What’s in the Middle?
Two Voices or Three in Ancient Greek?
It has long been taken for granted in reference works, grammars and elementary introductions that Ancient Greek had three grammatical voices, active, passive and middle. Yet scholars have always had great difficulty in characterising the middle voice in a straightforward and convincing way, and language learners are often perplexed to find that most of the middles they find in texts fail to exemplify the function, usually involving some notion of self interest, that is typically ascribed to this voice. This article therefore re-examines the Ancient Greek middle, both through the lens of a general survey of “middle voice” functions across languages, and through the analysis of all the medio-passive verb forms attested in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.
The principal observations are that Ancient Greek middles do not represent a regular pattern of usage either from a typological point of view or as employed specifically in Republic 1 (the database is in fact partly extended to other works). Accordingly, the main conclusion is that the Ancient Greek middle is not a grammatical voice sensu stricto, i.e. a regular syntactic alternation applying to all verbs with a given set of properties and expressed by a regular morphological form with a predictable semantic function. Rather, it appears to be a convenient collective name for a large set of “autonomous” verb forms that are either clearly deponent (i.e., have no active counterparts) or that have been lexicalised in a specialised meaning vis-à-vis their supposed active counterparts (i.e., are also deponents in practice, despite appearances). In all probability, therefore, medio-passive morphology, whatever it once represented in terms of function, was recharacterised prehistorically as “passive” morphology, leaving a residue of verbs exhibiting forms with non-passive functions. Presumably, these survived as “middles” only because they had no active counterparts or had been assigned innovative meanings that distinguished them from any formally related actives.
Allan, Rutger J. 2003. The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study in Polysemy. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Allan, Rutger J. 2006. “Sophocles’ Voice: Active, Middle and Passive in the Language of Sophocles.” In Sophocles and the Greek Language: Aspects of Diction, Syntax and Pragmatics, edited by Irene J. F. de Jong and Albert Rijksbaron, 111‒126. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Allan, Rutger J. 2014. “Voice.” In Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics Online, edited by Georgios K. Giannakis. Leiden and Boston: Brill. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2214-448X_eagll_COM_00000373.
Bakker, Egbert J. 1994. “Voice, Aspect and Aktionsart: Middle and Passive in Ancient Greek.” In Barbara A. Fox and Paul J. Hopper, eds., 23‒47.
Barber, Elizabeth J. W. 1975. “Voice – Beyond the Passive.” In Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistic Society, edited by Cathy Cogen, Henry Thompson, Graham Thurgood, Kenneth Whistler, and James Wright, 16‒24. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistic Society.
Chantraine, Pierre. 1927. “Le rôle des désinences moyennes en grec ancien.” Revue de philologie, de littérature et d’ histoire anciennes 5:153‒165.
Conti, Luz. 2006. “Untersuchung der sogenannten inhärent reziproken Verben im Altgriechischen: Semantische und syntaktische Eigenschaften.” Historische Sprachforschung 119:168‒185.
Duhoux, Yves. 2000. Le verbe grec ancien: éléments de morphologie et de syntaxe historiques. Deuxième édition, revue et augmentée. Louvain-la-Neuve: Peeters.
Fox, Barbara A., and Paul J. Hopper, eds. 1994. Voice: Form and Function. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
García Gual, Carlos. 1970. El sistema diatético en el verbo griego. Madrid: Instituto Antonio de Nebrija.
Gildersleeve, Basil L. 1900‒1911. Syntax of Classical Greek: From Homer to Demosthenes. 2 vols. New York: American Book Company.
Kemmer, Suzanne. 1993. The Middle Voice. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Kühner, Raphael, and Bernhard Gerth. 1889‒1904. Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache. 2. Teil, Satzlehre. 2 vols. Hannover: Hahnsche Hofbuchhandlung.
Prévot, André. 1935. L’aoriste grec en -thēn. Paris: Champion.
Risselada, Rodie. 1987. “Voice in Ancient Greek: Reflexives and Passives.” In Ins and Outs of the Predication, edited by Johan van der Auwera and Louis Goossens, 123‒136. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
Rijksbaron, Albert. 2006. The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Rijksbaron, Albert. 2018. “The Treatment of the Greek Middle Voice by the Ancient Grammarians.” In Albert Rijksbaron, Form and Function in Greek Grammar: Linguistic Contributions to the Study of Greek Literature, Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology 30, edited by Rutger Allan, Evert van Emde Boas, and Luuk Huitink, 357‒369. Leiden: Brill.
Ruipérez, Martín S. 1988. “Sur la structure des oppositions de voix dans le verbe grec.” In In the Footsteps of Raphael Kühner: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Raphael Kühner’s ‘Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache, II. Theil: Syntaxe’, edited by Albert Rijksbaron, Hotze A. Mulder, and Gerry C. Wakker, 255‒264. Amsterdam: Gieben.
Schwyzer, Eduard, and Albert Debrunner. 1959. Griechische Grammatik. 2 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck.
Smyth, Herbert W. 1956. Greek Grammar. Revised by Gordon M. Messing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
van Emde Boas, Evert, Albert Rijksbaron, Luuk Huitink, and Mathieu de Bakker. 2019. The Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Willi, Andreas. 2018. Origins of the Greek Verb. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Copyright (c) 2020 Geoffrey Horrocks
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- Authors are confirming that they are the authors of the submitting article, which will be published (print and online) in Keria by Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete Univerze v Ljubljani (University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, Aškerčeva 2, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia). Author’s name will be evident in the article in journal. All decisions regarding layout and distribution of the work are in hands of the publisher.
- Authors guarantee that the work is their own original creation and does not infringe any statutory or common-law copyright or any proprietary right of any third party. In case of claims by third parties, authors commit their self to defend the interests of the publisher, and shall cover any potential costs.
- Authors retain copyright and grant the journal right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work's authorship and initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post their work online (e.g., in institutional repositories or on their website) prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work.