[B-Greek] Carl Conrad's account of Voice and Deponency

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Fri Apr 30 07:27:13 EDT 2010


On Apr 29, 2010, at 10:49 PM, Ben Hudson wrote:
> Hi everyone,
> This is my first post - so please be nice :)
> 
> I have been thinking about Voice and Deponency lately and I've just read Carl Conrad's New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb (http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/docs/NewObsAncGrkVc.pdf) and found it very interesting and it rings true in many ways.
> 
> I've been trying out a bunch of verb-pairs which are 'Deponent' and non-'Deponent' synonyms as a way of seeing the theory in action.
> 
> Take IAOMAI and QERAPEUW, both meaning 'to heal'. IAOMAI is 'deponent' (under the old way of talking about these things) and QERAPEUW (non-deponent).
> 
> In Luke 9:1-2 Jesus summons the 12 and
> "1 He gave them power and authority over all the demons, and |power| to heal (QERAPEUW) diseases.  2 Then He sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (IAOMAI) the sick."
> 
> I am struggling to see how a 'subject focus' can be seen in v2, but not in v1 for the healing verb.
> 
> Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you very much for taking interest in this "Steckenpferd" of mine. You do very well to note that in the instance of these two verbs expressing the notion of healing, the voice forms differ, and that this is not the only instance of such an apparent anomaly. One sometimes wonders whether language-learning would be as much fun if there were not so many anomalies or apparent anomalies (can you imagine French -- or even Greek, for that matter -- without irregular verbs?

First, with regard to QERAPEUEIN and IASQAI, it's not enough to say that QERAPEUEIN means more fundamentally "tend" or "take care of" and only secondarily "heal" (an affliction or illness); if it can be used interchangeably with IASQAI, then clearly there's a considerable semantic overlap in usage of the two verbs. So your observation and puzzlement (APORIA -- or QAUMAZEIN -- is what Aristotle says is the mainspring of philosophy in the broadest sense) is rooted in a clearly valid observation.

Secondly, although I really think that "deponent" and "non-deponent" are not the best names for these verb-forms, it is unquestionably true (I firmly believe) that the distinction thus indicated is fundamental to the Greek voice system; it is essentially the same distinction noted by historical linguists who have said that proto-Greek had only two voice-forms: active and middle-passive. The fact of the matter is these are the same two voice-forms that Greek has always had, and I think much misunderstanding results from the conventional labeling of the -QH- forms as distinctly "passive" rather than as a secondary form of the MAI/SAI/TAI paradigms. Both paradigms, MAI/SAI/TAI and -QH-, require interpretation of particular form in its context as semantically "middle" or "passive" in meaning.

I think that I suggested,  even in that earlier 2002 paper mentioned above, that I think we ought to recognize that the "active" voice paradigm is not really active semantically so much as it is the "default"or "unmarked"  paradigm for verbs, while the "middle-passive" paradigms (both MAI/SAI/TAI and -QH-) should be understood as the "marked" for subject-affectedness. This is clearly indicated in the more recent published dissertation of Rutger Allan (_The Middle  Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study in Polysemy_, Brill, 2003) focusing upon Homeric and Classical usage. "Active" voice-forms can indeed represent actions and processes that one might expect to find in the "middle-passive" forms: APOQNHiSKW "be executed", PIPTW "be slain (on the battlefield)",  PASCW "be harmed/subjected to treatment), for instance. I don't have the reference handy, but Allan notes several instances of verbs with "active" forms that could clearly be described as "subject-affected" but are simply not marked by the voice-form but take the "default" voice-form.

Let me note a couple items that I have found rather fascinating in this regard:

(a) The aorist IDEIN "see" has an active imperative form IDE and a middle imperative form IDOU. What's the difference? IDE means, I think, something like "Nota bene" or "Don't miss this item" while IDOU means "open your eyes to this" -- or archaic "Lo!" or "Behold!."

(b) The verb /EGEIRESQAI ordinarily means "wake up" or "arise" in the middle while the active is ordinarily causative "raise" or "roust." In the GNT however, of 20 instances of the imperative of this verb with the very same sense we find 15 "active" (EGEIRE, EGEIRETE), and 5 "middle-passive" (EGEIRESQE or EGERQHTE). In this instance, it is pretty clear that the "active" form, while the others probably reflect an awareness that  the intransitive sense "wake up" or "arise" does ordinarily find expression in a middle-passive verb-form.

A final observation: voice-form usage in ancient Greek is a very complex matter. If that were not so, it would have been described much more adequately long ago. It involves many "anomalies" such as those lumped together with the dubious monicker "deponency." A fundamental difficulty is that the terms used to identify the voice paradigms are misleading and not adequately descriptive of actual usage. Another difficulty is that so many verbs in everyday usage have retained older forms from a much earlier era in the history of the language: the most anomalous verbs -- irregulars -- are the ones that resist conformation to the simplified patterns that less-frequently-used verbs more readily fall into. What this means for practical purposes is that one who approaches ancient Greek as an outsider (i.e. any non-native) is going to have to learn the ins and outs of a sizable number of irregular verbs: as one must know which French verbs take "à" and which take "de," so one must learn that the future of MANQANW is MAQHSOMAI or that the perfect of hISTAMAI is hESTHKA, or that the future of PASCW is PEISOMAI. There ain't no "royal road" to learning the arcana of the voice of ancient Greek verbs.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)






More information about the B-Greek mailing list