Follow-up to "Observations on Greek voices"

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu May 29 1997 - 08:30:41 EDT

Grateful for the kind welcome afforded my "Observations" thus far (and for
the polite silence of those who demur, at least so far), I want to respond
to the questions that have been raised in response:

At 8:46 AM -0400 5/28/97, Rod Decker wrote:
>>From your diachronic perspective (which I know you enjoy), how has the
>function of voice changed, if at all, from classical to koine?
>Somewhere I got it in my head that what I recognize in your description (at
>least in part) was true in classical, but that the function of the
>middle/passive forms was in process of change by koine times. Spec., that
>the reflexive and/or self-interest nuance of the classical middle was
>nearly gone in the hellenistic/koine Greek of the NT. The result is that
>middle forms are very little different in meaning from active forms; the
>passive, as you indicate, being marked in the context (hUPO, etc.)

This is a fair question, and I'm not sure that I can answer it at all
adequately. I will say that I'm inclined to doubt this assertion is true,
although I can't readily marshal the evidence against it. One might note
that there is little, if any, perceptible difference between EUAGGELIZW
used in the active and passive voices in a handful of instances in Rev.,
Mt, Lk (1x a Q passage), Gal, Heb, 1 Peter, and the dominant form,
especially preferred and frequen in Luke and Acts, the middle
EUAGGELIZOMAI. We certainly think of Luke as the more polished writer, yet
he is by no means an "Atticist" attempting to return to Classical usage. A
problem that probably needs considerable exploration (I think, at least) is
the curious relationship between verbs that are middle in the present tense
and take the ("third") athematic aorist with active endings--such as
hISTAMAI/ESTHN or FAINOMAI/EFANHN. I have the impression (I really DON'T
want to open a new can of worms here!) that our understanding of the
distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is seriously flawed
and that this is not unrelated to our difficulties in understanding what
I'm calling the middle/reflexive voice). I have a strong impression that
the middle voice with its reflexive sense is by no means dying out in the
Hellenistic era, but this is really something that, as Don Wilkins say,
needs to be established by massive demonstration from the extant literature
of the period.

At 9:08 AM -0400 5/28/97, Randy Leedy wrote:
> (omission)
>I haven't taught first- or second-year Greek in more than 10 years,
>and I always taught the deponent verbs according to the traditional
>scheme. Next Spring I am scheduled to teach a first-year course, so I
>must think carefully about this issue. I think I'm ready at least to
>take an intermediate step and, instead of saying "middle or passive
>in form but active in meaning," to say "the Greeks had a reason for
>using the 'middle' [better not change that term just yet] form for
>this verb, but the best English glosses are active." (This casts the
>issue in terms of English-Greek correspondence rather than an
>inconsistency within the Greek verb system.) I'm not sure I can call
>these verbs reflexive rather than middle across the board; what about
>those that are clearly transitive, such as LHMYOMAI (future of
>LAMBANW)? I'd be interested to know whether Carl thinks this is a
>helpful step in the right direction or whether it simply makes
>matters worse by failing to nail anything down at all.
>My reasons for being reticent to go the whole way with him include
>the fact that I would have to fight against the textbook (at least
>until Carl's comes out :-))

Although it's conceivable that I'll put out some essays on aspects (NOT to
be taken in the technical sense!) of Greek, I think I may safely assure you
that I won't essay to write a textbook. While I really do respect those who
undertake to write textbooks in Greek and I once aspired to write my own (I
came to think that the JACT _Reading Greek_ was better than anything I
could possibly write), I have to think about writing textbooks somewhat as
Democritus wrote about having children: the risk of failure is so terribly
great. Of course, knowing that Democritus had expressed that opinion did
not deter me from having children, and I don't regret it at all, but I
think that writing a textbook is a terribly foolhardy thing to do--one is
almost certain to make egregious errors of omission or commission. I repeat
that I admire those who have the guts to undertake writing grammars, but I
feel much safer as a peruser and user (and critic) of other people's

