Re: deponency

Carl W. Conrad (
Mon, 20 Jan 1997 13:14:31 -0600

At 7:40 AM -0600 1/20/97, Henry T. Carmichael wrote:
> I'm sure you are aware that A.T.Robertson objected to "deponent"
>I'm not so sure that his suggestion of "defective" is much better.

No, it's not a white better, because it still implies that there is a
deficiency in the Greek that makes the Greek-speaker want to use a
reflexive for what the English-speaker knows can only be active. It's a
misplaced (dare I use such a term?) effort to inflict the categories which
are proper to describe English upon the description of Greek.

> 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.

That's true, precisely because the lexicon gives you as the main entry for
a verb the first person singular in the voice in which it is used in the
present tense. We CALL "deponent" those verbs which have reflexive forms in
the present tense although the ENGLISH verb that is equivalent to them
would be active.

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

I know of no exception to this, BUT NO lexicon is perfect, and EVERY
lexicon is based upon concrete evidence of actual usage. Much is coming to
light (perhaps not much in an absolute sense, certainly in a relative
sense, however) from the ongoing work of decipherment of papyri--which is
why we are delighted to have updated lexica from time to time, like our
brand-new LSJ with the new supplement that offers corrections and
clarifications derived from the data of papyri and inscriptions.

> 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.

The lexicon--at least the unabridged lexicon--will indicate any instances
of usage of the verb other than in the apparently standard voice. It should
be noted, however, that language is always in flux and that concurrent
forms of verbs and nouns are in use simultaneously. In Greek, for instance,
we can find the 3rd declension form hUIEUS and the 2nd declension form
hUIOS both used, but by different writers in the NT; similarly we find an
active form EUAGGELIZW used not infrequently in the NT, although the
reflexive EUAGGELIZOMAI is more common.

> 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'm not sure exactly how you're using "natural" language here: spoken and
written vernaculars as opposed to mathematical languages?

> I see this as parallel to other inconsistencies in other natural
> The German "Maedchen" is neuter in form and declension, and takes
>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".

I think that you are mis-applying the conception of gender here.
Grammatically it has nothing to do with the sex of the referent of a noun
except, in some instances, by convention. The Geramn word MAEDCHEN is
neuter, as is the Greek word KORASION, which is used in the NT also
referring also to a girl. Both exemplify a tendency of Indo-European for
diminutive forms to be neuter, no matter what the sex of the noun's

Personally, I wish we could drop the term "deponent" from our grammatical
vocabulary for reasons I've explained in the post you've cited: it implies
that we English-speakers are smarter than those Greek-speakers because we
know what voice a verb really OUGHT to be. I realize, however, that the
term "deponent" will outlive me by centuries, for the same reason that we
will continue to use a system of weights and measures based upon
traditional English standards rather than upon the continental metric
system--intellectual inertia.

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