MIDDLE AND PASSIVE VOICE
B. Ward Powers
bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
Tue Oct 23 23:38:33 EDT 2001
Carl has been explaining to us his understanding of middle and passive
voice in Greek, and in particular the significance of the -QH- morph in a
verb. I would like to explain another (and more traditional) way of
understanding voice in Greek.
First of all, what IS voice? The term "voice" refers to how a person or
thing relates to the action of the verb. To state this in its simplest form:
ACTIVE: I was the one who did it to him. "I saw the Lord." I.e., in the
active the subject performs the action of the verb, and it normally has or
implies an object of the action described.
MIDDLE: I was the one who did it, and no one else was involved. I.e., I did
something TO myself, or BY myself. Normally intransitive (without an
object, or the object is oneself).
E.g., the one who has bathed [that is, bathed himself] (John 13:10) hO
Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), APEGXATO.
PASSIVE: I had the action done to me by something or someone else. E.g.,
The Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) OU DUNATAI LUQHNAI hH GRAFH;
[the] heavens will be dissolved (2 Peter 3:12) OURANOI LUQHSONTAI
These distinctions are not always consistently carried out in the actual
functioning of the language. Thus, in the Lord's command to Peter (Acts
10:13), "Rise, Peter, kill and eat", there is no expressed object for "kill
and eat", but obviously these verbs CAN have an expressed object, and an
object of the action is implied even when not expressed: if you kill and
eat, you kill and eat SOMETHING. So in the verse these verbs are active. On
the other hand, "rise" is something you just do yourself: it is
intransitive. So it would be a good candidate for being middle. In the
event, all three verbs in this sentence are aorist active (the first is a
participle form, the other two are imperatives): ANASTAS, PETRE, QUSON KAI
And another quirk is that the future form of "eat" is middle, FAGOMAI,
notwithstanding that it is transitive, taking an object: hOSTIS FAGETAI
ARTON (Luke 14:15); KAI FAGETAI TAS SARKAS hUMWN (James 5:3). Altogether,
fourteen verbs with active sense take middle forms in their future (e.g.,
LAMBANW, PINW, TIKTW).
Then the intransitive verb "come", ERCOMAI, has a middle suppletive in the
future, ELEUSOMAI - but an active suppletive in the aorist, HLQON.
And GINOMAI is middle in form in the present, future, and aorist - but
active in form in its perfect, GEGONA.
The SECOND issue is, then, How do you describe what is happening in a
language in these circumstances?
My contention, from a linguistic perspective, is: You identify the main
patterns in the language, and then you seek to recognize and characterize
departures from these patterns. These "departures" may be of a kind which
can be described by a subordinate rule. [Example: the standard morph for
the future is the addition of sigma after the verb root (in what I would
identify as Slot Six of the verb's nine morph slots); but after a liquid
this future morph is not sigma but epsilon, which then contracts with a
following vowel in accordance with the rules of contraction.] Or, these
departures may be of an unpredictable kind: in which case they are
recognized as being irregular.
In carrying out this process, one finds first of all a place where the
differentiation of form and meaning is clearest. In Greek, this is in the
aorist. Here one sees a differentiation between the paradigms of ELUSAMHN
and ELUQHN, which can be correlated respectively with middle and passive
meanings. Next, one can find a similar distinction of form in the future:
the paradigm LUSOMAI is middle, while that of LUQHSOMAI is passive. Thus
the morph -QH-, which is lengthened from -QE-. is the indicator of passive,
where a separate set of forms is available for the middle. That is, in the
future and aorist systems. (The lengthened -QH- occurs in the indicative,
imperative and infinitive, and the unlengthened -QE- in the subjunctive
[where it contracts], the optative and the participle.)
Thus forms of the future and aorist tenses indicate morphologically whether
they are middle or passive.
But there are four subsystems of the Greek verb, the other two being the
present (with the imperfect) and the perfect (with the pluperfect). The
Greek language did not invent separate passive forms for these two
subsystems. Instead, when Greek wants a passive meaning in the present or
perfect tenses, the MIDDLE forms will be found used: the context must
indicate which voice is intended.
CONCLUSION: the starting point for ascribing meaning is: Whenever you
encounter a future or aorist form in the middle or passive, you take it to
have middle or passive meaning respectively, because both differentiated
voice forms (i.e., middle and passive) are available for use. However,
whenever you encounter a middle FORM of the present (+imperfect) or perfect
(+pluperfect) - which you recognize as a middle form by its containing the
middle indicator morphs - you recognize that its MEANING could be either
middle or passive, because no differentiated passive forms were available
in the language.
The language provides these basic indicators. It is a great shame,
pedagogically, not to recognize and use them as the starting point.
