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.

Why I (will) ditch the textbook next time

Right now I’m heading into week 11 of a 12 week semester teaching a Greek 1 class Koine. I’ve found it frustrating, mainly because I’m frustrated with myself. And as I reflect on that, I decided that if I’m given the opportunity to teach this again, it will be sans text-book.

To understand why I would now ditch the textbook, you need to understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve taught this module as available to students either (a) in person in the classroom, (b) online-live (video conference) and (c) online delayed (recorded delivery). Honestly, this is a taxing way to teach in general, but it also locked me into certain practices that I think contributed to my frustration – the recording format bound me to a desk and to using slides throughout.

(If I taught this again, I would make it in-person only. I think one could learn from recorded delivery of sessions, but not if that binds me to a desk and slideshow)

Secondly, the combination of the textbook’s pacing and approach, and a set of various ‘expectations’ about what Koine Greek is and how it should be taught, has pushed the stream of my class faster than I would like, faster than my students can acquire, and created an environment that’s more about learning than acquisition, and so in conflict with my own fundamental principles of teaching.

Thirdly, consistent reading and learning in the field of SLA basically convinced me that a textbook, even a good one, dictates the classroom content in a way that isn’t going to optimally produce acquisition. Even though I somewhat resist it, I can still perceive that my students aren’t fully onboard with what I set out trying to do, and the textbook tends to encourage them towards grammar.

Ditching the textbook, I think, would give me a certain freedom. A freedom from various expectations that are working against language acquisition. A freedom to start the class with, “We’re going to acquire Ancient Greek through comprehensible input, and this is how this works” and then follow that with 12 weeks of in-target-language conversation/communication, and come out the other side with genuine acquisition.

If, as the SLA field suggests to me, language is so complex, abstract, and implicit, such that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit, and if I’m committed to providing input such that implicit acquisition can take place, then the textbook has to go. Because at present the textbook is dictating my class, and it’s proven to be a bad master. Perhaps more skilled teachers than I could reverse that, but I strongly suspect that I would do better to say goodbye to it.

Adapting a story template for Ancient Greek

Below I have adapted (a lot is basically translated) a short story in Ancient Greek. It’s very closely based off a post from Magister P, who runs an amazing blog from which I have learnt a lot of stuff. In particular, I’ve been quite taken by the idea of using that very core ‘sweet sixteen’ verbs. Works not just for Latin!

Anyway, here is the story. Feel free to point out errors! I used this as a skeleton for a TPRS type session, and it went very well. Feel free to use and re-use as you like.

Phillip and the Kithara

Φίλιππός ἐστι μαθητὴς ἀγαθός.

ὁ Φίλιππός ἐστι οἴκοι (τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ). τῷ Φιλίππῳ κιθαράζειν ἀρέσκει.

ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν. οἴμοι, οὐκ ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει κιθάραν. ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν. ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον.


ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἀποχωρεῖ. ὁ Φίλιππος ἔρχεται ἢδη πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον. οἴμοι, ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ἔστι τὸ Σάββατον! ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ τοῖς Σαββάτοις. ἀλλὰ ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.


τὸν δὲ φύλακα ὁρᾷ ὁ Φίλιππος. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φύλαξ. ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; ὁ δὲ φύλαξ οὐκ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου.  ὁ φύλαξ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ Φίλιππος προσχωρεῖ πρὸς τὸν φύλακα. ὁ Φίλιππος· ὦ φύλαξ, ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. ἔχεις κιθάραν; νῦν δὲ ὁ φύλαξ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου. ἀγαθὸς ὁ φύλαξ. ὁ φύλαξ οὐ βούλεται ἀγνοεῖν τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ φύλαξ λέγει κιθάρας μὴ εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. οὐαί.  ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν, ἀλλά οὐκ εἰσὶν κιθάραι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.. ὁ Φίλιππος ἤκουσεν κιθάρας εἶναι ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τῆς Μελίσσης. ἡ Μέλισσα ἐστι φίλη τοῦ Φιλίππου. νῦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης.


ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος ἀποχωρεῖ ἀπὸ τοῦ διδασκαλείου. ὁ Φίλιππος πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης προσέρχεται. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φίλη, ἔχεις κιθάραν; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. βούλῃ σὺ κιθαρίζειν μετὰ ἐμοῦ;


ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα ἔχει κιθάραν. εὔγε. ἡ Μέλισσα φέρει τὴν κιθάραν πρὸς τὸν Φίλιππον, ἀλλὰ κατατίθησιν τὴν κιθάραν. οὐ δίδωσι ἡ Μέλισσα τὸν κιθάραν τῷ Φιλίππῳ. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος ὁρᾷ τὴν Μέλισσαν κατατιθέναι τὴν κιθάραν. ὁ μὲν Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν, ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα οὐ δίδωσι τὴν κιθάραν αὐτῷ. ἡ Μέλισσα ἀργύριον ἔχειν βούλεται. οὐαί. ἡ μὲν Μέλισσα βούλεται τὸν Φίλιππον ἀργύριον διδόναι αὐτῇ. ἡ Μέλισσα οὐκ ἔστι φίλη. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει ἀργύριον. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ δύναται κιθαρίζειεν.


