Question about Deponent verbs

Erik Westwig ewestwig at
Mon Sep 10 13:47:50 EDT 2001

I probably understood less that 10% of both this message and Carl's long
summary (that's 10% of the English by the way, I understood 0% of the Greek)
but I think I managed to get my questioned answered.  I'm going to try to
summarize what I could accept at my current level of understanding, and let
you correct me if you think I've misinterpreted what you have said.  First,
a deponent verb is a classification that grammarians (somewhat artificially)
place on a verb to indicate that it is passive in form by active in meaning.
What complicates this issue (and for some, makes it a misleading term) is
that the notion of "active in meaning" is a subjective quality, highly
dependent on the language and opinions of the translator.  There is no
absolute standard for something being definitively active or definitively
passive.  The statement Mounce makes, when a verb is listed in the lexicon
in M/P form, it is a deponent, is a simplification commonly made for
beginning Greek students (such as myself) so we can sleep better at night.
In reality, depending on the lexicon and the verb, things are not at all
that clear-cut.

You hinted in one of your statements that "humans being pawns in the hands
of the God," might be one example of how certain passive forms may have come
about.  I don't know much about the grammer side of things, but I do
remember that in ancient Greek mythology, fate was everything.  In many
stories, Zeus couldn't even avoid the destiny plotted for him by the fates.
Given this world view, I could see how the M/P form of ERXOMAI (and
especially DUNAMI) might arise.  Instead of "I go to the store" you really
are saying/thinking something like "[My destiny] makes me go to the store".
Then again, I don't really know what I'm talking about.


> -----Original Message-----
> From:	Dale M. Wheeler [SMTP:dalemw at]
> Sent:	Monday, September 10, 2001 12:49 PM
> To:	Biblical Greek
> Subject:	[b-greek] Re: Question about Deponent verbs
> >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)."
> Erik:
> 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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