Aubrey on the Middle Voice (3)

Part 3 of our read-through of of Rachel Aubrey’s thesis on the Greek middle. Part 1., and Part 2. Numbers in brackets are page references.

Chapter 2 of Aubrey’s thesis looks at the Greek middle in the context of other languages and their voice systems. How does the Greek middle, and the Greek voice system, ‘fit’ in comparison to other languages and their voices systems (23) rather than the traditional approach which begins from an active-passive contrast and goes from there.

Aubrey begins by distinguishing derived and basic voice systems. English is a derived system, because it is traced from a source, Greek is a basic system because it is not. To put it more simply, the passive in English takes the active structure and “remaps the participants” (25). Greek middles do not work like that – they do not presume the priority of the active and then go about remapping the participants in the event. Other languages are similarly basic or derived, and not all exhibit the same sets of systems (cf. anti-passives, inverse systems, etc. (24)).

Let me give an example (different to Aubrey’s) of that remapping

  • Michael wrote (b) the tweets.
  • The tweets were written (a) by Michael.

Here the agent (a) is remapped (demoted) to an optional oblique phrase, while the patient (b) is promoted to the subject of the verb. A consequence of having a derived system like this, Aubrey says, is that they can be no passive-only verbs – passives only arise by being derived from actives (26). Secondly, only transitive clauses (i.e. with direct objects) can be passivized. Intransitives cannot.

Thirdly, Aubrey points out that voice alternations in derived systems are “expected to be semantically neutral” (26) that is, switching patient from object to subject does not normally change the meaning of the verb, only the alignment of the participants.

Well, what about a basic middle system? Aubrey’s work here appears to draw primarily on Klaiman and Shibatani. So, in contrast, middles are not derived from their active counterparts – there is no ‘mesofication’ process that turns an active into a middle clause. The agent is still the subject, the patient remains the object. The alternation between active and middle rests in a semantic alternation (27).

Because (θ)η type middles are not ‘passive’, they overlap with -μαι type middles, and they are not derived from active prototypes. Because -μαι and (θ)η type middles are basic and not derived, one doesn’t need to explain middle-only and passive-only verbs. There is no ‘deponency’ problem.

Related to this, because the active-middle contrast is not about syntactic transitivity (e.g. rearranging agent/patient subject/object positions), it means that the middle voice is not restricted t a single set of transitivity. Hence, you find middles with one, and two, arguments. This is an important difference from the derived system, where going from active to passive involves losing an argument:

Michael (1) wrote the tweets (2)

The tweets (1) were written.

In the derived system, one cannot require a second argument. But middle systems can appear as transitive or intransitive, with 1 or 2 arguments [28].

Thirdly, in contrast to the derived system were a voice alternation is semantically neutral, in a basic system, they are not – shifting between active and middle is a semantic shift, not merely a syntactical rearrangement (30).

Aubrey concludes this subsection, “the descriptive problems in the Greek middle are due more to a misguided use of a derived passive system than to Greek voice operating differently than typologically expected in a basic middle system.” (31) Or, in simple terms, your problem all along was that you kept trying to fit Greek middles into an active<>passive mould, but when you look at Greek middles in light of other active<>middle voice languages, it’s not weird at all.

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.

Aubrey on the Middle Voice (1)

This is a series of posts blogging my way through the very recent MA thesis of Rachel Aubrey on ‘HELLENISTIC GREEK MIDDLE VOICE: SEMANTIC EVENT STRUCTURE AND VOICE TYPOLOGY’ available here. I’m not a linguist, but I do my best to help non-linguists understand linguistic content. In this post I cover only the very first introductory section.

Aubrey’s introduction neatly highlights the problematic approaches to the middle voice in Greek (the thesis focuses on Hellenistic Greek, understandably, and I will shorten this to ‘Greek’ throughout except where other periodisations are required). Primarily, the middle voice is ‘multifunctional’ (1) and so resists attempts at ‘simple generalizations’ (1). In particular, standard approaches in traditional NT Greek grammars are rooted in a classical (and grammarian) tradition (not a linguistic one). Two problems in particular stand out: portraying the middle in terms of an active-passive dichotomy, and focusing on morphosyntax as a descriptive (and even diagnostic) framework.

The consequences of such an approach, Aubrey writes, are a neglect of a typological approach; an oversimplification of middle semantics, either by (a) discretely compartmentalising usages, or (b) too simplistic generalisations). The outcome of these consequences, in turn, is a dual failure of NT Greek grammars in both typology and paradigm.

Aubrey’s approach (2) is (a) typological, (b) contrasts active-middle counterparts, (c) uses ‘semantic transitivity’ as a lens to understanding.

What’s semantic transitivity? At least so far as I understand it, the analysis is going to consider transitivity as a ‘scale’, rather than the binary that English oriented grammar often works with (transitive vs intransitive), so that we are considering transitivity as a spectrum of ‘action directed upon an entity’. In particular, we are interested in transitivity as encoded in the meaning of verbs, and the presentation of event types, rather than the morphosyntax per se.

Aubrey then moves on in the introduction to outline the thesis structure itself. That is, a review of current approach to the Greek middle (chapter 1), language typological considerations (chapter 2), a diachronic perspective (chapter 3), before presenting her own unified approach (chapter 4).

She also highlights in the introduction some of the benefits of this work. In particular, a much better framework for putting to rest (6 foot under), the notion of deponency, but also providing a language-specific account which handles the idiosyncrasies of the middle voice, in a way that reflects languages with middle voices, not the framework of an active-passive voice language.

Personally, I’m really looking forward to reading this thesis in depth. Having read both Kemmer and Allen’s work on the middle voice, and having heard enough hints about Aubrey’s thesis, I strongly expect this to be the newest and hottest treatment of the middle voice in Greek, and if widely read, set to reshape the way we understand, and teach, voice in (Hellenistic, at least), Greek.



(You can find some of my previous posts and treatment of the middle voice here, as well as my read through of Michael Aubrey’s thesis on the Greek perfect form here.)

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.