Re: deponency

Carl W. Conrad (
Sat, 18 Jan 1997 07:38:37 -0600

At 11:15 PM -0600 1/17/97, Donald W Price wrote:
>In re to Henry's problem in distinguishing between the middle and the
>passive, Winbery writes: "Both BAGD and LSJ give this verb as deponent.
> In the present tense there is no way to distinguish middle or passive."
>This brings up another issue! I know that grammars tell us that a
>"deponent verbs" are those that have middle/passive endings, but are
>active in meaning. Right? However, the more I study this issue, I
>find myself coming to the conclusion that these "deponent" verbs never
>really lost that middle idea at all. I'm referring to the "for oneself"
>idea. How about some help on this matter?

You "find yourself" --coming to the conclusion that ...? hHURHKAS!

Is it conceivable that I have found a convert to a view that I have
expressed here several times? I abhor the term "deponent" precisely because
it implies a quirky notion that the English language (or whatever language
the grammarian chances to speak as a native tongue) quite naturally and
rightly uses an active verb to express, let's say, the notion of RECEIVING.
"I receive a gift from my friend." Greek however says DWRON PARA TOU FILOU
DECOMAI. "Aha!" we say, "Greek (in this instance) has "misplaced" the voice
of the verb which God intended to be in the active voice. Let's mark that
verb 'deponent' and thereby indicate that the Greeks' heads were not
screwed on right when they came to using this verb."

In fact, however, it appears that the proto-Indo-European parent language
had fundamentally two voices, an active and a reflexive which could also be
made to express a passive idea. English is exceedingly poor ("challenged"?)
in genuine reflexives such as, "give one's self a break," while the
European languages are contrastingly rich--Fr. SE LAVER, It. ARRIVEDERCI,
Ger. ES VERSTEHT SICH (von selbst, freilich)--which last phrase nicely
illusrates how the reflexive is used as a passive: obviously there isn't
any "IT" which "understands itself" but rather "it is understood."

So in fact what our grammar books have accustomed us to call "deponent"
verbs are indeed native to Greek (and other IE languages); whenever an
action is conceived is involving self-interest or self-projection, the verb
tends to go into the middle voice (I'd prefer calling it the "reflexive"
voice). Sometimes, and not infrequently in Greek, a verb that is active in
the present becomes "deponent" or "reflexive" in the future:

I think this ultimately depends upon the genius--the native feeling latent
within the speakers of each language regarding self-involvement in actions.
English speakers, at least by contrast with French speakers and German
speakers, don't seem very self-conscious about actions they perform, and I
think that's why there are so few reflexive verbs in English, relatively
speaking. But once we start reflecting upon things, we "find ourselves"
wondering about differences between Greek and English, among other things.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR