Greek Voice as a Lexical Process

I had the pleasure of reading a delightful article on voice this past week:

Masayoshi Shibatani, “Voice” in Morphology: An International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation (Vol. 2; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 1145-165.

This is one of those books that you’d tend to only dream about buying, but never actually do it. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that you would dream about it. I would. And I still am dreaming about owning volume 1. The only reason I have volume 2 is because some very strange (and generous and kind) person posted a copy on Amazon for sale for $35 and I just so happened to also have a $25 gift certificate at that very moment. So I paid $10 for a nearly $600 book. Anyway, a good chunk of the article in question is available on Google Books anyway, though its missing a number of pages.

The one of the central points of the article is that what grammarians and linguists call “voice” could (and probably should) be treated as at least four or five separate grammatical/linguistic phenomena. The author, Shibatani, includes an extensive discussion of Greek voice, using it as one of his central examples of the problems and challenges in voice studies cross-linguistically.

A couple of his important points include:

  1. The Middle only appears to be heterogeneous because our own 1st languages use a variety of constructions to express what is expressed by a single category in middle voice languages such as Greek (1149).
  2. Because middle voice is fundamentally a valence changing process, that is a process which changes the number of required participants in a given clause, it is fundamentally a derivational process, resulting in separate lexical items.

This second point, is my interest here and something I’ve been thinking about for well over a year now. And Shibatani deserves to be quoted at length on this:

The active-middle voice system cuts across transitive/intransitive valence division, as its basis is semantic rather than diathetic alternations upon which modern conceptions of voice are founded. Indeed, a general understanding of voice in modern times is typically based on only one specific voice opposition, namely that of active and passive, an alternation of which is generally held not to affect the propositional meaning of the basic diathesis. Yet, the middle voice systems of classical Indo-European languages and others countenance alternations that change the semantic valence of the basic diathesis and hence its propositional meaning.  As we shall see in later sections, this situation turns out to be rather normal across languages, indicating the difficult of separating voice phenomena clearly apart from valence-changing, and hence derivational, processes (1150).

He goes on to discuss other types of “voice,” many of which have little relation to either English’s active/passive system or Greek “active”/middle system.

All this to say, this is one more voice (pardon the pun) arguing that

1) English “voice” and Greek “voice” have very, very little in common with each other (this is essentially what I was arguing the comments of another blog post — that what we call voice in Greek isn’t what is traditionally understood as voice, but my words fell on deaf ears), and…

2) Greek voice is a derivational and thus lexical process which should be treated in the lexicon rather than in syntax.

6 thoughts on “Greek Voice as a Lexical Process

Add yours

  1. This looks very promising, from what you say of it, Mike. It may very well be true that “Greek voice is a derivational and thus lexical process which should be treated in the lexicon rather than in syntax” — but I think that a good deal could be set forth to clarify why the facts about voice in Greek are so complex. My own view is that the reason for this is that the most important verbs in everyday use have retained formal elements from earlier stages of the history of the language even as the language continues to change and develop new morphological features.

  2. Mike, leave the snark to those who are better at it.

    I wrote a post saying we should not use English categories to talk about Greek voice, and in a further comment that it is mostly lexical.

    Sounds strangely like what you describe this article saying…

    How can any comments of yours have fallen “on deaf ears” if my initial thesis agrees with you?

    1. I’ve edited my own post to make my own meaning here more clear. By deaf ears, I mean cutting off a conversation by closing comments on a post when the other interlocutors haven’t fully explained themselves.

  3. Sorry to comment on such an old post–I’m just catching up!

    Rutger Allan’s dissertation has a critique of the valence-reduction approach to the Greek middle. IIRC, it doesn’t really explain the media tantum.

    Nevertheless, I favor the view that lexica ought to have separate lexical entries for active and middles. My reason is that the current lexical approach of only listing middle headwords if the active is lack actually reifies the notion of deponency, making it more difficult to teach against it (or that it is really irrelevant). If students saw a middle and simply looked up the word under the middle form. they would not have to remember or consider that a work is deponent.

  4. I concur here. There are quite a few verbs that are essentially middle verbs that have active causative forms that (I think) are really secondary. Of these the most obvious is ἵσταμαι, στήσομαι, ἔστην. If this verb is to have only one lemma in the lexicon, it ought to be ἵσταμαι, not ἵστημι — or if ἵστημι has an entry of its own, it ought to be described as “transitive causative to ἵσταμαι” — in my opinion.

  5. Yeah, I had this realization myself a few weeks after writing this post. Both the middle and the active must be basic because the activa and media tantums. But I do think that a lexical approach is still on track, just that neither view form is derived from the other.

    And, Carl, for a (very) short period of time, I pondered the possibility that the middle was more basic on the basis of the active causatives.

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