[B-Greek] Middle sense for separate Passive form
Carl W. Conrad
cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Thu Mar 22 09:35:21 EDT 2007
A favorite passage from Lewis Carroll has been cited several times
here in recent days. Here's the passage in its larger context as I
first used it several years ago in my class handout of Principal
Parts of Classical Greek Verbs:
“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
“The question is,” said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so
many different things.”
“The question is,” said, Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master --
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty
Dumpty began again. “They've a temper, some of them -- particularly
verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with,
but verbs — ; however, I can manage the whole lot of them!
Impenetrability! That's what I say!”
Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking Glass
Others have picked up on “The question is whether you can make words
mean so many different things.” To me the best part is "They've a
temper, some of them -- particularly verbs: they're the proudest —
adjectives you can do anything with, but verbs — " Any student of
ancient Greek who has seriously confronted the verbs and sought to
master them understands very well what is meant by, " ... adjectives
you can do anything with, but verbs -- "
The reason for this is quite simply that, in the case of verbs far
more than in the case of other morphological categories, the older
forms persist alongside of more recently-created or recently-emergent
forms (e.g. readers of NT Greek are puzzled to find that the same
author may use EIPA and EIPON as an aorist 1 sg. active of LEGW). At
ALL eras of ancient Greek that are documented in the literature there
are concurrent alternative words and forms with overlapping meanings
and functions. Although there may be some questionable points in
Chrys Caragounis' _The Development of Greek and the New Testament_,
its central thesis is, in my own judgment, valid without a scintilla
of doubt: there's always been -- at least as early as the later 5th
century BC -- what he calls "diglossia": a more conservative, even
archaizing literary language taught in schools and a demotic "vulgar"
language spoken by merchants and people on the streets. Neologisms
emerging in the "vulgar" language make their way into the
sophisticated language taught in the schools and written by civil
servants, respected authors and scholars.
When I first looked into the sea of confusion prevalent in
pedagogical textbooks, treatises and reference works with respect to
ancient Greek voice 10 years ago, my first eye-opener was that HGERQH
and ANESTH, both 3d sg. aorist indicatives used to refer to the
resurrection of Jesus, are identical in meaning: both are
intransitive, both mean "he rose," and HGERQH is not really passive
at all, although it can be interpreted in a passive sense if an agent
I went on to learn a lot of other things, such as that EGENETO and
EGENHQH are traditional and later-emergent forms bearing the same
function and meaning as 3d sg. aor. indicatives of GINOMAI, or that
APEKRINAMHN and APEKRIQHN are traditional and later-emergent forms
bearing the same function and meaning as 1st sg. aor. indicatives of
APOKRINOMAI. It is commonly said that the middle voice is dying out
in Hellenistic Koine and the passive voice is supplanting it, but the
truth is rather that it is only the "middle" morphology that is being
supplanted by "passive" morphology in the aorist and future tenses;
the -QH- forms were never uniquely and distinctly Passive in function
or meaning but rather they always functioned as alternatives to older
types of aorist and future middle-passives in
-OMHN, -SAMHN and -SOMAI.
Alternative voice forms developed gradually in the course of Greek
linguistic history. There are relatively few -QH- "passives" in the
Homeric poems; you'll find aorist 3d sg. forms like (E)BLHTO (for
"was hit" from BALLW) where EBLHQH is the "standard" later form or
like HGRETO (for "rose" from EGEIRW/EGEIROMAI) where HGERQH is the
"standard" later form.
The conjugational patterns that we call "second (x)" are the earlier
patterns, while what we call "first" emerged later ('secondarily'):
"first" aorists in -SA and -SAMHN are later than "second" aorists in -
ON and -OMHN; "first" perfects in -KA (e.g. OLWLEKA, hESTHKA) are
older than "second" perfects (e.g. OLWLA, hESTAA), and "first"
passives in -QHN (e.g. EGRAFQH) are later than "second" passives
(e.g. EGRAFH). In fact, both the "second" and "first" passives are
really simply intransitive "second aorist" forms (I used to call them
"third aorists") conjugated with active endings like ESTHN and EBHN.
Moreover, the perfect middle-passive forms such as GEGENHMAI are
later developing/emerging forms than the intransitive "second"
perfects such as GEGONA -- and there's not a scintilla of difference
in meaning between GEGONA and GEGENHMAI.
Aorist middles in -SAMHN are often (I think, or more often)
transitive forms indicating self-interest; those in -OMHN are more
often (I think) intransitive -- and one can usually expect that -QH
"passive" forms of verbs that have middle aorists in -SAMHN to be
passive in meaning.
BUT -- you really have to distinguish one verb from another. One of
the more useful sections of Smyth's _Greek Grammar_ (still far and
away the most useful of all reference grammars for ancient Greek) is
the "Appendix: List of Verbs" on pp. 684-722. I have found it easier
to work with and often more accurate than the entries for particular
verbs in LSJ -- precisely because it's easier to see in Smyth's
appendix what are the earlier and later forms of verbs that are at
The problem -- a major problem -- with the traditional pedaggical
treatment of verbal voice in the ancient Greek verb is that it
simultaneously oversimplifies what is really complex and
overcomplicates what is really simple: that is the "genius" of the
doctrine of deponency, and that is also the consequence of
understanding "middle" voice as a halfway house between "active" and
On Mar 21, 2007, at 10:39 PM, Mitch Larramore wrote:
> Dr. Conrad:
> I honestly didn't have a particular verse in hand for
> this question. I was trying to isolate Voice and form
> (morphology) to understand what relationship existed
> between these two, if this were doable.
> I wondered why the Greeks did not see any reason to
> distinguish Middle from Passive (by way of morphology)
> in the Present, Imperfect, of Perfect tense. And if
> morphology played ANY bearing on how a Greek
> distinguished Middle from Passive, then they must have
> developed two distinct methods, one for the Present,
> Imperfect, and Perfect system, and one for the others.
> And I thought I was getting somewhere until it was
> pointed out to me that ALL E-SAMHN, SW, SATO... verbs
> are Middle. It didn't make sense to me why the Greeks
> decided that a distinction needed to be made between
> the Middle and Passive IN THE AORIST ONLY. I really
> think that before I look at particular examples, I
> need to see what is going on behind the scenes and
> what is the logic/rationale for there being a need to
> make a special Aorist Middle (which is ONLY Middle),
> and not make this distinction in ALL tenses. What in
> the world does tense have to do with voice????
> Mitch Larramore
> Sugar Land, Texas
> The fish are biting.
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Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
1989 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad2 at mac.com
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