Greek voice and case grammar

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Thu Oct 18 08:45:50 EDT 2001

I apologize in advance for the length of this, but I'm grateful for the
opportunity of what I hope may be a mutually enlightening exchange that may
help me to finalize my revision of my April 1999 document on voice.

At 10:52 AM +0200 10/18/01, Iver Larsen wrote:
>Has anyone studied the semantic differences between active, middle and
>passive in terms of case grammar?
>It is an area I don't understand well and I haven't yet fully digested what
>Carl is saying about it.

This is a big question and it may not be too much to say (it may not even
be enough to say!) that Carl himself has not yet fully digested what he is
saying about it.

One thing I've been saying with regard to voice, however, is that the
language--the terminology--which "we" (keepers of the lore of the language
for lo, these many years) have been using since time immemorial to DESCRIBE
voice forms and functions tends to be confusing, even obfuscating, at best,
misleading at worst. Moreover, in my exchanges with Iver over the past year
or so I have found myself frequently struggling to find some mutual
understanding of constructions which he is discussing in terms of
descriptive linguistics and I'm discussing in terms of traditional Greek
grammar. So here, when he asks about semantic differences between active,
middle and passive in terms of 'case grammar', I'm not sure whether he
means which grammatical cases are normally used with active, middle or
passive or whether 'case grammar' here means something altogether
different. I recently summarized the chief headings of my current working
perspective on voice thus:

At 2:47 PM -0400 10/10/01, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
"I really hope to get a revised version of the basic document from April
1999 ("Observations on Greek Voice"--which, along with some other more
recent correspondence with B-Greekers is available for on-line reading
or downloading as a PDF file with bit-mapped Greek fonts at
<>) soon.
I'm sorry if this very abrreviated note is confusing, but here's a
summation of basic points I shall argue:
>(1) The names and labels traditionally attached to the voice morphological
>paradigms are a major source of the confusion about their functions and
>meanings. Particularly misleading is the term "deponent" when that is
>understood to refer to a non-active voice form that supposedly has "active"
>meaning, when more often than not such a form really has an intransitive
>(2) The voice morphological paradigms have no essential relationship to
>transitivity of a verb. An "active" form, a "middle" form, or a "passive"
>form may be intransitive.
>(3) The original antithesis in the forms -W/-EIS/-EI,KTL and
>-OMAI/HI/ETAI,KTL should not be understood so much as "active" vs. "middle"
>as "default" (may be either active or intransitive) vs. a marked form which
>is subject-intensive. The "subject-intensive" form may be reflexive,
>intransitive, or passive in meaning.
>(4) Originally intransitive aorists in long-vowel stems, especially -H-
>stems (e.g. EFANHN/EFANHS/EFANH) and an extended form of such stems in -QH-
>gradually developed as regular forms of the "self-intensive" marked form in
>the aorist and future tenses. While the -QH- forms are traditionally taught
>and understood as "passive" they are as frequently or more frequently
>intransitive as they are passive. One really ought to envision the -QH-
>passive and -QHS- futures not as passive but rather as the
>"subject-intensive" paradigms for the aorist and future tenses--these have,
>for the most part, replaced older middle aorist and future tenses or formed
>new aorist and future tense forms for the "subject-intensive" sense.
>(5) Depending upon the context the forms in -OMAI/Hi/ETAI (-OMHN/OU/ETO)
>and in -QHN/-QHS/-QH or -QHSOMAI/QHSHi/QHSETAI may be understood as
>intransitive, reflexive or passive--but they are clearly passive only when
>there's an indicator of an agent or instrument; otherwise they should be
>understood as intransitive or "subject-intensive." And that's what those
>essentially intransitive: "they/it will cease/cease to function."

>Is it the case that many of the verbs that are commonly used in middle forms
>often have an experiencer role in focus rather than an agent role? For
>instance, in POREUOMAI the person who is walking is the experiencer, more
>than or as well as the agent. For some verbs it may be the beneficiary role
>that is in focus in the middle rather than the experiencer role. This would
>depend on the semantic content of the verb, I guess.
>Would it be a reasonable hypothesis that in the middle forms the experiencer
>or beneficiary is the semantic role functioning as subject either instead of
>the agent or together with the agent?

One may generalize about this, but in fact it really DOES depend upon the
semantic content of the verb. Moreover, Greek idiom is, in some respects,
far more idiosyncratic than one might imagine as characterizing a culture
of sophistication and one highly valuing intelligibility, to wit:

(a) PASCW is a supposedly "active" verb that takes accusative direct object
but really does focus upon the experiencer and drives translators 'up the
walls,' e.g., TAUTA TOTE PRWTON EPAQON "That was the first time I had these

(b) There are instances of distinct verbs characteristically expressing
'active' and 'passive' forms of the same notion: e.g. APOQNHiSKW readily
functions as the passive for APOKTEINW and is properly translated sometimes
as "be put to death"; similarly PIPTW readily functions as the passive for
BALLW and may in some circumstances be translated correctly as "be hit."

