MIDDLE AND PASSIVE VOICE
B. Ward Powers
bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
Thu Oct 25 02:12:36 EDT 2001
This is a response to the important posting from Carl about voice in Greek.
I have the greatest respect for Carl personally and as a scholar, and we
have had many interesting on-list discussions over the years. Sometimes we
have found ourselves on the same side of the fence in a discussion, and
sometimes on opposite sides. It will be plain to all who are following this
thread that in regard to voice we are (in a number of respects - not all)
on opposite sides.
I am aware that this question of voice is one to which Carl has given a
great deal of attention, and I respect his work while differing from his
Actually, the gap between our positions is not as great as may at first
appear. But it is certainly there. It is a difference which to an extent
lies in how we describe the observed phenomena of the language; but it does
have some implications for meaning and interpretation.
I have snipped sections of Carl's email which are not germane to issues
which need to be further discussed. At 07:46 AM 011024 -0400, Carl W.
>My thanks to Ward for setting forth, as clearly as it CAN be set forth,
>what is more or less the traditional understanding of the phenomena of
>Greek voice morphology and semantics.
It is important for me to make the points, in response, that
(a) I am not adopting my position BECAUSE it is traditional - I am NOT a
died-in-the-wool traditionalist, and I have adopted my position after
looking at the issues because I judge that it is the best-fit way of
handling the observable data. I think Carl attributes to me more of what he
regards as the "traditional" position than I espouse. But my own assessment
of voice issues has led me towards a position which is considerably more
traditional than Carl's. Which in itself, of course, says absolutely
nothing in regard to which of us is more correct in those places we differ.
(b) As would (I hope) have been apparent from a consideration of what I
said previously, I disagree with the "traditional" approach at a number of
points, where I consider that questions of linguistics generally and
morphology specifically affecting Greek need to be informed by insights
gained from advances in linguistic science. Two issues in particular in
this connection: (i) I objected in my last posting to the labelling of
middle forms of the present/imperfect and perfect-pluperfect verb
subsystems being simply designated, and taught, as "passives". They have
the FORM of middles, not passives (as they take middle endings and lack the
passive morph -QH/QE-), while they can have either middle or passive
MEANING, depending upon context. From a linguistic perspective, I consider
this to be an important distinction in how to describe the situation. (ii)
The second issue is that of deponents; concerning which, more below.
Carl goes on:
>I'm going to comment only on a very few items in Ward's presentation
>because I honestly believe more of it concerns explanation of exceptions to
>the rule than clarification of the rules themselves. I don't mean to be
>unfair, but that is my perception.
I would NEVER consider Carl to be unfair. But let me clarify the issues. My
approach homes in on relatively simple "rules" which cover the majority of
cases. Because of their relative simplicity, and (I would believe) clarity,
not much needs to be said about them. Especially as they are so closely
linked to morphology, which is pretty obvious to everyone once attention is
drawn to it and how it works. Exceptions, on the other hand, by their very
nature need more to be said about them. What seems to be happening in
Carl's approach (if I judge correctly) is that he focusses on certain verbs
which do not follow the "rules" derived from morphology, and takes these
verbs as normative, or at least typical. To the contrary, I would advocate
that we gratefully accept the rules which cover most occurrences of most
verbs, and then regard other situations as exceptions, and seek to work out
how to describe them and handle them. One by one, if necessary.
Thus in my last posting I said, in relation to the fact that the rules
don't cover everything:
> >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
I still stick to that view.
After a section in which I set out forms of LUW as the verb to discuss,
>I have done only a preliminary tally of the forms of LUW in the GNT and
>find that there are 42 hits; of these 15 are tagged as "passive" in
>Accordance, not one as middle. The seven forms in the aorist are all -QH-
>forms: 2 indicatives, 1 subjunctive, 3 infinitives, 1 participle. The three
>forms in the future are all -QH- forms and are all indicative. So we may
>well TEACH a paradigm including LUSOMAI and ELUSAMHN, but in fact these
>forms don't appear in NT Koine Greek.
