Carl on Voice

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Mon Aug 7 07:58:27 EDT 2000

Just a couple brief comments and expanded explanations--

At 6:52 AM -0400 8/6/00, yochanan bitan-buth wrote:
>I saw a reference to 27 May 1997 and checked it out.
>I would like to support Carl on those points, at least at the level of how
>the language functions within itself:
>Greek middles and passives are probably best thought of generically and
>idiomatically as reflexives (unless contextually marked as passive).

Yes; my view is that the reflexive morphology is used when needed to
express passivity as it clearly does in some idiomatic expressions in
modern IE languages, e.g. Ger. es versteht sich von selbst (lit. "it
understands itself from itself) or Span. aqui se habla español ("Spanish
speaks itself here.")

>[Pedagogically, for parallels, students are best directed to 'reflexive'
>practices in French, Spanish et al.
>POREUOMAI at least 'rings' with the non-active verbs, despite not having an
>active, though in meaning a person projects directly to a picture of
>someone walking away. The word 'reflexive' in English is so abstract so as
>probably not to disrupt a student's learning and can fit 'deponents'. A
>fairly non-positive view of grammar terms, huh? (>'hurts the least')
>Deponents are then idiomatic reflexives that don't happen to have actives.
>(that's how I taught when I started using TPR Greek and I think I'll drop
>my later conformist practice of using 'deponent' as a category but just say
>'no active form' with such verbs in vocab lists. That's what we do with
>such nif`al verbs in Hebrew.)
>(ERCETAI, HLQEN is simply an idiomatic pairing of different stems that
>happens to join different voices as well.)]
>-QH- passives in aorist/future are secondary to the language.
>I would add that such an 'addition' to aorist/future reinforces the
>'central/basic' basic nature of 'aorist' stems within the Greek system.

I would add that my concern for how voice is understood in ancient Greek is
fundamentally pedagogical. I think that most Greek grammars use traditional
terminology that is unclear or misleading, that they botch the explanation
of the phenomena of voice by failing to explain with sufficient clarity
just exactly what "active," "middle," and "passive" really mean both in
Greek usage and in terms of ordinary usage in English or the language of
instruction. I think the problems may be all the greater in English because
little or nothing is done to undermine the notion that "active" and
"passive" are the "real" categories of voice and that "middle" is some
queer elusive category halfway between "active" and "passive"--whereas the
truth is that "active" and "middle" (or "reflexive") are the chief
categories and "passive" is a special-case extension of the
"middle/reflexive." I think also that many students never come to a clear
understanding of the meaning of "transitive" and "intransitive," and
furthermore I'm beginning to think that the "active" morphology is really a
default morphology for verbs that may be active or may be intransitive,
while the "middle/reflexive" morphology is marked to indicate the subject's
involvement in the verbal action.
>Accepting all the above, though, what would Carl recommend telling students
>in English about verbs that have all three voices, an aorist 'active',
>'middle' and 'passive' form?
>E.g. HREN, HRATO, HRQH  "lifted'
>(sort of a betenoire for chinese l/r, though Koine keeps both vowel sound
>and consonant distinct in HREN/EILEN, when EI=I)
>Perhaps: active, reflexive, reflexive/passive? (and -QH-, again, just like
>Hebrew nif`AL)
>and the rest of the (binary) language:   active, reflexive?

Certainly lots of verbs clearly do show all three voices--those that
actually have all six principal parts, such as the paradigmatic LUW:

	ELUSEN TON hIPPON ("he untied the horse")
	ELUSATO hO hIPPOS ("the horse got loose")
	ELUQH hO hIPPOS ("the horse was untied [by someone/some means]"

And certainly in such verbs the -QH- infix is unquestionably a "passive"
marker. The source of confusion for students is that there are more than
enough instances of important verbs where the -QH- is simply the
"middle/reflexive" marker for the aorist and future tenses.

Ultimately learning verbs in Greek is a more complicated process of the
same sort as learning nouns, adjectives, and words in other categories: one
has to come to know a verb like a PERSON, with all its idiosyncracies. One
may learn lists of "passive deponents" and come to understand that these
are verbs where the -QH- definitely does NOT serve as a "passive" marker.
But one needs to learn a little of the language's history to understand
facts like that. Otherwise learning Greek is like learning French by
memorizing long lists of verbs that take DE with an infinitive and of verbs
that take A with an infinitive, some of them reflexive verbs and some
not--that is to say, learning a language where every rule seems to have a
large number of exceptions.


Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at OR cwconrad at

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