But: how then does one deal with the undeniable fact that "it ain't
necessarily so"? Which leads us to:
THIRDLY, HANDLING THE EXCEPTIONS
Every known language has language rules - and exceptions to these rules.
The existence of the exceptions does not nullify the rules. The rules
provide the basic pattern for most forms in that language, and the
foundation on the basis of which you can identify, and handle, the exceptions.
One factor in language is that, as Carl has pointed out, language is always
in the process of changing.
>Iver, I think that the language is always in a process of change from older
>forms and idioms to newer forms and idioms; while that's happening, there
>are concurrent forms and idioms performing the same functions. One common
>one: there are "second" aorists that are conjugated partly with O/E
>endings and partly with -A- endings Mt 12:2 has EIPAN but 12:24 has
>EIPON--alternative 3 pl. forms with the same subject (hOI FARISAIOI).
The example which Carl gives is indicative of a general (but gradual and
partial) transition in the language, in which second and third aorist verbs
were migrating some of their forms to first conjugation forms,
characterized by -SA- or -A- in the aorist.
Carl goes on to say:
>There are quite a few verbs in NT Koine that still show aorist and future
>middles with -MAI- forms, but far more that show -QH- forms in the aorist
Carl's contention is that -QH- forms are best regarded as middle, though
they can correlate with passive meaning:
>hISTHMI/hISTAMAI is an interesting example showing concurrent
>forms: of course the active means "cause to stand" and so we have aorist
>and future forms in ESTHSA and STHSW, but in the intransitive sense we
>have the more common ESTHN and the newer form ESTAQHN; the latter CAN be
>passive but it isn't necessarily so. For example:
>Mt 2:9 hO ASTHR ... ELQWN ESTAQH EPANW hOU HN TO PAIDION (ESTAQH
>Mt 27:11 hO DE IHSOUS ESTAQH EMPROSQEN TOU hHGEMONOS (ESTAQH perhaps passive?)
>Lk 24:3;6 ... AUTOS ESTH EN MESWi AUTWN ... (ESTH clearly intransitive)
One could argue that in the first example (Mt 2:9) there is a definite
element of the passive: the star was "stood" or "positioned" (by the
workings of the providence of God) over where the child was. In Mt 27:11 it
could well be that Jesus "was stood" (i.e., was positioned) before the
governor (by the guard). Luke 24:36 does not involve the use of a formal
However, I acknowledge that passive forms occur which have active or middle
(and not passive) meaning; see below.
There is no "one right way" of describing what is found in a language - all
we can aim for is what you might call the "best fit" of a description. But
I definitely do not believe that Carl's approach to middle and passive is
the best way of approaching what we find in Greek, and teaching it.
Rather, there is much more to be said for the following approach to the
description of voice:
1. Greek has active, middle, and passive voice. In the future and aorist
subsystems of the Greek verb, these are fully differentiated
morphologically (i.e., by the morph -QH- or -QE- for the passive). In the
present and perfect subsystems, the middle forms can be used with either
middle or passive meaning, and the choice of meaning must be made on the
basis of context. Example: in John 13:10 the perfect participle LELOUMENOS
refers to the one who has bathed himself (middle meaning); whereas in
Hebrews 10:22 this perfect participle (here, plural) means "those who have
been bathed" (passive meaning).
2. Middle forms can occur with active meaning: sometimes, for a range of
tenses for a particular verb, sometimes, just in the future tense. These
are unpredictable in the sense that you cannot tell in advance, either from
meaning or from the phonemes of a word, that this will be the case for a
particular verb: we only know it occurs for a given verb from observing it.
So that we can describe and talk about them, these forms can be termed
"deponents" or "deponent middles". (The term is just a handle for a
phenomenon; nothing more.)
3. Similarly, passive forms (i.e., forms containing the passive morph
-QH/QE-) can occur which have active meaning. Some verbs occur with both
middle and passive forms with active meaning; the most common example is
APOKRINOMAI, "answer" or "respond". These can be referred to as "passive
deponents". Passive forms can occur with middle sense: e.g., EGERQEIS in
EGERQEIS PARALABE TO PAIDION, "Rise up and take the child" (Matthew 2:13),
followed by EGERQEIS PARELABEN (v.14).
4. The occurrence of verb forms which morphologically are of one voice but
in a given context (or even, all their contexts) have the meaning of a
different voice, does not nullify the concept of the distinction or
differentiation of voice. One can describe these as "deponent" or
"irregular" usages of a voice form; the basic concept remains, and applies
in the vast majority of instances of the vast majority of verbs. This
includes understanding -QH/QE- as indicating passive in verbs forms where
it occurs, unless the context gives a clear contra-indication.
Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-8714-7255
259A Trafalgar Street Phone (Australia): (02) 8714-7255
PETERSHAM NSW 2049 email: bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
AUSTRALIA. Director, Tyndale College
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