> and that the extended explanation of
>these things to first-year students, I'm afraid, would detract from
>the really crucial things that must be taught in a limited space of
>time. I'd enjoy reading any input on these concerns that anyone with
>experience can share. Is this point really crucial?
> (more omission)
>A final nagging question. I accept the view that there are many
>SURFACE FEATURES of a language that do not necessarily correspond to
>a particular underlying WAY OF THINKING. They are merely conventions;
>the convention could have developed differently with no difference at
>all in meaning. I'm suggesting, for example, that LAMBANW could just
>as easily have developed an active-voice conjugation in the future
>rather than middle-voice forms that it actually has. I can't see
>anything in the meaning of the verb that requires the future to be
>middle/reflexive. We can't decide exactly where to draw this line,
>but somewhere a line must be drawn beyond which we stop trying to
>divine an underlying difference in thought corresponding to a
>difference in surface features. Any thoughts out there about how this
>idea relates to the issue of voice at hand? Certainly it would be a
>mistake, wouldn't it, to try to impose "a notion of self-projection"
>upon the historical development of EVERY verb that has a middle-voice

I quite agree that we may not, more often than otherwise) readily gain
insight into the mindset of the users of the language as to what they
consciously intended in every instance when they used active, middle, or
passive forms (in terms of traditional morphological differentiation). If
one really wants to be humbled, I invite him or her to examine the pages of
Smyth s.v. "Peculiaritiesoin the Use of the Voice-Forms, etc.," "Forms of
One Voice in the Sense of Another" (pp. 218-224, ##800-821); every time I
look at these pages I feel a certain sense of despair and am inclined to
think that the only way one ever comes to a sort of fluency in Greek is to
keep reading it, lots of it, for years on end--and one will never cease to
be awed by something new in it.

Finally, let me address briefly the essentially pedagogical questions
raised by Randy, by A K M Adam, and by Jonathan: how do we teach the voices
to new students of Greek and how do we explain the difference between "how
a verb-form means" in the original language and how the idea thus expressed
in Greek may most idiomatically be expressed in the target language,
whether that be English, Latin, German, or whatever.

I don't really think the pedagogical problem raised by my view of the
voices is any MORE complicated than the way one now teaches the voices in
Beginning and Intermediate Greek, since one generally has to say things one
is embarrassed to say about "deponent" verbs and a "middle" voice that is
neither active nor passive. What one really has to do is explain
middle/reflexive very carefully--as one ought to do in any case, if
students are ever going to be able to understand even verbs that have both
active and middle. I think the biggest thing one has to do is what one has
to do about Greek or any other language that one is learning to
TRANSLATE--that is, one must make a sharp distinction between the ways in
which the two different languages are like to express a certain kind of
idea, and one must underscore that we translate an idea expressed in one
kind of construction in the original language into the kind of construction
that is natural for that idea in the target language. Which means, quite
simply, that one does not say "I convey myself" for POREUOMAI but rather "I
am on my way" or "I travel." One does not say "I shall seize for myself" to
translate LHMYOMAI but simply "I shall get/receive/take" (probably "get,"
BEKOMMEN in the sense of "take in my own grubby little hands" would be
best). So far as pedagogy is concerned, I don't necessarily think that
teaching the Greek voices is made easier in itself by understanding the
voices as I've presented them so much as it is made more intelligible IN
its complexity than is the case where all these exceptions and
contradictions have to be learned without being understood.

We seem to have a notion that learning or teaching a language ought not to
be so complicated. I suspect it's like mathematics, to which Euclid said
there was no "royal road": you can teach a lot of rules and paradigms and
then try to help the students when the rules don't work and the paradigms
don't translate the way they were supposed to. In fact, you can't
altogether avoid teaching rules and paradigms, and I've always insisted
that students learn them too--but I've spent an inordinate (is that the
right word?) amount of time trying to explain the rules, and a lot of the
explanation has been in terms of patterns of behavior which an unruly tribe
of humanity that kept reading Apollo's solemn warning against AKOSMIA at
Delphi sought to impose upon its speech in order to bridle its hUBRIS with
a certain measure of civility, of SWFROSUNH. Ultimately it is our humanity
that is at stake in the teaching and learning of languages, and it is a
deeply humbling but richly rewarding process, both the teaching and the

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

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