Coming Back to Greek Voice

A little bit ago, I wrote a post about Greek voice, where I asked the question:

Is there any reason why we couldn’t treat voice as derivational rather than inflectional?

And a little while before that my wife wrote a guest post about agency and semantic transitivity summarizing a few articles she’s read for class.

I got a variety of responses to both posts.

Well, Rachel decided that she was going to study voice for her major research project for her Syntax & Semantics class, much to my delight. Basically, she’s doing what I’ve been wanting to do for at least a year but haven’t had time. And no, I didn’t push her into it. She decided completely on her own and told me after the fact.


She checked out Rutger Allan’s book The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study of Polysemy (Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology), which has been fantastic.

If I understand him correctly (Rachel’s been reading it out loud), he’s essentially proposing what I did in my post. Greek voice, because of among other things the issue of middle verbs and passive* verbs, cannot be explained by a syntactic rule. That is, neither the passive* or the middle can be explained via the demoting of the Agentative Subject as the Preferred Syntactic Argument (PSA). Let me explain that in non-gobbledegook:

In English we have an active voice and a passive voice*.

Active: John walked the dog.

Passive*: The dog was walked by John

According to one analysis**, the Agent is demoted to an Oblique prepositional phrase: by John and the Object then replaces it as the Subject (the PSA).

But this explanation doesn’t work for Greek. For one, there are middles and passives* with no active form. So in those instances it’s impossible to say that the object has been turned into the Subject. Secondly, it is possible in Greek to make an intransitive verb a passive* or middle. The analysis above cannot work for Greek here either because intransitives by definition can only have a Subject.

From what I understand, Rutger Allan argues that its better to describe voice based on the semantics of the verb itself, partially following Suzanne Kemmer (The Middle Voice [Typological Studies in Language]). This essentially means for Allan believe that voice is related to the lexical semantics of the verb. At one point that I cannot reference because I do not have the book near me, it sounded like Allan makes the claim that internally, the ancient Greeks would have viewed middle morphology as lexically distinct from active morphology – i.e. derivationally, as I suggested might work previously.

This doesn’t mean that in a printed lexicon I would prefer to have separate forms for all actives, middles, and passives*, but it does mean that in my morphological database I will treat them as such.

*Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason why it is bad to use the passive voice when writing in English writing, though it is bad to repeat yourself within a span of four words. Those authors and stylists and editors who say otherwise are hypocrites who use passives all over the place in their own writing.

** An LFG analysis would treat all English voice alterations as lexically derive. There is good evidence for this based on how English passive participles are derive from their respective verbs. Also, the term “Preferred Syntactic Argument” is a Role and Reference Grammar term, which they prefer since “Subject” as traditionally defined is argued not to be a universal grammatical category.

9 thoughts on “Coming Back to Greek Voice

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    1. I found a couple and fixed them, but I’m worried that since I wrote the post, my brain will read over any other error. If either of you would point them out, I’d appreciate it.

      1. Upon looking again after your repair work:

        1. You are right as rain about Rutger Allan: I didn’t bother to go to the hard copy on my shelf; since I was in my laptop on another floor I went to Amazon, which, as you suggested, is wrong. (I don’t think that happens too often.

        2. “gobbligook” is not in the dictio;nary, “gobbledegook” is:

        gobbledygook |ˈgäbəldēˌgoŏk; -ˌgoōk| (also gobbledegook)
        noun informal
        language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of abstruse technical terms; nonsense.
        ORIGIN 1940s (originally U.S.): probably imitating a turkey’s gobble.

        3. “its impossible” should be “it’s impossible.” “its” is genitive (possessive) case of “it”; “it’s” is abbreviated “it is.”

  1. Just a note or two:
    (1) It’s Rutger ALLEN with an E not an A. There is a Rutger Allan, but he ain’t the same guy.
    (2) You really do need to read Kemmer’s book if you’re serious about voice; it’s instructive about the different strategies for “encoding” subject-affectedness in widely different languages and also about how reflexive and middle-voice constructions are similar to and different from each other.
    (3) There’s more to English voice than active and its “passive transformations.” Verbal expression such as “rolls” as in “The ball rolls across the floor,” may be ‘formally’ active in standard analysis, but they are semantically “active.”
    (3) Allen indicates (as does also Rijksbaron) that there are active verb-forms which are actually derivative from the middle; you could call them “causative” forms of the intransitive middle form, e.g. ἵστημι, although listed in lexica as the lemma as if it were primary, is actually the causative active form derivative from the intransitive middle ἵσταμαι (with active aorist ἔστην and active perfect ἕστηκα. There are really quite a few verbs that ought to be lemmatized in the middle-voice form although they have active forms which are derivative.
    (4) Ultimately we need to grasp that the so-called “active” morphology is simply the “default” voice-form of the verb and that it is “unmarked” for subject-affectedness. The “active” verb forms in Greek may be semantically active, intransitive, or even passive (e.g. πίπτω ‘be killed in battle’, ἀποθνῄσκω ‘be executed’, and most notably, of course, πάσχω — all of these can take a ὑπὸ + gen. agent construction). The middle forms are “marked” for subject-affectedness; they include intransitive process verbs as well as reflexie and passive usages.

    1. I wrote, ‘Verbal expression such as “rolls” as in “The ball rolls across the floor,” may be ‘formally’ active in standard analysis, but they are semantically “active.”’ Right after saying something about typos!

      Of course, it should be: ‘Verbal expressions such as “rolls” as in “The ball rolls across the floor,” may be ‘formally’ active in standard analysis, but they are NOT semantically “active.”

    2. Carl, Kemmer’s book is sitting on the table beside Allan’s, which according to the cover and title page is spelled with two A’s. So either this copy is a misprint or Amazon got it wrong. Do you have access to a copy you could check to see which it is?

      By the way, I really appreciate your comments, even if I don’t respond. They always give me plenty to think about, which is great.

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