[b-greek] Re: MAI/SAI/TAI ?

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Thu Aug 10 2000 - 20:43:44 EDT

At 2:14 PM +0000 8/10/00, Mark Wilson wrote:
>I was looking at this question when I ran across something in
>this verse.
>Eric wrote:
>>I was reading Rev. 21:5 and wondering whether to translate it as: "Behold,
>>I am making all things new" or "Behold, I make all things new."
>The first part of this verse begins:
>Let me quote you from a previous posting:
>"generally speaking the MAI/SAI/TAI-MHN/SO/TO forms as well as the -QH-
>forms are essentially either intransitive or reflexive in sense"
>Is this participle a MAI ending?
>This would appear to once again support your contention, I think.
>How would you translate the Middle/Passive hO KAQHMENOS?
>As a rookie, I would simply translate the Middle:
>"The one seating himself"

or simply, "the one sitting" or "the one who was sitting"
>And if Passive, it seems to make no sense:
>The one having been placed on the seat ?????

That would be an apt translation if the form in question were a PERFECT
passive participle.

In fact, however, this verb, KAQHMAI, is intransitive. It is almost
literally equivalent to English "sit down." It is not at all uncommon for
intransitive verbs to have middle forms in Greek and traditionally they are
called "deponents" if they have no active form. The French equivalent of
KAQHMAI is a reflexive verb, "s'asseyer." It's not necessary to translate a
Greek middle-voice form as a reflexive, but I think one should take note
that the form the verb has in Greek is subject-intensive. Occasionally we
can do that with this verbal notion even in English, colloquially, as in
"I'm gonna sit myself down and have me a feast." That is colloquial indeed,
but it preserves something of the subject-intensive element that is native
to Indo-European languages--not just the "sit myself down" but also the
"have me a feast" as a substitute for enjoy a festal dinner.

>The reason I ask is because I really do not feel like I have a good grasp of

Frankly I don't think this is ever clearly taught in Greek. The native
English-speaker if s/he has any notion about grammatical voice, assumes
that verbs are either active or passive or intransitive, and is likely to
be unclear about the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs
as well, and therefore is very poorly equipped to understand the force of
the Greek middle, and still more poorly equipped to understand why the
Greek middle sometimes has passive force.

>Would you mind giving a brief definition of Active, Middle, and Passive in
>such a way as to distinquish them. As well, a brief definition of this rule
>for MAI, by defining "intransitive" as compared to "reflexive."

(1) A "transitive" verb is one that affects an object and is really
unthinkable without an object of some sort: "defeat" (an enemy), "say"
(something), "do" (something). And "intransitive" verb is one that is
complete without an object: "talk," "go," "come," "stand," "sit." Sometimes
a transitive verb can be used in an intransitive manner: I "read" (a book)
or I "read" (= I am able to read and I exercise that ability when I want
to); I "see" (you) or I "see" (= I can see and I can understand). Sometimes
we might try to explain "read" and "see" as having an implicit but
unexpressed object, but if there's no particular object in view these verbs
are functioning in an intransitive manner.

(2) An active verb (in English) requires a subject performing an action and
an object upon which the action is performed. "I see the horse." A passive
verb (in English) requires a subject which is acted upon: "The horse is

(3) In Greek an intransitive verb may have active form or middle form;
BAINEI = "he strides" (there is no object) or POREUETAI "he travels" (again
no object).

(4) A Greek verb in the middle voice may be "reflexive"--i.e. the subject
may perform the action upon him/herself: LOUETAI "he bathes (himself). But
just as often and perhaps even more often the middle voice form of a Greek
verb is simply subject-intensive: e.g. hISTHSIN TON hIPPON "he makes the
horse stand still" but hISTATAI TON hIPPON "he brings his (own) horse to a
halt" or even hISTATAI, "he comes to a standstill" or "he stands up." This
last usage we would call intransitive, I think, but you can see (I hope)
that it really is 'subject-intensive' and there's a reason why it should
take the middle form.

Traditionally the Greek middle voice gets defined as the verb form of a
subject performing the action upon him/herself or for him/herself--and
that's accurate enough when we're talking about a transitive verb. But the
verb may be intransitive, may involve no object whatsoever, and still be
subject-intensive, as POREUETAI, "s/he travels/fares onward."

Over the course of time I've come more and more to thinking that the Greek
"active" voice form is a sort of default voice for ordinary verbs
indicating a subject acting or being in a state, and that the Greek
"middle" voice is a "marked" form indicating subject-intensity in the
action or state and even, given the right clarifying indicators, can
indicate passivity--but the passive, I think, is a special modification of
the middle--and I think that the MAI/SAI/TAI; MHN/SO/TO; -QH- forms are
fundamentally subject-intensive forms that are occasionally used to
indicate passivity.


Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu OR cwconrad@ioa.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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