Re: deponency

Carl W. Conrad (
Mon, 20 Jan 1997 19:56:44 -0600

At 3:32 PM -0600 1/20/97, Stephen C. Carlson wrote:
>At 01:14 1/20/97 -0600, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>>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 whit 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 would say that there is a "deficiency" in Greek deponents, and that
>the deficiency is that they lack the active voice morphology. The only
>real issue, then, becomes: how do we can we distinguish whether a Greek
>is truly lacking in the active voice or whether our evidence of Greek
>is lacking at that point?

I think perhaps that you and I would argue over terminology rather than the
facts about the language, Stephen. If we hypothesize a full grid of verb
morphology as a sort of Platonic form for which each Greek verb, insofar as
it really IS a Greek verb, must conform if it is to be thought a "healthy"
or "well-rounded" "fully-formed" verb, then yes, I guess we'd have to say
that the morphologically-deprived ERCOMAI has a "deficiency." But I think
that the range of forms in which any particular verb is to be found in use
is constricted by the way it is conceived. I don't find it a "deficiency"
of EIMI ("be") that it has no aorist or perfect tenses. I find it
interesting that its present and imperfect indicative are active while its
future is middle--and all the more interesting that its further development
into medieval and modern Greek has seen it go wholly into the middle voice.
Admittedly there's a lot I don't understand about PIE and Greek voice, but
I'm pretty well satisfied that some verbs were always fundamentally
middle/relexive while other verbs were both active and middle/reflexive,
that lots of verbs that are active in the present are middle/reflexive in
the future, and that the true passive is a very late development that never
was cleanly distinguished from the athematic aorist of verbs like EFANHN.

What I find objectionable in the term "deponent" is (1) precisely its
implication that the Greek verb is wanting, but even more (2) the confusion
it introduces between those -QH- forms that are aorist intransitive, like
APEKRIQH and those others that are genuine passives in regular usage, e.g.
EPEMFQH. To call APEKRIQH a "passive deponent" fully accords with
traditional terminology, but my point is that the traditional terminology
fosters the continuation of a misleading perception of what the verb's
morphology is and what it always did mean.

>I suppose that the rule of thumb of "middle in form; active in meaning"
>is a very rough attempt to make that distinction. What about a verb
>like hEPOMAI "follow"? It is never found in the active, cognate to
>the Latin deponent SEQUOR. However, its active from is seen prefixed
>in ENNEPE "tell!" (=3D L. "inquit"), and cognates to the active voice
>forms are found in English "see" and "say", all going back to the
>Indo-European root *sekw- "to say/notice/see" The verbs hEPOMAI and
>SEQUOR are understood to be a specialized sense of the IE middle
>"keep in sight" =3D> "follow" (specialized even in IE times).

Yes, I know very well what the traditional terminology means. And I am very
POLLA ... is,in fact, a cognate active, transitive form of the same verbal
root as hEPOMAI; I suspect, moreover, that Livius Andronicus was also aware
of that when he translated the line as VIRUM MIHI, CAMENA, INSECE VERSUTUM.
But I really think we ought not to see this as the same verb as hEPOMAI any
more than we'd see hISTHMI and EPISTAMAI as the same verb just because both
derive from the same verbal root STA. Very few verbs are to be found in all
600+ possible inflected forms of the Greek verb--but that grid ought not to
be seen, I believe, as a paradigm to be filled by every verb that we don't
call "deficient."

>I'm perfectly happy with term "deponent" (I reserve "defective" for
>verbs lacking tense morphology, not voices). However, I'm not happy
>with the idea that merely because a verb has a middle voice morphology,
>it must have a "middle" meaning, and I suppose that is the attitude
>that Carl and others are properly guarding against. Meaning is to be
>inferred from usage and context. It is not to be deduced from
>etymology and grammatical form if the evidence from usage and context
>are to the contrary. In Greek, it is not infrequent that the middle
>forms acquire a specialized meaning (e.g. LUOMAI "I ransom" from LUW
>"I loose"), and deponent verbs are no exception, especially when the
>original verb no longer exists.
>As for the negative connotations of a term like "deponent" or
>"defective," they trouble me no more than the terms "irrational,"
>"fraction," "imaginary," or "transcendent" trouble me in mathematics.

Of cousrse, I believe that this is largely quibbling over terminology. And
I quite agree that "meaning is to be inferred from usage and context, etc.,
BUT I'm really contending over something different, I think. I believe that
the way traditional grammarians have used the term "deponent" has hampered
the pedagogical enterprise of explaining to new learners of Greek exactly
how the ancient Greek voice system worked. And, however subtly, it fosters
the notion that grammatical structure of a foreign language is a sort of
catalogue of the queer things that the foreign language does differently
from the way one's native language does them. It fosters a notion of
language learning as acquisition of a mechanism to transform the "alien"
thought-patterns of the other language into the "natural" thought-patterns
of one's own--or, as Edward Hobbs says, learning how to translate Greek
rather than learning how to read it.

I'm ranting, of course, and it's perfectly obvious that Stephen Carlson has
never suffered from these "deficiencies" (as I call them) of the
traditional pedagogy of Greek grammarians. I mean that in all earnest.
Somehow, by the grace of God, some people learn Greek in spite of those who
teach it.

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