s resolution’ is to start it in November…

Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (a translation)

(Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum)

1. In the consulship of Praesens (the second time) and Condianus, on the 14th Kalends of August, in Carthage, the following were led into the proconsul’s chamber: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda, and Vestia.
Saturninus the proconsul said, “You can gain the pardon of our lord emperor, if you return to your senses.”

2. Speratus said, “We have never done wrong, put forth no effort for iniquity; never cursed, but when we have received ill treatment, we gave thanks; because we heed our own emperor.”

3. Saturninus the proconsul said, “We also are religious, and our religion is simple, we swear by the genius of our lord emperor, and offer supplications for his health, which you also ought to do.

4. Speratus said, “If you lend your ears calmly, I will tell you the mystery of simplicity.”

5. Saturninus said, “I will not offer my ears to you, maligning our sacred rites; but instead swear by the genius of our lord emperor.”

6. Speratus said, “I do not recognise the empire of this world; but I serve that God instead, whom no human has seen nor is able to see with these eyes. I have committed no theft; but whenever I purchase anything, I pay the tax; because I recognise my lord, king of kings and emperor of all the nations.”

7. Saturninus the proconsul said to the others, “Cease to be of this persuasion.”
Speratus said, “It is a bad persuasion, to commit homicide, to speak false testimony.”

8. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Don’t participate in this madness.”
Cittinus said, “We have no one else whom we fear, except our Lord God who is in heaven.”

9. Donata said, “I shall honour Caesar, as Caesar; but I shall fear God.”
Vestia said, “I am a Christian.”
Secunda said, “I am precisely that which I desire to be.”

10. Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus, “Will you persist to be a Christian?”
Speratus said, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

11. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Do you desire some time for deliberation?”
Speratus said, “In a matter so just, there is no deliberation.”

12. Saturninus the proconsul said, “What are the things in your cases?”
Speratus said, “Books, and the letters of Paul, a just man.”

13. Saturninus the proconsul said, “Take a delay of 30 days, and think it over.”
Speratus said again, “I am a Christian”; and they all agreed with him.

14. Saturninus the proconsul recited a decree from a tablet:
“Speratus, Nartzlus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and others have confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, and since they have obstinately persevered despite being offered the opportunity of returning to the Romans’ way, it is decreed that they be punished by the sword.”

15. Speratus said, “We thank God.”
Nartzalus said, “Today we are martyrs in heaven: Thanks be to God.”

16. Saturninus the proconsul ordered the following to be said through a herald, “Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Ianuaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Seconda, are ordered to be led to death.

17. They all said, “Thanks be to God.”
And they were forthwith beheaded for the name of Christ.

Learning to live with your Monitor, aka dealing with error correction

The Monitor Hypothesis is part of Stephen Krashen’s theory of Second Language Acquisition. The hypothesis is that the ‘monitor’ acts to apply conscious, explicit, learned grammar to ‘edit’ your output. The Monitor only does so when (a) you have enough time, (b) you focus on form/correctness, (c) you know a(n explicit rule) to apply. (you could know an implicit rule and apply it to, to be fair)

In Gaelic there is a structure called ‘the inverted nominal’. When your sentence begins with some kind of modal or modal-like construction, e.g. “I want, I need, I like, I dislike” etc.., then a direct object of the verb will precede it (the verb in question takes a form called the verbal noun).

Tha mi ag iarraidh cèic ithe – I want cake-to-eat.

Feumaidh tu bainne òl – You’ll need to drink milk.


I’m very familiar with the grammar rules that govern inverted nominals, I could explain them to you over and over. But when I’m speaking ex tempore and at pace, I often get them wrong. It doesn’t help that there are other verbal noun constructions that don’t invert. I suspect that in terms of order-of-acquisition, this one takes a while.

But this, of course, does not and has not stopped a teacher or two along my many-years Gaelic learning journey from both (a) explicitly correcting me, (b) marvelling, ‘How can you know this rule so well but you keep getting it wrong in speech? More practice needed!’

Now, I can tell you exactly why the second statement occurs. It’s not that I need more skill-practice, though it does help my monitor to do explicit skill practice. It’s that I need more and more comprehensible input. I need to hear those inverted nominal structures again, and again, and again, until they get deeply acquired, and not just explicitly learnt. ‘Cause I already learnt them, right? And any time you test me on them, with enough time, a focus on form, then I’ll apply the rules and get it ‘right’. But get my speaking at speed, and they’ll occasionally come out wrong.


As for dealing with teachers that like to error correct, even when you knew you said the wrong thing the moment it left your lips! (a not uncommon occurrence)? I’ve learnt to let it go. It depends on context, of course. In some circumstances, you could ask/tell a teacher/tutor to not correct you. In others, that ‘upward’ instruction/management might not be appropriate. Learning a language is relational, and this is one relationship you must navigate. So, as best you can, don’t take error correction to heart – it’s usually well meant, and if you can not get down about it, it probably won’t hurt you!

Online small group classes in Greek (and Latin) for 2019

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be offering small-group classes in Ancient Greek, online, in 2019.

This post is something in the way of ‘advance notice’ and to float some possibilities.


I plan to start with a 10-week term beginning the week of January 21st.


Depending on demand, I will look at a couple of time slots, keyed either to the US evening, or to the Australian evening


I plan to offer at least one class that focuses on Active Greek in tandem with the AVN (Italian) Athenaze. That is a class that will require some homework and additional activity on your behalf. It’s designed to get you going with Athenaze at a solid clip, and will both leverage off the English supplements for Athenaze that we’re working on, as well as individual support from me.

If it seems like there is interest, I will look at also (a) a ‘conversational Greek’ for those who have some Greek but are beginners in conversation, (b) a possible text-focused reading-type group.

If I receive some interest, I’ll offer a similar Active Latin class in tandem with Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. It will be similar to the Athenaze class in terms of intent.


Class sizes will be small, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 6. This ensures you are part of a lively, engaged communicative context.


It’s not set in stone, but I’m looking to price these at USD$150 for 10 sessions. The Athenaze class will price marginally higher, because I plan to build it with more support and resources than just the class hour itself (audio recordings, homework, email support).


If you’d like to register some initial interest for these, feel free to send me an email:


If the times/courses don’t work for you, but you can get at least 2 other people together, I’m very open to running some other bespoke course for you.