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.