>FOBEW can apparently mean "cause someone to fear" in which case the agent or
>cause is subject and the experiencer is presumably object. All the forms of
>this verb in the GNT are either passive or middle in form - all are tagged
>passive by Friberg even those which are morphologically ambiguous.

I assume that this is simply a designation of the -QH- forms. Of course
Friberg has a number of labels for categories of deponents, but I think
this marking of the -QH- forms as passive is the sort of practice that
makes the parsing guides a poor crutch for one learning Greek and seeking
to avoid the drudgery of learning verbs by their own idiosyncratic
'personalities.' If all -MAI/SAI/TAI forms and -QH- forms were labeled
"ambiguous", the parsing guides might go out of business!

>I assume
>this is because there are no aorist or future middle forms in the GNT. Is
>there any distinction between middle and passive with this verb? Or is the
>function like middle, even though future and aorist forms have the -QH-?

That is my contention indeed--that the -QH- forms ought never to have been
thought to be essentially or exclusively passive. The very fact that the
aorist in -QHN/QHS/QH is conjugated with 'active' endings ought raise an
eyebrow or two. The -QH- forms, I contend, have--not totally, but to an
overwhelming extent--SUPPLANTED older aorist and future middle-passives,
and these -QH- aorists and futures should be understood as AMBIGUOUSLY
middle or passive just like the MAI/SAI/TAI forms of the other five tenses.

The facts concerning FOBEW are indeed instructive. But let's consider
another very important NT Greek verb, EGEIRW/EGEIROMAI. The 'active' form
EGEIRW means "awaken, arouse, make rise (from seated or reclining state,
resurrect"); it is used in a clear active sense in Mt 10:8 where Jesus
instructs his disciples for the missionary journey: NEKROUS EGEIRETE. On
the other hand, there are 14 instances of the 2nd sg. 'active' imperative
EGEIRE where the verb has the intransitive sense, "get up!" ( Mt 9:5; Mk
2:9, 11, 3:3, 5:41, 10:49; Lk 5:23, 24, 6:8, 8:54; Jn 5:8; Acts 3:6; Eph
5:14). Odd? There are numerous instances of the active EGEIRW in different
tenses wherein the subject is indeed the agent, but ALL instances of
EGEIROMAI middle-passive and EGERQH- or EGERQHS- middle-passive (usually
termed simply 'passive' show the subject as the experiencer; some of these
are genuinely passive, as indicated by a hUPO + gen. or instrumental
dative, but most of them are intransitive in the sense, "awake, arise, rise
from the dead" and in fact synonymous with the intransitive

>I would guess that the best way to pin down the semantic difference would be
>to study verbs which have both active, middle and passive forms. Someone
>must have done this, I am just not aware of it. (I am a translator and
>linguist, not a Greek scholar.)

Iver, in this business, we are ALL (PANTES, predicative) LEARNERS, indeed
inquirers. The Athenian patriarchal legislator Solon is cited as having
said once, GHRASKW AEI POLLA DIDASKOMENOS. Isn't that wonderful?--quite
aside from the fact that it illustrates the MP with accusative object: "I
am aging as all the time I am teaching myself and getting taught lots of
things!" I assume that DIDASKOMENOS is not EITHER middle OR passive but
BOTH--and even that, unless there's a real need, Greek doesn't attempt to
distinguish between middle and passive. I'm working on some of this
analysis and finding, like Alice, in _Through the Looking Glass_, that
"they've a temper -- particularly verbs." The verbs, even if one can make
SOME generalizations about them, demand to be studied one-by-one.

>Let me take an example. We find both active, middle and passive forms of
>AKOUW in Acts. The passive forms seem clear enough. Something is being
>heard. But what is the subtle difference between active and middle? The five
>occurrences of middle forms according to Friberg tags (3:22, 17:32, 21:22,
>25,22, 28:28) could have focus on the experiencer or beneficiary role of the
>subject. The person takes in what he hears, thinks about it, reacts to it
>and benefits in some way. This sense is often translated "listen" although
>it probably does not catch the whole difference with "hear".
>In the active form it seems that at least sometimes, it refers to just
>hearing whether one is listening or not, like when the TV or radio is going.
>I may hear it, but am not taking it in. There are cases where the active
>form is still translated "listen", so it may be that the active form is
>unmarked but the middle is marked when it comes to focus on
>experiencer/beneficiary. I am using "experiencer" here in a more specific
>sense than normal in general linguistics, but i don't have a better term at
>the moment.

The future forms of AKOUW are instructive; apart from Acts 28:6 which
involves a citation from Isaiah 6 in the LXX and where the meaning is
"listen", the others are all middle. The future of AKOUW "hear" is
regularly AKOUSOMAI middle, but that's true of several verbs, e.g. LAMBANW,
future regularly LHYOMAI, MANQANW, future regularly MAQHSOMAI (though not
found in the GNT).

>I am just throwing out some questions and would like to have a better grasp
>of what is going on.

So would I, and I've been working on it, off and on, for about four years now.

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

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