I am not in a position to comment on Carl's figures, but I have no basis
for disagreeing with him. But this is not the point. The Greek verb is
usually taught (certainly in my Grammar "Learn To Read the Greek New
Testament" and in other Grammars with which I am familiar) using LUW as the
pattern verb. This is because (being a long-vowel verb, and a very short
word) it is ideally suited for this purpose, irrespective of its meaning,
its NT frequency, or its occurrence pattern. I seem to recall reading an
email from Carl in which he mentions that LUW was the pattern-verb used
when he also learnt Greek. (Have I remembered this correctly, Carl?) The
forms of LUW which Carl points out do not occur in the GNT actually DO
exist in the language and DO occur for other verbs for which LUW has been
our pattern to learn them.
So the morphological meanings which we derive from using LUW as a pattern
One of the issues on which Carl feels strongly is that of so-called
"deponency". He says,
>The one point here on which I concur with Ward is that the examination of
>individual verb forms with MP or -QH- endings must be done cautiously and
>thoughtfully. Nevertheless, I think that the entire concept of "deponency"
>is worse than useless, particularly insofar as it is based upon an
>assumption that a verb originally had an active form that has been replaced
>by the middle or passive form. Neva Miller (ALGNT, p. 425) rightly says,
>"As a class, so-called deponent verbs probably never had an active form at
>all and so never laid it aside." Nor is "defective" really an adequate term
>for such verbs, unless it is understood clearly that these verbs are not
>crippled or somehow deficient members of the fraternity of Greek verbs.
>Nor is it valid or helpful to define, a 'deponent' verb as one that has middle
>or passive form but 'active' meaning.
>We really do need a "paradigm shift with regard to voice."
I have quoted this whole section to give the complete context. Note in
particular the comment,
>I think that the entire concept of "deponency" is worse than useless,
>particularly insofar as it is based upon an assumption that a verb
>originally had an active form that has been replaced by the middle or
A casual reader could gain the impression, especially from the use of my
name at the beginning of this paragraph, that I either said or advocated
the primary reason why Carl rejects the concept of "deponency": the
assumption that there was originally an active form which got somehow "laid
aside". I do not present such an idea in my "Learn To Read the Greek New
Testament", and I have never said it on b-greek. In my Grammar (p.77) I use
the expressions "deponent middle verbs" and "deponent passive verbs" as
convenient terms to refer to an observed phenomenon in the Greek language.
In my b-greek posting to which Carl is responding I said,
>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.)
It will be noted that I have said, re this word "deponent", "The term is
just a handle for a phenomenon; nothing more."
Carl questions "the entire concept of deponency", categorizing it as "worse
than useless", adding, "Nor is it valid or helpful to define, a 'deponent'
verb as one that has middle or passive form but 'active' meaning."
This pinpoints a place where we differ. Morphologically, certain morphs
(especially the endings) are associated with the concept "middle", and
other morphs (the presence of -QH/QE-) with the concept "passive". We
should not lose this correlation, nor play it down: it is valuable.
But then we note that some verbs (e.g., DUNATAI) are middle in form, and
others (e.g., APOKRIQEIS) are passive in form, while the meaning is active.
We want to be able to discuss this language feature. I am happy to use the
word "deponent" because it is an existing and quite widely-used term which
can therefore be a useful starting point for discussing this language
feature. But I am not irrevocably wedded to the use of this term, and if
Carl has one which can win acceptance instead, I have no objection to it.
But we need SOME term to use when we want to talk about the fact that
certain verbs have a form which correlates with normal middle use and/or
normal passive use, while not themselves having middle or passive
signification in their context.
For those interested in voice and who have persevered this far, let me
Greek is a very morphologically-controlled language. If you can recognize
and understand the morphs, you will almost always get a clear indication of
meaning. The relatively rare exceptions occur where context and/or usage of
a particular verb overrule the normal significance of the morphs; and we
can note these when they occur without losing the benefit of the general
rules. In my previous b-greek posting I said.
> >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.
With the greatest respect to Carl and the quality of his scholarship, I am
of this opinion still.
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
More information about the B-Greek