MIDDLE AND PASSIVE VOICE
iver_larsen at sil.org
Sat Oct 27 05:55:29 EDT 2001
It is morning in Denmark now and I woke up still pondering the topic from
last night. In the meantime there have been a couple of responses and
further questions I'd like to take up.
First, Bryant had a question about (EIS)DECOMAI. This verb only occurs in
the middle form in the GNT. EISDECOMAI occurs once only, and it is in
future. DECOMAI occurs 38 times in the aorist. Because these forms are
future and aorist and therefore have the morphological potential for making
a distinction between middle and passive, they are marked as middle deponent
(D) in the Friberg tags. DECOMAI occurs 17 times in the present and once in
the perfect. All of these are tagged as N which stands for middle-deponent.
The MP tag is because there is no morphological distinction between middle
and passive in the present and perfect. When I looked at the meaning of all
of these, I noticed that none of them are passive in meaning. (A passive
should be possible, but it does not occur in the NT).
The verb is grammatically transitive and semantically divalent in that it
has an agent=experiencer as the grammatical subject and a patient as object.
If the patient is +human the meaning is "welcome, receive, invite a person"
and if the patient is -human, the meaning is "receive, accept, take into
possession a thing".
Why the form is middle rather than active I am not sure. It may be because
there is a strong tendency for verbs which have an agent that is also
experiencer to be middle in Greek.
Middle in form, which by definition means that the subject is in someway
acting upon itself or is the source of the action, how can it be translated
as active? II Cor 6:17d (quoting the LXX), I would translate as, "and I will
receive you myself," or "and I myself will receive you."
I think the problem here is the definition of middle as acting upon itself.
I don't think this is an adequate definition. The translation is still "I
will receive you" or if we want to keep the force of the EIS, then we could
say "I will take you in". No reason to add "myself".
Second, the semantic terms used for the arguments to a predicate or what is
called semantic roles may be unfamiliar turf for some people. We need to
distinguish carefully between semantics and grammar. (Both morphology and
syntax are part of grammar.) The word "case" is used by Greek grammarians in
its grammatical sense. It is an inflection on a nominal and there are 4(5)
cases in Koine Greek: nom (voc), acc, gen and dat. Germanic had 8 such cases
2000 years ago, but not much is left today. Languages always degenerate with
The word "case" is also used in semantics with a different meaning. Charles
Fillmore is famous for his pioneering article "The Case for Case". I prefer
to use words like valency and semantic roles rather than case when we speak
The agent role is usually expressed in the grammar as subject in the
nominative case. But so are the experiencer role and quite often the cause,
if the cause is a person. The semantic term agent is not at all equivalent
to the grammatical term subject.
The patient role is usually expressed in the grammar as object in the
accusative case. (Undergoer is just a different term for patient and not
important.) But in a passive derivation, the patient role is expressed as
the subject in nominative and the agent is made implicit either because the
agent is not known or because the author wants to put the agent out of
focus. (Many languages do not have passive forms, but they still have ways
to put the agent out of focus.) The agent may be re-introduced in some
languages with a preposition like hUPO in Greek or by in English.
The beneficiary role is often expressed as indirect object in the dative
case. But it may also be expressed by way of a prepositional phrase.
A direction role is usually expressed in Greek by a prepositional phrase or
a locative adverb.
The grammatical case of genitive does not correspond to any semantic role.
It has a different semantic function altogether. (This was for Clay).
Let me go back to the examples from last night and add a hypothesis that
came to me this morning:
Mt 12:44 EIS TON OIKON MOU EPISTREYW to my house
Mt 13:15 EPISTREYWSIN - they might turn to me (to me is implied)
Mt 24:18 MH EPISTREYATW OPISW - let him not turn behind - back to his house
Lk 17:4 EPISTREYHi PROS SE - if he turns to you
Acts 9:35 hOITINES EPISTREYAN EPI TON KURION -who turned to the Lord
Acts 15:36 EPISTREYANTES DH EPISKEYWMEQA - having turned to where we came
from, i.e. returned.
