Towards a semantic definition of Greek Middle

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Tue Oct 30 10:13:00 EST 2001

At 8:25 AM +0100 10/30/01, Iver Larsen wrote:
>Your historical comments and insights are invaluable. Thank you.
>Just a brief comment below:
>You said:
>> (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.
>When I talk about "derivation" in connection with A, M and P, I am usually
>not thinking in historical or morphological terms. It is common in
>linguistics to "derive" the passive form from the active, but this is a
>theoretical, synchronic derivation, not a historical-comparative linguistics

This is what I thought you meant, but I'm glad to have it spelled out; I
did think it was theoretical and it sounds chomskyan; I do think it may be
useful, but I am glad to see that you acknowledge that the "middle"
morphology in a particular verb may very well antedate an "active" form.
This is one reason why I object so strongly to the notion of "deponency":
although I realize that the implication of the term may be that the verb is
defective (lacks an active form), it is usually implied that the "middle"
has displaced some lost "active" form--and I think that, barring evidence
of an obsolete active form, that ought not to be assumed.

>                    Some languages have a causative affix corresponding to a
>synchronic causative derivation. In that sense the M would be more basic and
>A would be derived from M. However, I am not saying that this is the case
>for Greek, as little as I would said that "raise" is derived from "rise". It
>is probably better to talk about a correlation or a relationship between A
>and M forms of the same verb. Did Greek ever have anything like a causative

That's one of the more common functions of the -IZW present-tense formative
suffixes; it's also one of the more common functions of the -yW
present-tense formative suffixes that produces the -AW, -EW, and -OW
contract verbs, particularly denominative verbs such as STAUROW, DIKAIOW,
etc. But the differentiation that I noted between aorists in -SA and -HN is
striking. I recall my amazement 50 years ago at first seeing the forms
BAINON, BHSAN and BH (all unaugmented) in successive lines 43-739 of Iliad
1, where the embassy of Odysseus returning Chryseis to her father is
described as disembarking from Odysseus' ship:


	"And they themselves stepped out (BAINON, impf) onto the shore of
the sea, and they made to go off (BHSAN, aor) the 100-fold offering of
cattle for far-darting Apollo, and Chryseis strode out (BH, aor) of the
sea-faring ship."

Here BHSAN is causative of BAINW; the normal aorist is (E)BHN/S/_). I think
that's the only form of a Sigmatic aorist active of this verb I've ever
seen, but it seems to me that the Sigmatic aorist active often has a
perfective sense ('make something happen').

>Your comment about the historical development of passive in IE is very
>helpful. I didn't know that. Is anything known about when the passive
>developed in Greek? Or are you saying that the meaning of passive has always
>been there - it is a very basic linguistic notion - but that in earlier
>times there was no morphological distinction ever between the concepts of
>middle and passive? In that case, the Greek speakers would have to infer the
>meaning differences between middle and passive from context. Or would they
>not see a meaning difference at all between "having risen" and "being

Splendid and very important question. I am saying that, according to my
understanding--what I've read in historical linguists' accounts--is
PRECISELY that "the meaning of passive has always been there ... but that
in earlier times there was no morphological distinction between the
concepts of middle and passive." Specifically with regard to EGEIROMAI, I
think that the form HGERQH means either/or "he rose/was raised" depending
on whether or not there is some explicit indication of agent or instrument.
HGERQH hUPO TOU QEOU  or HGERQH TWi PNEUMATI may properly be understood in
a passive sense: "was raised by god" or "was raised by the Spirit". BUT
imagine HGERQH KINOUMENOU TOU ANEMOU "when the wind began to stir he
awoke/was aroused." My sense is that the Greek listener/reader would not
have thought there's a distinction of meaning in this last instance between
a middle (intransitive) or a passive.

As for historical development, the -QH- forms are present to some extent in
Homer, which is the oldest significant literature (if one doesn't count the
Linear B catalogues--and I don't really know about morphology in that
Greek, which antedates Homer by several centuries and uses a syllabary
rather than an alphabet), but they aren't really that prominent in Homer,
while the MAI/SAI/TAI-MHN/SO/TO forms regularly function even in the aorist
and future as ambivalent (I think I mentioned the Homeric aorist BLHTO "he
got hit" a few days ago. In my argument yesterday I was saying that the
construction in 1 Cor 10:10 KAI APWLONTO hUPO TOU OLOUQREUTO is surely an
authentic passive use of APWLONTO, this being a "strong" verb which surely
preserved older traditional forms far longer than verbs not frequently used.

>> (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.
>This may well describe some of the problems we have when what should be a
>middle appears to have a passive form with the QH. It looks odd to me that
>the present imperative POREUOU corresponds to an aorist imperative

And I think it really isn't odd; I think that we have been laboring long
under the misapprehension that -QH- is necessarily a 'passive' indicator.

>By the way, can anyone give me a list of Greek verbs in active that are
>intransitive? Or just a few examples?

Well, we've mentioned BAINW; there's EIMI ('be') and there's also EIMI
('go'); another is MENW (there's a transitive form MIMNW that doesn't
appear in the GNT with the sense "await" or "abide {an attacker}"). There's
PIPTW, "fall" (which get's used to convey the passive sense of BALLW), and
there's APOQHNiSKW ('die' or 'get killed'). I might be able to think of
some others but I don't know of a handy list.

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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