Passive Voice Morphology and Sense

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri May 01 1998 - 12:09:57 EDT

At 9:44 AM -0500 5/1/98, wrote:
>Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>> The point I was making however had to do with the FORM, the -QH-
>> aorist with active endings, a form which only in the course of Greek
>> linguistic history came to have regular association with passive meaning
>> and which, in quite a number of Greek verbs is simply the standard form of
>> an intransitive or even active aorist. Traditionally this class of verbs,
>> which most commonly have middle voice forms in the present tense, is called
>> "passive deponents" (a term which I have argued is a misnomer because the
>> phrasing suggests that they are odd-ball verbs that don't behave as we
>> think they ought to behave). In this category are such verbs as
>> involves any passive notion at all.
>Thanks, Carl ~
>So when this ancient [to koine] 'deponent' verb form is found in the
>aorist [within a koine text] with what later came to be identified as
>the passive infix -QH-, it must be remembered that it IS an ancient
>[not later] form, in that it can only be understood [now, in the koine
>text] as a middle voice, and then either transitively or
>intransitively, thus carrying an active or middle [respectively]
>force. This is wonderful...

NO,NO,NO. Let's try to keep completely distinct from each other three points:
(1) The -QH/QE- infix as used with active endings in the aorist and with
-S- + thematic middle endings in the future is a linguistic formation that
came into being within the history of the Greek language. It is present in
Homer, particularly in aorist forms (the future is not at all common in
Homer, where the subjunctive is used for the most part to express
futurity), but it is NOT distinctly associated with passive meanings. It
appears in fact to be in competition with older aorist forms with middle
endings bearing the same meanings.
(2) In the course of time the -QH/QE- infix came to be increasingly used to
indicate PASSIVE sense in the aorist and future, but it never carried the
passive sense EXCLUSIVELY. That is to say: an aorist 3d sg. in -QH or 3d
pl. in -QHSAN may in one instance or in one verb be used to indicate a
passive sense, while in another instance or another verb, the same forms
may bear an intransitive sense. And this remains the case in Koine: there
are some verbs that have active forms in the present and in the aorist
whose -QH- aorist forms have passive meaning; but there are other verbs
that do NOT have active forms in the present but are regularly middle in
the present; these verbs are likely to have -QH- aorists and futures that
have no passive meaning at all. They are often called in the grammars
"passive deponents" in order to indicate that their morphology is a
misleading indicator with regard to their actual voice sense.
(3) It is the case both in classical Attic Greek and in Koine Greek that
the -QH/QE- infix must be recognized as a distinct morphological system
that often indicates a passive verb, but that is not BOUND to passive
meaning. Rather, one must learn the (irregular) verbs with painstaking care
in their idiomatic usage just as one must learn one's neighbors by looks
and personal idiosyncracies--or as one must, in learning French, learn
which verbs conjugate their perfects with AVOIR and which must use ETRE,
which verbs are linked to infinitives with A and which ones with DE.
(4) with regard to -QH/QE-, it is of questionable value for one learning
Koine Greek in order to read the NT to try to make sense of the history of
the morphology, but it IS important to realize that the actual voice sense
indicated by this morphology is an idiosyncracy of particular ornery
irregular verbs that just have to be learned along with their principal
parts and their semantic range of meanings.

>Which [QH] makes it [the aorist] the middle voice in the opening of
>the Oddyssey, where it carries both a transitive and an intransitive
>force, BECAUSE there is no passive. [Intransitive in that he 'roamed',
>transitive in that he was caused to roam against his best efforts not
>to roam, but to return home]. And thus shows how Homer used the middle
>transitive to handle what we would call a passive voice that to him
>would not have been a part of his verbal expression. Have I got this
>right? And the 'strong' aorist without the infix -QH- would have
>simply been active indicative.

I would avoid saying that there is no passive, and I would certainly avoid
saying that any verb form in a particular instance is both transitive and
intransitive. I would say that a verb that can, when used with an object,
be transitive (e.g., "I ate the steak.") may also be used in an absolute or
intransitive sense (e.g. "I ate already.") And I would prefer to say
(because I think it is the truth) is that the middle endings, which always
conveyed a fundamentally reflexive sense, could, in particular instances
where necessary or appropriate, be used in a passive sense. What has become
my classic example of this is:
        LUETAI hO DESMWTHS = "The prisoner gets free" Here LUETAI doesn't
explain whether the freeing of the prisoner happens because the prisoner
breaks the lock of his cell or handcuffs or because someone else unlocks
the cell or handcuffs. But it can be clarified by adding an agent
construction: hUPO TWN FILWN, which makes the above means "The prisoner
gets free by action initiated by his friends" = "The prisoner is freed by
his friends." Under those circumstances the FORM, LUETAI, comes to bear a
clearly passive sense, but the FORM does not bear a passive sense in its
own right.

>So it is no wonder, from this example of usage in Homer, that QH later
>became the passive infix, because it here so clearly carries the
>passive [to our later thinking] force, as well as the middle.
>Am I getting this right?

Not quite. It would be more accurate to say that -QH- came to be used very
commonly to convey a passive sense; BUT it NEVER was used exclusively to
convey a passive sense and quite commonly supplies the aorist of verbs that
are not in any sense transitive and therefore cannot be passive: HDUNHQH,
"he could" or EBOULHQH, "he wanted." Moreover EPOREUQH is no more passive
in meaning than HLQEN: rather, each is simply the aorist indicative of a
particular verb, each of them intransitive: "he travelled" and "he went."

>The other item that arises here is with the strong aorist form of the
>'deponent' [ancient] verbs... Does it [the aorist] lose the middle
>voice unless it is reinstated with QH? The issue arises because in
>koine the same infix has active force in transitive usage... Or does
>it?... Consistently? Would it be perhaps better just to think of
>deponents as 'hanging around yet' forms, still used but in declining
>usage, and still understood in the same way that they were understood
>anciently?... Almost like idioms?

"Deponent" verbs are not necessarily ancient. In classical Attic and Koine
the verb "be" is morphologically ACTIVE in the present and imperfect (EIMI,
EI, ESTI, ESMEN, ESTE, EISI) but morphologically MIDDLE in the future
morphologically MIDDLE even in the present (EIMAI,EISAI,EINAI ...)

"Deponent" verbs are a challenge to Humpty Dumpty: "They've a temper some
of them--particularly verbs: they're the proudest." Which is to say: a
great many verbs are indeed idioms: even when you've mastered their
morphology, you have to get on intimate terms with their semantics.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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