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.

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.

What my thesis is actually about

Or, ‘what I think my thesis is actually about’.

I don’t post much about my thesis work, for a few different reasons, but here’s part of a draft introduction that I can pretty safely share.

If you’d like to read some portions of my thesis in progress and offer some critical feedback, feel free to ask me directly (via email). I could do with a couple of external sources of review at this stage.

Anyway, here is what I’m working on:



The following study compares the exegetical practices of two authors, Basil of Caesarea and Hilary of Poitiers, in two of their most significant works, Contra Eunomium and De Trinitate respectively, in order to demonstrate that one of the features of fourth century theologians traditionally identified as ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Pro-Nicene’ is their common exegetical practice.

Throughout this study I use the term ‘Pro-Nicene’ in a self-consciously anachronistic post-factum manner.[1] As I discuss further in this chapter, the traditional divisions and typologies of theologians and theological positions within this period has undergone significant revisionism, and is open to considerable critique. The 325 Council of Nicaea didn’t define a theological position in regards to the later debates, and only from the 350s does it emerge as a significant ‘claimant’ for a theological solution to these latter questions. However, insofar as later authors contend ‘for’ Nicaea, and the theological tradition after 381 accepts and solidifies some authors as being orthodox precisely because their theological positions line up, more or less, with what the church throughout the Roman Empire came to accept as normative, ‘pro-Nicene’ does work as a post-factum label.

In that regard, I broadly consider theologians such as Athanasius, Hilary, the three Cappadocians, Chrysostom, among others, to be ‘pro-Nicene’ in their formulation, while at the same time recognising that such a label does not mean either that their theologies were the same, or even necessarily related. The label as such is not meant to unduly assume theological unity, but rather provide a functional point of departure in examining their theological diversity.

The question I investigate is one of exegetical practice, in relation to doctrinal formulation. This combination highlights certain features, and sets others aside. The main emphasis of this study is not a thorough-going treatment of either author’s exegetical practices, and especially I do not delve into a treatment of their works generally considered ‘exegetical’, such as their commentaries on various biblical texts. Equally so, although this study interacts considerably with doctrinal formulations in the context of mid-fourth century theology and late antique philosophy, this is not its primary focus either. Rather, in the combination of the two, I examine how these two authors use biblical texts and practices of interpretation in order to support, articulate, and argue for a particular theological position in regards to the Trinity.

For this reason the texts under primary consideration are Basil’s Contra Eunomium and Hilary’s De Trinitate. Both works are primarily doctrinal in character, rather than exegetical, and yet both involve extensive use of the Biblical scriptures. Both texts, likewise, emerge in polemical contexts: Basil, quite consciously writing against Eunomius and his Apologia, and Hilary writing against opponents both real and constructed. However the arrangements of their works and their emergent contexts and audience are different. Basil’s work is patterned closely on citation and refutation of Eunomius’ argument in Apologia and so is far more driven by doctrinal questions. Hilary’s treatise is occasioned by polemic, but is structured to address broader theological propositions by treating portions of Scripture at greater length. It is, at the same time, a composite document and considerably longer than Basil’s work. Furthermore, Hilary writes out of the experience of exile and contact with the theological currents of the East, and yet for a Western audience and shaped by Latin authors prior to him. In contrast, Basil’s work is thoroughly Eastern in both context and audience. Lastly, both works emerge in a very close temporal connection, as I will argue in relation to the dating of Contra Eunomium below.

These considerable similarities and differences serve to highlight the advantage of this comparative study. For if the question is one of identifying common exegetical practices that are found among notionally ‘pro-Nicene’ authors, then similar documents by different authors, with different contexts and influences, would go a long way to demonstrating that one of the features that unites ‘Pro-Nicenes’ and indeed forms the basis for speaking about the abstract ‘pro-Nicenism’ as a thing, is precisely this shared exegetical practice.

[1] I prefer pro-Nicene to Nicene for the reasons that Ayres outlines his use of the term. Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: an approach to fourth-century Trinitarian theology (New York: OUP, 2004), 236-40.

Hilary, verse-flipping, and the true Scotsman.

No true Scotsman is a form of (informal) logical fallacy, of the type where having set up definition X of something, e.g. “A scotsman is blah, blah, blah”, and faced with a particular example, “Well then, so-and-so is a scotsman, based on your definition”, the interlocutor moves the goalposts, “Well, no true scotsman would (insert characteristic of aforementions so-and-so”), thus excluding them from the refined definition X1.

A similar thing is going on in Hilary’s debate(s) with (unnamed) opponents, which he tackles in Book 5 of his De Trinitate. Having spent Book 4 tackling the confession drawn from the Letter of Arius, and arguing from the Old Testament that the Son is God, he then spends Book 5 arguing that the Son is verus Deus, “true God”, against the contention that the Father alone is verus Deus.

In sections 25-31, Hilary turns his attention to the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One” (audi, Israel, Dominus Deus tuus unus est) Isaiah 65:16 “they will bless [you] the true God” (benedicent [te] Deum verum). Modern translations render the Hebrew of that verse differently (So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth (ESV) Whoever pronounces a blessing in the earth will do so in the name of the faithful God (NET)), but let’s stick with the Latin for now.

Hilary’s response is very interesting. Firstly, he suggests that te is an addition, and a very problematic one. “if te is read, the pronoun appears to signify a second person; otherwise if the pronominal word is absent, then the noun[1] refers to the speaker of the statement itself.”[2] Now, actually, Hilary is very interested in two related questions every time he does this kind of exegesis: who is the Speaker, and who is the Addressee. Furthermore, when the Speaker is God in the Old Testament, and the Addressee is called ‘God’, Hilary understands this to be indicative of the difference in the Trinitarian persons, for otherwise God should (properly speaking) refer to himself in the First person alone.

The next thing Hilary does is to quote Isaiah 65:13-16 at length. He does this because he considers proper interpretation to depend upon proper contextualisation. (To those who think the Ancients didn’t know anything about exegetical method, take note!) The introduction of this passage clearly indicates that the Lord is speaking through the Prophet. Hilary further argues for why the adjective ‘true’ is supplied here, and argues that it is in reference to the ignorance of the Jews who worshipped God simpliciter, not as Father, and so were ignorant of the Son and did not recognise him as God in his incarnation.

Then (wait for it…) he commences a clause-by-clause analysis of the whole passage, giving his thoughts on what each element means. Especially important is his understanding of verse 15, “You will leave your name for a rejoicing unto my elect, but the Lord will kill you” [3]. Anyway, differences aside, Hilary interprets the first part of this in terms of Romans 2:29 and the elect, i.e. Christian believers, as the new Israel. The second part, “The Lord will kill you”, he interprets in line with his principle that a mention of God by God must indicate a difference of persons. Thus the Dominus who will kill is the Son. This allows him to take the ‘new name’ of Isaiah 65:15b, “but my servants will be called by a new name”, to refer also to Christ. All of which leads to the key verse, 65:16. Having established by the context that the God referred to within the passage is God the Son, the words verum Deum refer not back to God the Father, Deus solus verusque, but to God the Son. Thus one cannot use the adjective verus to exclude the Son, for the very verse they call upon to do so, actually refers to the Son as Deus verus!

[1] i.e. Deum

[2] Personae enim alterius videtur esse pronomen, ubi te est: caeterum ubi pronominis syllaba non erit, ibi ad auctorem dicti refertur et nomen. V.26 with a slightly freer translation.

[3] Relinquetis enim vos nomen vestrum in laetitia electis meis, vos autem interficiet Dominus; again, significantly different from Modern translations, such as “You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse, and the Lord God will put you to death (ESV)”;  “ Your names will live on in the curse formulas of my chosen ones. (NET)”

Online reading groups for term 1

I’ve been doing some discussing and looking at a few options based on interest, and I’m pleased to announce at this stage that I’ll be starting off 3 online reading groups/classes to start later in January. In a separate post I’ll write more about in-person opportunities in Sydney this year.


