Re: deponency

Henry T. Carmichael (
Mon, 20 Jan 1997 13:40:24 +0000

Carl Conrad wrote:

> 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."

I'm sure you are aware that A.T.Robertson objected to "deponent" also.
I'm not so sure that his suggestion of "defective" is much better.

> 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.

What the German would call "Sprachgefuehl." (Sorry for no umlaut.)

> 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.

I have continued to think over the "deponent verbs," and have come to a
few conclusions.

1. There does not appear to be any way for me to identify a "deponent"
except by checking the lexicon.

2. The lexicon has been produced (we hope) by a scholar or scholars who
have wide acquaintance with the language in question.

3. The only way for a lexicographer to nail down a verb as "deponent" is
that he has no personal knowlege of nor any knowlege that anyone else has
any record of *any* occurrence of the verb in question in any other than
the "defective" conjugation. A single counterexample would certainly
move the verb out of the "deponent" category.

So I see these "deponents" as simply examples of the inconsistency of
natural languages. And I think I will look at these "passives,"
<erkhomai> for example, as active, but passive in form and conjugation,
and think of them as irregular verbs.

I see this as parallel to other inconsistencies in other natural

The German "Maedchen" is neuter in form and declension, and takes neuter
modifiers, but is in fact feminine, and means "maiden" or "girl".

The Russian "dyadya" is feminine in form and in declension, but takes
masculine modifiers, and is in fact masculine and means "uncle".

In Christ,

Henry T. Carmichael VMS System Programmer
Computron Software, Inc. (201) 935-3400 x557
301 Route 17 North FAX (201) 935-6355
Rutherford, NJ 07070 E-mail