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.