Re: The mystery of verb voice (was ACTS 10:40)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Feb 26 1997 - 11:55:57 EST

At 10:25 AM -0600 2/26/97, Ronald Wong wrote:
>> "Deponent" is precisely the term that I object to, although I'm sure it
>> will survive my death by decades and centuries. What I object to is the
>> assumption built into the name that this form is somehow out of place
>> because it isn't middle or passive in English or whatever language we
>> happen to speak--that is, the term is based on the assumption that it is
>> natural for a verb with the meaning of GENESQAI to be in the active voice.
>> But that's precisely what is not true. It is natural for GENESQAI to be in
>> the middle voice (it kicks and screams when you try to put it in the active
>> voice!). There are many verbs that have natural forms in the middle voice
>> only, and there are several other verbs which, even though they are active
>> in one tense and middle in another (e.g. LAMBANW/LHYOMAI/ELABON,
>> What's further wrong with the term "deponent" is that, the way voice
>> generally is taught, the assumption seems to be that the normal verbs are
>> active and passive and middle is an odd-ball thing that Greeks had but that
>> we are superior to, we who speak English.
>> A more accurate description of the voice system of Greek is that it has two
>> real voices, an active and another that would be best called
>> "middle-reflexive." What we call "passive" is not really so much a distinct
>> voice as a function that is assigned to the middle voice forms when the
>> object of an active verb becomes the subject--that's what happens in most
>> tenses. In two tenses, the aorist and the future, a distinct passive form
>> has developed out of the intransitive aorists in an H- or QH- stem.
>> I will put up with the term "deponent" because too many people whom I
>> respect continue to use it, but I "groan inwardly" every time I hear anyone
>> use that term orally or read it in print. To make a long story short,
>> GENESQAI is a verb that was born to be middle voice; it isn't passive; it
>> isn't in any way irregular; it is a normal, garden-variety Greek verb that
>> happens to be middle, which is to say, like the soul as Plato defines it
>> somewhere, it is self-moving, like all respectable verbs of the
>> middle-voice persuasion.
>with all respect...and a novice's questions.. I understand that the
>forms may change in tense...but how does the voice change from tense to
>maybe being the novice is the prob...but like what you have used the
>verb..AKOUW--"I hear" how does the it change to middle voice because of

This is a good question and one I've long pondered; it has been
investigated and I'm trying to access some of those studies. One pertinent
fact here is reasonably clear: there is a sort of self-projection in these
future tense forms, such as BHSOMAI, AKOUSOMAI, LHYCOMAI, MAQHSOMAI.
Historically all Greek future tenses derived from aorist subjunctives
expressive of a strong will to do something--and I think the exertion of
will itself was evidently felt much more strongly in some kinds of actions
than in others; some such explanation must underline this shift in voice.
Of course it is not something that can be translated into English without
sounding absolutely silly. Some of those verbs of motion are what we deem
intransitive in English, but many of them are middle in Greek. BAINW
(active) seems to mean something like "I stride," while BHSOMAI, the future
(middle) seems to mean something like "I'm going to get myself going
forward." This is a matter of nuances and it is a matter of the
idiosyncracies of particular verbs. The traditional way of dealing with
this phenomenon pedagogically is to say: "These are deponents; they don't
behave the way good upstanding English verbs behave, but you have learn how
they behave--so learn them and don't ask why." There's something to be said
for that approach, and whatever we do to understand the way languages work,
we do come up ultimately to the imponderable question of why something is
this way and not that and we realize we can ask the question but cannot
answer it. I would just like, pedagogically, to push back a bit further
that point where we have to confess what we don't understand. I think we
CAN come to understand more about the way the Greek verb works than the
traditional way of teaching the morphology of the verb endeavors to do.

>I don't argue on the basis of assumption that it must be active...but by
>Is this assumption of the "deponent" (sorry for using it again) :) just
>in the NT greek?

This terminology was used to describe both Greek and Latin, and it became
entrenched in tradition. We do have "reflexive verbs" in Latin, a category
that expands in later Latin immensely and the issues in an immense store of
reflexive verbs in the Romance Languages. The reflexive verbs do almost
exactly what the middle-voice verbs in Greek and Latin did and are also
elements that have to be memorized by the language learner, but since the
use of the reflexive pronoun with these verbs does not actually involve a
difference in inflection, there never was any temptation to call them
anything like "deponents." Moreover, although new learners may like to
think of the reflexive verbs as irregular, most of them are by no means

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

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Sat Apr 20 2002 - 15:38:07 EDT