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.

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.

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.

Greek for ‘that’s interesting’…

There’s two types of modern expressions that present difficulty for speaking ancient languages:

  • names for things they didn’t have
  • expressions for things they didn’t say

In many cases (1) isn’t so bad. You just have to neologise. How do you say helicopter, television, mobile (=cell) phone, etc etc..? Even coffee, tea, present problems, but not insurmountable ones. For Latin, with its longer continual history, it’s often easier. For speaking ancient Greek modernly, various strategies can be used: adapting an ancient word with a similar meaning; using the Greek equivalent to a Latin word used for the same modern thing; deriving a (sometimes entirely fictive) ‘ancestor’ form for a contemporary Greek word.

The second issue is much more problematic. Consider the expression, “It’s interesting…”. In Latin, we can use phrases involving studiumstudium me tenet, studium me excitat, and the like. Greek is, it seems, more tricky.

I asked my good friend Στέφανος about this, as I often do, and he proffered a few suggestions:

διαφέρει — it’s important

ἄξιον σπουδῆς — something worthy of zeal/esteem/effort

προσέχω τινὶ τὸν νοῦν, τὸν νοῦν ἔχω πρός τινα – expressions for paying attention to something.


None of these, as he recognised, quite fits. We want something for “here is a thing that is worth paying attention to/thinking about”.

But perhaps we can build off these. ἄξιον + infinitive makes a good impersonal structure for “worth doing X”. So…

ἄξιον τοῦ τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν – worth paying attention to

ἄξιον διαλέγεσθαι – worth talking about

ἄξιον ἐπὶ ᾧ νομίζειν – worth thinking on,

ἄξιον μελετᾶσθαι – worth contemplating


Take these out for a spin, let me know what you think.

Podcasting: my process

We’re now six podcasts deep, and I thought I’d write a little this week about what it looks like for me to put together a podcast.

1: An idea

It takes a while for me to come up with ideas, which maybe isn’t a good sign! It needs to be something moderately interesting, and moderately within my speaking ability. I try to draw from things going on in the rest of my Greek-oriented life. So far that’s working okay.

2: ‘Practice’

Depending on my schedule, I spend some time talking to myself ex tempore on the topic, in Greek. Either while driving, or in the shower, or wherever. It’s often at this stage that I stumble across things I want to say but can’t. I make a note (mentally, usually) to address that.

3: ‘Practice’ part 2

On a Saturday or Sunday evening I sit down at the computer; I have some rough notes for the intro and outro, I get a Latin>Greek dictionary open, and I fake-record first. That is, I open up Audacity and hit ‘record’ and talk for around 10 minutes. The first version is always terrible, but it allows me to do what I did in the step above, but with more focus. I generally use the Latin>Greek dictionary to figure out things I don’t know (it’s easier and better than English>Greek).

4: Recording

I try not to do too many fake recordings if only because I get bored of myself. Usually 1 or 2 is enough, and then I record a proper version. I accept, immo, embrace the fact that it’s still well-short of perfect, but that’s okay, that’s part of the deal here.

5: And send

I rarely relisten to them, I will only get overly critical. So I just fill in the details and upload them directly.


And that’s it. Nothing marvellous or magical, just a very stripped-down process to get Greek audio out my mouth and onto the internet.

On a kind of return to classics…

Most of my classics background involved a 4 year stint as an external student working almost entirely on Latin. I took intro Latin as an adult, and then 3 years of text-based classes. I wish I had kept better notes! It was still being done with postal services when I did it. But I did cover the gamut – Vergil, Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Lucretius, Tacitus, Lucan, Seneca, Livy, Pliny.

Since then, I haven’t had occasion to read extended selections of Latin, or even classical Greek, texts. But starting in a couple of weeks I have two high school students headed into their 12th year (I guess, Senior Year for you Americans), one in 2019, one in 2020. That means, as their tutor, I’m gearing up to cover:

  • Livy, Book V
  • Tacitus, Agricola
  • Vergil, Aeneid 1
  • Horace, selected Odes
  • Catullus, selected poems
  • Cicero, Pro Archia
  • Homer, Iliad 3
  • Euripides, Electra
  • Thucydides, Book IV.

(I should mention, almost all of these are ‘selected portions’, but they are substantial portions in most cases).

That’s a fairly solid list! I’m looking forward to it, as it will force me to read some genuine literary Latin and Greek; I’ve never read extensive portions of Homer or of Greek drama really. Also, I really do enjoy reading texts. Who knows, maybe I’ll acquire some more private students along the way! Or maybe I’ll do some recordings or videos. Or blog post. Or… we’ll see.

(Italian) Athenaze Supplement Project

I’m keen to revisit my idea from some time ago, about a collaborative project providing English-language supports for using the Italian edition of Athenaze, for those without any Italian.I’ve set up a Google Drive folder, and it’s basically ready to go. I have in mind particularly the following three (non-copyright-infringing) tasks:

1. vocab list per chapter with English glosses

2. commentary style notes on constructions, references to page and line.

3. grammar explanations that map to the chapters but do not translate the Italian material

If you’d be interested in helping out/getting involved, send me an email and I’ll send an invite.