Why teach communicatively if your goal is reading?

It’s a fair question (raised by my also-interested-in-linguistics-wife). Here’s my short answer: a communicative approach will produce better readers, with better reading ability, faster.

To understand why I hold that position, we need two puzzle pieces: how Grammar/Translation thinks it creates readers, and how CI can be geared towards a text-oriented goal.

Grammar Translation tends to operate along these lines:

Front-load the explicit teaching of grammar so the learner knows all about how the language operates and how to analyse utterances. Teach them a lot of vocabulary by having them memorise L1 glosses. Have them translate sentences into their L1 to solidify grammar + vocab. Eventually let them loose on passages once they’ve accumulated enough of grammar + vocab.

This is why most G/T approaches don’t see students tackle extended connected text until late in a 1st year (if we’re talking about a tertiary education setting) course, and they don’t really get a huge amount of ‘reading’ (i.e. translation) until they hit second year.  By this stage a “parse/gloss/translate” mindset is pretty set-in-stone and you can get through a whole 4-year university curriculum doing that and still not feel, or read, fluent(ly) – I certainly did, and I’m not alone.

Most graduates of a G/T approach will never make the transition to reading, with high accuracy and speed and without mental translation, their L2 texts.

Gearing CI to a text/reading goal:

It’s not at all the case that a communication-based approach needs to be all “may I go the bathroom?” and “A double-shot piccolo latte with a marshmallow on the side, please.” Indeed, learning such things is neither here nor there, a question that’s independent of CI.

While the very initial stages of CI will probably be physical, concrete, classroom-based, oral work, it doesn’t take that long until you can develop some structures and vocabulary to read simple texts. And once you do, you can introduce simple, but accurate, language to talk about texts. Whether that’s “subject/protagonist, theme, symbol, context” etc., or even grammatical, “(grammatical) subject, predicate, complement, verb, adjective, case”. If your end goal depends upon discussing the grammar of texts, there’s no reason you can’t do that in the L2. If your end goal is more ‘literary’, you can do that in L2, and neither of these necessarily depend upon “advanced”, or more accurately, technical, language. 4th grade kids discuss L1 texts, using 4th grade vocabulary. Post-beginner classical students can do the same in a classical language, if you give them the tools to do so.

The difference will be this, though : a CI approach that makes texts the topic of discussions, and encourages reading, especially extensive reading, is going to expose students to a ton of language, spoken and written, more than a G/T approach. Yes, it may take longer until they encounter/are able to read certain structures, because you haven’t front-loaded all the grammar. However, I think hour for hour the outcomes will be better, provided we are assessing the right thing.

I would love to hear from you if you have either personal anecdata on this, or links to peer-reviewed research.


An entrée into the world of 18th and 19th century Greek textbooks

Let me tell you about a little side-project I’m cooking up.

One of the great advantages Latin students have in seeking a lot of reading content, is that between the easy reading material that some Latin teachers are pumping out, and the products of the Direct Method, there’s a fair amount of reading material to get stuck into. (See here, here, here).

Not so with Greek. The Direct Method advocates produced not very much Greek, unfortunately. You can see some on the second half of that vivarium novum page. However they are not very accessible either.

So, what I’ve been doing is scouring the 18th and 19th century textbooks, a range of books with endless variations on “A First Greek Reader”. I have almost 30 in scanned pdfs. Some are more “directish method”, others are very traditional, almost all are far more advanced than “easy greek reading” should begin at.

The project:

  • Digitise: create plain text copies of all the readings in these books.
  • Lemmatise: lemmatise all the texts as well
  • Gloss: produce a version with appropriate glossing to help readers
  • Annotate: provide notes to go with each text to help readers
  • Record: audio files for each text
  • Scaffold: write Greek language content as both pre-reading and post-reading material.

Actually, there are some more things going on behind the scenes as well. Most of my side-projects these days involve overlapping and interlocking methods and goals. In this case, the goal is to create a digital resource of freely available material that helps bridge the long plateau between “1st year Greek” (not a real thing) and “fluently read authentic high-register ancient texts” (a real thing and quite difficult).

More on this, obviously, as it develops…

Actually, since I’ve penned this post, there are at least 2 people doing OCRs of this kind of material. So that means I’m probably going to shift my focus from simply digitising, to making more of this material more usable.