Question about Deponent verbs

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Fri Sep 7 13:40:54 EDT 2001

At 10:38 AM -0400 9/7/01, Erik Westwig wrote:
>In William Mounce's book, Basics of Biblical Greek, he says (Ch 18.9 1st
>(QUOTE #1) "Deponent Verb:  This is a verb that is middle or passive in form
>but active in meaning."
>In the next paragraph, he continues:
>(QUOTE #2) "You can tell in a verb is deponent by its lexical form...  If
>the lexical form ends in an omega, it is not deponent (e.g. AGAPAW).  If the
>lexical form ends in -OMAI, the verb is deponent (e.g. ERXOMAI)."
>Now, here is my question:
>The verb DUNAMAI - "I am able" has a lexical form ending in -OMAI, and thus
>is a deponent verb, according to QUOTE #2.  But "I am able" would seem to be
>passive in meaning, it doesn't have me doing any sort of active action.
>Thus it should not be a deponent according to QUOTE #1, since it is not
>"active in meaning."  Am I incorrectly assuming it is passive in meaning,
>because of the English usage?
>Any help would be appreciated.

I have argued long and hard (not necessarily successfully) on this list
that "deponent" is about as useless a grammatical term as has ever been
invented. The definition you cite from Mounce (#1) is pretty much standard
fare where the term is used, although there are some slightly more
sophisticated forms of the definition. The problem is with "active in
meaning"--more often than not it is assumed that if the English or other
target-language verb is active, then there's something deficient about the
voice-form of the Greek verb--that if Greek were a rational language like
English or the other target-language, this verb would be active.

I really don't think it is any more difficult but that it is more accurate
to learn (a) that the voice of a verb meaning roughly the same thing can
differ in two different languages; (b) that many Greek verbs, particularly
verbs that are either intransitive or reflexive in other languages, take
the middle voice in Greek. In fact, I really think that the Romance
languages reflexive verb is a consequence of late Latin recovery of the
older Indo-European middle voice.

I published to B-Greek on May 27, 1997 a compendium of my thinking about
voice and deponents; I'm still working through this toward a major revision
of it, but I have a PDF file of that long message and some of the more
recent BG correspondence on this subject that I'll post (as soon as I can)
to my web site for anyone who wants to read or download it rather than go
to the older BG Archives to look at it.

As for DUNAMAI, it is an intransitive verb functioning as an auxiliary
requiring a complementary infinitive in normal usage. Be careful about
classification of active and passive and by no means assume that a verb
that is not active must be passive.

Perhaps it is a truism and not very helpful to say it, but I think that
Voice in the ancient Greek verb is at least as slippery a phenomenon as
Aspect. Particularly tricky is the Middle voice, and many of the forms that
are traditionally categorized as passive in Greek are really, in my
opinion, middle.

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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