For each class I give my local time (AEDT), UTC, a US Eastern, and a US Pacific.

NT Reading 1:

This class will meet to read portions of Luke’s Gospel, and discuss the literary, historical, and theological features of the text.

Start date: 2nd Feb

Class time: AEDT: Mon, 21:00, UTC 10:00, Eastern 05:00, Pacific 02:00

This class slot is geared towards people in the Asia/Australia time zones.

NT Reading 2:

This class will meet to read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and discuss the literary, historical, and theological features of the text.

Start date: 27th Jan (Aus) / 26th Jan (US)

Class time: AEDT: Tue, 13:10, UTC 02:10, Monday Eastern 21:10, Pacific 18:10

Patristic Greek 1:

This class will meet to read Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium.

Start date: 27th Jan (Aus) / 26th Jan (US)

Class time: AEDT: Tue, 14:20, UTC 03:20, Monday Eastern 22:20, Pacific 19:20


All classes run for an hour and will go for a ten-week block, at which point we’ll consider whether to continue/reschedule/etc..

The classes will be run over Google Hangouts. You will need a webcam and a headset in order to participate. If you do not have a headset, I strongly encourage you to purchase even a relatively cheap one. It is no fun for anyone to be on a conference call with someone who is using their computer speakers and built-in microphone.

I am still open to running some introductory conversational Greek or Latin, but I have not had much interest in this yet.

How to Enrol

Please check the information on the “Learn Greek and Latin” page for payment and enrolment details.

Why People continue to teach via Grammar-Translation

Foreword: this is our last post for 2014. Enjoy your holidays and you’ll hear again from the Patrologist in 2015.


In this second of twin posts I’m exploring common ‘defeater’ reasons people give for sticking to GT as a method and rejecting approaches like Communicative Instruction. In each case I give a brief explanation of the belief, and some counter-points.

  1. It doesn’t work

I.e. applying CI or other modern language approaches to Classical Languages ‘doesn’t work’. I’m not sure this is a sincere objection, I suspect it’s rather of the order of ‘I don’t want to engage this idea and I’m blanketing you out’.

The fact that it has not worked, or is not pervasive, or that sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly, are not arguments against it. In fact it has worked and it does work. A few timely videos of those few individuals with a decent speaking facility in Latin or Greek shows that it is by all means possible. It is not just possible for the elite either, it is possible for all students.

  1. Dead languages are different


Not heard as often these days, but for quite some time people would say things like, “Latin is no longer spoken, therefore our method of learning must be different.” They were generally not making a comment on the difficulties of learning a language no longer spoken (i.e. lack of speakers to talk with) but asserting a fact about the nature of a no longer spoken language.


Which is absolute nonsense. Latin is not different from other languages insofar as it doesn’t have a speaking community (I don’t wish to debate whether it does have such a community at this time). Latin is a language. Which means it can be learnt as a language. The status of any language in regards to the number of speakers currently using it has zero bearing on whether it can be learnt as a language or must be learnt as a ‘something other’.


If, heavens forbid, all French speakers were wiped from the face of the earth tomorrow by some new, virulent, French-speaker-targeting super-virus, this would not alter the kind of language that French is. It would certainly create obstacles for anyone wishing to learn French. And, given their sudden fatality, I can’t imagine anyone rushing to do so, but French itself would not have changed.


So too with the classical languages: if they are languages, they may be learnt as such.


  1. It’s too hard

And remembering arcane rules of grammar that appear once every 10,000 words isn’t hard?


Yes, I would say, learning a language is hard. It’s hard to learn it as a spoken language, and it’s hard to do GT. All GT students know that! And all students who acquired an L2 as adults know that it was hard too. It took hours, it was tiring, it involved a lot of interaction with speakers, probably embarrassment, and there were many highs and lows and plateaus as well.


