Towards a semantic definition of Greek Middle

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Mon Oct 29 14:32:16 EST 2001

At 1:57 PM +0100 10/29/01, Iver Larsen wrote:
>Having looked at a few more verbs and trying to compare active and middle, I
>have some more hypotheses.
>One is that the relationship between active (A) and middle (M) may for some
>verbs be a relationship between a causative semantic verb with 2 or 3
>valencies in the active and a non-causative semantic verb with one less
>valency in the middle. I think ENDUW and BAPTIZW would fit in this group,
>and I am sure there are others. ENDUW would then mean "cause someone to put
>on something, to dress someone else" and BAPTIZW "cause someone to become
>clean". ENDUOMAI would then mean "put something on, to dress oneself" and
>BAPTIZOMAI would mean "become clean".
>However there seems to be other relationships between A and M, too. For
>another group of verbs I would call the M forms "recipient-focused". In this
>case there is no change of valency or transitivity between A and M. I am
>using "recipient" here as a term that is not normally used for semantic
>roles, but I would like to group experiencer and beneficiary together at
>times, so I need a broader term.

This requires a fuller response than I have time for immediately, but I
want to say that I do think this distinction is essentially valid. One
point I would add and I'd also note again something I've stated previously.

(a) I assume that there is no assertion of logical or semantic priority of
(A) over (M) or vice-versa. Historically, both are apparently present in
proto-IE, whereas the "passive" is a secondary development that assumes
quite different forms in different IE languages. I do think there's often a
causative aspect to the active form of a verb where the middle is
essentially expressive of undergoing a process. You've referred to ENDUW
and BAPTIZW, and I think your analysis of BAPTIZW is fundamentally right.
My sense is that ENDUOMAI is the standard form of this verb and that the
active ENDUW is the rarer form. An even more obvious instance is STH/STA
with its middle hISTAMAI to express the process of standing up, while the
active hISTHMI is causative: "make to stand, establish." But what I find
especially interesting in this verb is that in the Aorist the causative
(active) form is ESTHSA, while the form corresponding to hISTAMAI is ESTHN.

(b) I am still inclined to think that the so-called "passive" paradigms in
-QH- are a later development of an aorist and future paradigm supplanting
the older MHN/SO/TO and -SOMAI/SHi/SETAI paradigms but bearing essentially
the same kinds of ambivalence as the "middle-passive" paradigms of the
other tenses.

One other point: I was going to respond separately to the thread on
APOLLUMI/APOLLUMAI but I think I can state my point rather briefly. This is
a very old verb and a very important verb in Greek from early on. It bears
the same causative/undergoer semantic distinction that Iver has suggested
for (A) and (M) verbs. It would be hard to say which of these forms--(A) or
(M)--, if either, is primary. The fundamental sense of that root *OL- is
"waste"; (A) = "devastate/make waste/annihilate", while (M) = go to waste,
undergo annihilation." Latin neatly parallels (A) APOLLUMI with PERDO, (M)
APOLLUMAI with PEREO. There is no "passive" -QH- paradigm for this verb;
I'm inclined to think that it continued to carry its ambivalence to express
middle or passive sense in the aorist APWLOMHN and future APOLOUMAI on into
the period when such forms were shifting into new QH paradigms. Verbs like
this tend to retain 'archaic' forms (just as the older folk in these Blue
Ridge mountains still say "holp" for the past tense of "help" while most
English-speakers say "helped"). And I think that's why we have that
expression in 1 Cor 10:10 KAI APWLONTO hUPO TOU OLOUQREUTOU: this is not an
aorist middle with an agent construction but an authentic 'archaic' aorist
passive--or, more properly expressed, aorist MP used in the passive sense.

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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