[B-Greek] A new stab at voice

Iver Larsen iver_larsen at sil.org
Thu Oct 18 01:45:44 EDT 2007

A few comments below from Iver:

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Kimmo Huovila" <kimmo.huovila at helsinki.fi>
> How do you define subject-affectedness?
>> It would, I think, be better to speak of "agentive" and "non-
>> agentive" verbs and to note whether the action/process indicated by
>> the verb is voluntary or involuntary (spontaneous). I would
>> personally say that EBAPTISQHSAN ought not to be understood as a
>> "passive verb" in the sense that the subject is solely the patient;
>> rather I agree with Kimmo that willing participation in the process
>> is clearly involved here. The difference between the form EBAPTISANTO
>> and EBAPTISQHSAN lies in the fact that the former indicates the
>> subjects performs the action of baptism upon persons other than
>> themselves, whereas the latter indicates that the subjects have
>> themselves undergone the action of baptism, presumably voluntarily
>> (for if not, what validity would the baptism have?).
> If EBAPTISQHSAN is semantically passive, the willing participation is only
> assumed based on context. It is not stated. If it is semantically middle, the
> participation is more foregrounded in the expression. Either will do in at
> least most contexts, so there is some room for argument. However, the fact
> that usually the verb is morphologically passive may be an indicator that the
> Greeks did not care to make the distinction here (the middle was not a common
> option, so it is much more marked; perhaps the passive did double duty). The
> middle is found in Mark 7:4, where it is quite clearly middle semantics (and
> the object is not another person). I do not know where else the middle is
> found (but I have not really searched much). You must have thought of
> different examples.

It is useful to separate syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Transitivity belongs to syntax. 
Intransitive verbs have only a subject, transitive verbs have both a subject and object in their 
basic forms, and ditransitive verbs have both subject, object and indirect object.
Corresponding to this in semantics is valency. A mono-valent verb has only one semantic role in its 
case frame, a di-valent verb has two in its basic and full case frame, while a tri-valent verb has 
three arguments in its basic case frame.
Whether an action or process is voluntary or not has IMO nothing to do with either syntax or 
semantic case frames, but is a matter of pragmatics. It is something that is not marked in the 
syntax or derived from the semantic case frame of a verb.

In the case of BAPTIZW as used in the NT for baptism, it is syntactically a transitive verb which 
would take both a subject and an object in its basic form. At times the object is left implicit, but 
that does not imply that it has no object slot. Semantically it is divalent, with two arguments in 
its case frame, agent and patient. In all examples in the NT, agent is different from patient, which 
means that it cannot be interpreted as semantically middle.

The instance in Mark 7:4 has nothing to do with baptism, but involves people cleansing themselves 
with water before eating when returning from a religiously contaminated market place. This is 
related to various Jewish forms of "baptism/cleansings" where the sense is reflexive and the agent 
coincides with the patient, a typical case for middle usage. However, these are all different from 
John's baptism and Christian baptism which is either active or passive, because the agent is always 
different from the patient, at least according to the evidence and practice of the NT.

There is one other middle form in the NT:

The middle may be used because it is an imperative and because it is coordinated with another middle 
verb. The focus is on the active role of the patient in getting this event accomplished, in English: 
Get up and get baptized and get your sins washed away. It does NOT mean: Get up and baptize 

So, I am afraid I disagree with Carl and Kimmo here. EBAPTISANTO does not occur in the NT among the 
77 examples of this verb and the sense suggested by Carl for this form is non-existent, unless you 
think of Jewish cleansing ceremonies. Only in the imperative do we have a rare example of 
contrastive forms of middle and passive with no significant difference in meaning (Acts 2:38 and 
22:16). Of course, there are some morphologically ambiguous present and imperfective forms, but the 
general usage of this verb, the fact that the verb is basically active and the meaning of baptism as 
used in the NT indicate a passive sense for all MP forms, mainly because one does not baptize 
oneself. I would expect it to be voluntary, since that is the NT practice, but that goes beyond the 
realm of syntax and semantics, and moves into pragmatics, hermeneutics and theology.

Iver Larsen 

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