Question about Deponent verbs

Dale M. Wheeler dalemw at
Mon Sep 10 12:49:07 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
> >edition):
> >
> >(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)."


I realize that you were just asking a simple question, but unfortunately 
the topic is not easy at all...esp., not as easy as its portrayed in 1st 
year grammar books, which try to portray the situation at a simple 
straightforward level for a beginning student of Greek; I'm not faulting 
them, since I do the same thing in teaching first year Greek myself. 
However, I can tell from personal experience trying to figure this thing 
out with every verb in the GRAMCORD MorphGNT and the UPenn/CATSS MorphLXX, 
that this is NOT a simple thing at all.

The problem with the above statement from Mounce is that it depends on 
which lexicon you are looking at.  If you are looking at the Newman 
dictionary at the back of your UBS or at vol 1 of the 1st edition of the 
LEH LXX Lexicon (vol 2, and the 2nd ed corrects this problem, BTW), you'll 
be very much mislead in this area because they took the approach that if a 
word only occurred in the Middle or Passive in the NT or LXX respectively, 
then they would list the lexeme (dictionary form) as -OMAI, regardless of 
whether it exhibited any of the characteristics of deponency or not.

BAGD/BDAG is better, but it still has some problems.  One of the good 
things about BDAG's treatment is that if a word only occurs in the passive 
and is "deponent" (which can mean several different things), then they list 
it that way in all the principal parts (not the lexeme, since its ambiguous 
present M/P form) so that you know its "passive deponent"; on the other 
hand if its a "middle deponent" they list the prin pts as middles.  But 
there are places where BDAG is too easily swayed by the listing in LSJ 
lexicon and as a result list a verb as "deponent", when it not in the NT 
era.  Moreover, verbs can be seen to change their "deponency" through time, 
with some of them developing active lemmas and some which were previously 
only active becoming exclusively M/P (and some even reverting back, which 
may be Atticistic style by a later writer).  Then one encounters the 
situation where a verb that only occurs in the passive because its an 
intransitive stative starts being used in the distinct middle for a variety 
of reasons (it sounded better; it normally occurred in the Pres/Impf; 
etc.)...and then we see the reverse happening, where a true middle (which 
is used because the action involves some sort of personal involvement, 
which is all that's required to spawn the middle) which is NOT passive, 
starts getting used in the passive form for some reason and then the 
passive forms predominate and the verb (which is not intransitive nor 
stative) starts being understood as a "deponent".

IMHO (and I think Carl agrees with this), the only TRUE deponents are those 
verbs which cannot, in their literal basic meaning, spawn a passive from 
their meaning.  For example, in both English and Greek, "to go" cannot, 
when used literally, be used in the passive, ie., you cannot say "I was 
goed."  (I hasten to add that its possible from the Greek perspective that 
ERXOMAI was used in the M/P forms because it was either: (1) a verb of 
personal involvement/effort, or (2) its intransitive, or (3) all of the 
above).  But language being what it is, things change and ERXW occurs 
(which LSJ calls a "barbarism"). The actual number of true deponents is 
quite small.

Most words that I've seen which only occur in the middle are not 
"deponents" at all, but rather simply involve some sort of personal 
involvement or effort on the part of the actor.  Many of these words have 
later developed first passive forms which are true passives and then active 
forms, as speakers used the more common  forms of the language and weren't 
that concerned with the "personal" part of the action.  You'll find many of 
these words listed in lexicons in the -OMAI form, but I think the 
lexicographers have been thinking about the problem from the standpoint of 
English (or German) rather than trying to understand what Greek speakers 
are doing; a verb that has passive forms which have passive function is NOT 
deponent.  It gets a lot trickier when the passive form is a stative 
intransitive and the middle is a personal involvement verb...I still 
haven't figured that out exactly!!

Most words which only occur in the passive are in fact stative and/or 
intransitive, and to a Greek mind (evidently) it made more sense to think 
of these states as the result of someone else's action (humans are pawns in 
the hands of the Gods; the king controls my life; and such).  Some of these 
verbs originally had or later developed active forms.

Thus when you see in the standard lexicons a word listed in the M/P form, 
it can mean either: (1) true deponent, (2) passive intransitive/stative, 
(3) middle personal involvement, (4) any combination of the above based on 
the development in the language.

As far as DUNAMAI goes, it looks like (see LSJ at Perseus) it has both Aor 
Mid and Aor Pass forms early on, so its hard to tell about its genesis, 
i.e., was it a middle deponent or passive deponent.  In the NT the fut is 
middles, but the Aor is passives; such standardizations probably point more 
to spoken preferences than to any kind of semantic decisions in Koine.  If 
I had to guess I'd say that this one was an original middle, as seen in the 
Aor mid and Fut mid occurrences; the Aor pass forms are the result of the 
preference of speakers for the Aor passive form rather than the Aor Mid 
form...for reasons known only to them.  Thus its not a true deponent but 
rather includes the idea of personal involvement/effort on some level 
(though who knows whether Koine speakers still "felt" that or were just 
using the form as it had been passed down thru the generations?!).  On the 
other hand, I could be dead wrong and Greeks perceived this as a stative 
intransitive idea (ie., you can't say "I am able the chair")...unless (and 
I've never chased this one down) concatenative verbs (ones which require a 
complementary inf.) normally occur in the mid and/or pass.

BTW, CARL (!!!!) you absolutely must get all of your notes together and get 
this thing published with copious examples.  Last year at the Greek Grammar 
session at SBL where I and others were discussing problems in editing the 
Morph texts, we were all lamenting the fact that there is no real treatise 
on this issue.  Bernard Taylor and I are wrestling with this issue right 
now with respect to the upcoming release of the updated MorphLXX...and I 
just spent a year discussing the issue, almost word by word with L, E, and 
H as they were preparing their 2nd edition.  We REALLY need someone with 
your skills to write on this issue.  I sometimes get the impression from 
looking at lexicons, even LSJ, that they really didn't know what they were 
doing on this issue and they had no specific set of rules or guidelines; it 
seems like a lot of the time, when its not perfectly obvious, they are 
flying by the seat of their pants...and unfortunately those pants were made 
in Chicago, or Goettingen, and not in Athens!


Dale M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Research Prof., Biblical Languages          Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan St.                                  Portland, OR 97220
V: 503-2516416        F: 503-251-6478      E: dalemw at

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