Rev 1:12 EPESTREYA BLEPEIN THN FWNHN - I turned (towards the one speaking)
Then the MP forms:
Mt 10:13 hH EIRHNH hUMWN PROS hUMAS EPISTRAFHTW - let your peace be returned
Mk 5:30 EPISTRAFEIS EN TWi OCLWi ELEGEN - having turned around (himself)
inside the crowd he said
Mk 8:33 EPISTRAFEIS KAI IDWN TOUS MAQHTAS AUTOU - having turned around
(himself) and having seen his disciples...
Jn 21:20 EPISTRAFEIS hO PETROS BLEPEI - Peter having turned around (himself)
1 Pe 2:25 ALLA EPESTRAFHTE NUN EPI TON POIMENA - but now you have been
(re)turned to the shepherd
My suggestion is that the verb EPISTREFW is semantically a divalent verb
with two roles: An agent role and a directional role which indicates the
direction towards which one is turning. Whether the verb is grammatically
transitive or intransitive is not of particular interest to me.
In the active forms above we have a full form with both roles. A few times
the second role is a patient, expressed in the grammar as object. (That
would make it grammatically transitive as in "I returned the book"). But in
most of the examples, the second role is not patient, but a direction. (That
makes it grammatically intransitive as in "I returned".) Whether transitive
or intransitive, it is still divalent with two semantic roles. The direction
role is shown in the grammar by a location adverb (OPISW), by a preposition
(EIS, PROS, EPI) or it is implied.
In the two MP forms that function as passive the patient role has been
changed (or has changed? - the English middle?) from object to subject. In
Mt 10:13 peace as an abstract "object" has been returned to where it came
from. And in 1 Pe 2:25 the people have been turned back to where they came
from, the shepherd.
The three other MP forms that function as "middle" are not derived by
suppressing the agent and moving the patient into subject slot, but by
suppressing the direction.
What they have in common is a change from a divalent verb to a monovalent
verb. When you say "Peter turned around" you cannot add a directional role.
It is complete with only one combined role that is both the agent,
experiencer and directional goal, expressed in the grammar as subject.
If Chet Creider is listening in, he may be able to add his insights. He and
I are privileged to have studied one of the most complex verbal systems in
African languages. In this language there is a lot of valency changing in
the verbal system. By adding a prefix, you add a causative role, by adding
various suffixes, you can add beneficiary, directional, instrumental and
many other roles. You can also suppress the patient role by adding an
The causative derivation is interesting. Let me say a bit about that.
In Danish, to wake somebody up is expressed by the verb "vække". It is a
divalent verb like English "He woke her up".
To wake up in Danish is "vågne". It is a monovalent verb like English "I
The first one can be analyzed as the causative corresponding to the second:
"He caused her to wake up."
What we have here is a monovalent verb "vågne" where the agent is also the
experiencer. It would probably be middle in Greek.
In the divalent verb "vække" the experiencer is not the agent but the
patient. The agent is the cause of the event. This would probably be active
The monovalent middle verb cannot have a passive, but the divalent verb can.
The passive of "vække" is "jeg blev vækket" - I was awakened (by somebody or
something). It is impossible to say *"jeg blev vågnet" - *I was woked up.
In the divalent - active - form the object is the experiencer. When the
passive form is derived, the object-experiencer becomes the
subject-experiencer. The semantic role does not change, but the grammatical
form changes from object to subject. So, in the passive form, the
experiencer is the subject, and therefore the concept is close to the
related one where the agent-subject is also the experiencer. The experience
that I undergo is the same whether I wake up or whether I am awakened by
something or someone. The difference is in the cause. Maybe that is why the
middle form in Greek for some verbs where the subject is the experiencer of
the action is close to the passive. Different cause, but same result or same
I don't think this explains everything about middle, but it is helpful for
me to look at it from a semantic viewpoint.
There seems to be an intensive concept in certain middle verbs, and my
suspicion is that this is especially the case in classical Greek but has
become rare in Koine. However, I do not think the majority of MP forms can
be explained as intensive.
These are not final answers, but suggestions and hypotheses worth exploring.
More information about the B-Greek