But it’s not harder. GT is not only hard, it’s often incredibly boring. CT is hard because it requires more investment, but it yields greater satisfaction, it’s more interesting, it’s more motivating. It’s far better to go home from a lesson of CT having interacted in the Target Language for 1-3 hours, and have one’s head swimming in the TL, than to go home after 1-3 hours of GT with one’s head full of “The wicked sailors gave roses to the good girls.”



  1. It takes too long

Basically this reason is saying that while CT might ‘work’, it is slower, takes longer, and in the end takes too long for the results it promises. Better, in their view, to stick with GT, which requires less hours and gets us ‘somewhere’ faster.

I am almost convinced this is a valid point. I’ve written several times about how many hours working with Comprehensible Input in the Target Language might be required to achieve decent levels of competency, and they are considerable. Anyone learning a modern L2 knows this. I think those invested in teaching classical languages need to be very up-front and honest that considerable time investment is necessary.

However, what I would say is this: I don’t think GT takes less hours to get to the same place. I think GT takes less hours because it teaches and achieves far less. For GT practitioners to achieve real reading fluency takes many, many hours, which is my contention under point 6. In this instance we should not compare apples and pears. Furthermore, from what I generally hear from school teachers using CI based instruction, their results outstrip traditional methods, especially when (a) they spent a little bit of time prepping their students for the kind of tests that traditional methods favour. If that little bit of prep time isn’t their, CI students often simply don’t understand the jargon of grammar questions. No wonder, since they didn’t need it.

So let’s hold off on conceding that GT is ‘faster’, because it may not be faster and it may not even be to the same destination.

  1. It doesn’t match our goals


What are ‘our’ goals? I think this is a really important question, or debate to have. Often it seems like the goal of classical language instruction is to do grammatical analysis, but I’m sure most people don’t actually think this is the goal. Isn’t the real goal to be able to understand, appreciate, interpret, texts in classical languages and so to discuss and engage their ideas and content? Isn’t ultimately the content not the form that interests us? And while content and form are never divorced, just as culture and language are inseparable, they are distinct things.


If our goal was to train grammarians, then grammar is what we ought to teach. There’s nothing wrong with being a grammarian, of English or of classical languages. And in fact, probably some people do want to study the grammar of ancient languages. We need those people! But that’s not the goal of most students, or of most programs.


CT approaches do match our goals, they drastically and desperately match our goals. The claim that no one needs to know how to order a latte in Koine is irrelevant. That’s not our goal either. The goal of CT is to produce competent users of the language with an active facility that enables reading and comprehension of texts in the target language without recourse to translation or grammatical analysis for the purpose of understanding. (Though translation and grammatical analysis may be done for other purposes).


  1. GT is how I learnt, so it works


People who end up as teachers of classical languages via GT are the 4%. That is, they are often the small minority for whom GT ‘clicks’, who ‘get it’, who enjoy it, while the rest of the cohort is destroyed by a war of attrition fought with boredom and irrelevance.


And some of these teachers get very, very good at Greek, Latin, what have you. Especially those that do doctoral programs that require epic amounts of reading of primary language material. But this is my hunch – it wasn’t GT that got them to that point, it was using GT to render those texts comprehensible, and having a huge exposure to comprehensible texts over time. It was Comprehensible Input that gave them competency in reading directly, and this was only indirectly the result of GT.


I could be wrong, but I could be right too. People whose primary discipline is classics or the like, who studied primarily via GT, and who achieve marked ‘fluency’ in reading ability, often have a pop- or folk- view of language acquisition that is poorly informed by research or SLA theory, and dominated by the insular views of their own discipline and experience.


Even if it did work for you, why should we stick to a method that works for the 4%? What about the 96%? What if we used methods that meant classical languages were learnable by all, not the self-selective and self-satisfied ‘elite’? Wouldn’t that open up the field for the simple ploughman in the field in a whole new way?