Dionysius Thrax & Translating Πάθος

Click below to follow us via e-mail or RSS or even Facebook (ugh, Facebook). Maybe even support us on Patreon?

Bernard Taylor’s paper, as I noted previously, surveyed the ancient grammarians to demonstrate that the concept of deponency has no grounding in what native Greek have to say about voice. In my view, it was convincingly argued. In the question and answer time afterward, I asked Dr. Taylor if in his studies of the ancient grammarians whether or not he viewed the translation of πάθος as “passive” to be anachronistic or not. That is to say, have we been reading back into the ancient grammatical texts English syntactic categories.1 Rutgar Allanalt has already demonstrated that both the –μαι and –θη forms are basically semantic in nature and not syntactic. Consider for example: Josephus, Life 138 (the translation is Steven Mason’s and all the Greek below links back to Perseus):

μὲν ταῦτα ἔλεγεν, ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ θεῷ τὰ κατ’ ἐμαυτὸν ἐπιτρέψας εἰς τὸ πλῆθος ὡρμήθην προελθεῖν.
Although he was saying these things, I, having entrusted my affairs to God, set out to meet the mob in advance.

No passive here. The verb ὡρμήθην “set out” (or perhaps better, “rushed out”) can in no way be construed as a passive. Just a –θη form with its middle meaning.  But we’ll spend more time talking about Rutgar Allan’s work a couple posts from now. For now we can just observe that verbs denoting body motion consistently appear with the -θη form and do not have passive meaning and are not necessarily deponent (e.g. ἔρχομαι). ὁρμάω, the verb behind ὡρμήθην, also appears in Matt 8:32, Mark 5:13, Luke 8:33, Acts 7:57; 19:29.

Anyway, I think that if I had the time and opportunity to explain myself better than the 10 seconds that it took to ask the question that Dr. Taylor would be in basic agreement with me, but I would like to make clear where my question came from. What follows is an extended quotation from Masayoshi Shibatani’s article, “Voice.”2 For those of you non-linguists, who do not know who Shibatani is, see here. Stephen Carlson has provided the relevant excerpt from Dionysius in the comments.

Pardon any typos, I typed this whole quote out from the print edition sitting on my shelf. I think I’ve corrected them all, but I might have missed a few.

The middle (or medial) voice is considered to be the most heterogeneous voice category. But this heterogeneity can be only apparent because the variety of expressions encoded as middle are expressed by separated constructions in other languages. A typical middle form and its ‘ambiguity’ can be observed in the following Classical Greek middle expression from Homer (Andersen 1991:51)

(8) és hr’ asamínthous bántes eüxéstas
to then bathing.tub (acc.pl) go (aor)-part.aor-nom.pl well.polished (acc.pl)


‘Then having climbed into the well polished bathing tubs they (a) washed themselves, (b) washed each other, (c) were (automatically) cleansed, (d) were washed.’

The middle inflection in Classical Greek expresses a range of concepts that are expressible, in English and some other languages, by four (and more) separate constructions; (a) the reflexive, (b) the reciprocal, (c) the spontaneous, and (d) the passive construction. Because of this, modern grammarians tends to view the middle voice as having a number of functions or senses each of which is uniquely expressed by a separate construction in some other languages. But such a view fails to capture the essence of the voice mechanisms of early Indo-European languages, from which the modern notions of voice as well as voice-related grammatical terms are inherited – some via Latin translations.

Unfortunately, there is some terminological inconsistency in the Greek grammatical tradition handed down from the classical grammarians such as Dionysius Thrax, whose Techne grammatike (ca. 100 B.C.) is considered a standard work on Classical Greek (cf. Art.6). Against the two distinct sets of inflectional endings for persona and number, which are identified as ‘active’ and ‘middle’, Dionysius distinguishes three diatheses ‘state, dispositions’ or voices: energeia ‘activity’ (from which the modern term active’ evolved from Latin activum), pathos ‘affection’ ( > Latin passivum > ‘passive’), and mesotes ( > ‘medium’, ‘middle’). Among these, the first two voice categories are primary ones that correlate directly with the inflectional categories of ‘active’ and ‘middle’. Dionysius exemplifies the diathesis energeia with tupto (hit. 1.sg.act) ‘I hit’ and pathos with tuptomai ((hit 1.sg.mid) ‘I undergo hitting’. That is, as a first approximation, the major voice categories of Classical Greek of energeia and pathos can be said to be correlated with the semantic distinction of whether the subject of the verb affects others (energeia) or it itself is affected (pathos). The mesotes category, as its name implies, combines the features of the two major voice categories; i.e. the active inflection with the pathos meaning or the middle inflection with the energeia meaning. Thus, the form identified as the middle inflection does not correlate directly with Dionysius’ mesotes voice. Rather the middle inflection represents the pathos voice, and this is what is normally recognized as the middle voice by modern grammarians. (One needs to exercise discretion in reading Kemp’s (1987) translation of Techne, in which ‘pathos’ is straightforwardly translated as ‘passive.) Notice that the four ‘modern’ interpretations of the middle form in (8) all express pathos meaning, i.e. the subject represents an affected entity or ‘the locus of the principle effects of the verbally denoted action’ (Klaiman 1991: 106).

I am interested in my reader’s thoughts on Shibatani’s view, particularly the section of mesotes. I’ve already shared this with a few people and all of them have expressed agreement with Shibatani’s analysis of the meaning of πάθος.

He makes no reference to “deponency” in the entire article, but his words here might be interpreted as an approval a valid category. Personally I don’t think he would make such a claim, particularly because he makes it clear that in his view the category mesotes has no formal realization in the language. And further, the entire issue of tantum verbs (whether activa or media) is not broached in any way.2

The interpretation of the meaning of mesotes is so extremely complicated in Dionysius Thrax, that I highly doubt that there’s any benefit to spending much time on trying to draw a conclusion. There’s so little information in the ancient grammatical texts that I would be incredibly nervous to place too much weight on any interpretation of mesotes. With that said, the words about energeia and pathos are sufficiently clear that can minimally recognize that 1) Dionysius is using the terms to refer to  the -ω forms and the -μαι forms and that they are basically semantic in nature: activity and affected. There is absolutely no reference made to the passive syntactic construction.

I also want to emphasize that the verbal inflectional form labeled as πάθος in Thrax is a middle form (-μαι). Nowhere does Thrax make any reference to the supposedly “real” passives: –θη. Fundamentally, πάθος needs to be read on its own terms rather than through the lens of 2000 years of western grammatical terminology that have developed mostly apart from it: “that which is affected;” “state or condition;” “what one has experienced.” Considering that the middle is what is in debate these days and that those who reject deponency also just so happened to have attached themselves to the phrase “subject affectedness,” the fact that pathos can be so readily translated as affected should grab our attention.

Subject affectedness, or in Klaiman’s terms (LINK)alt, “the locus of the principle effects of the verbally denoted action” is the way forward for both understanding middle voice in general and understanding Dionysius Thrax’s term pathos.

1 On a side note that I will be picking up, those who argue that language typology is dangerous for the grammatical research on the basis that it might cause typology to be read back into the grammar of Greek must contend with what I would suggest is a more dangerous phenomenon: when one does not have a grounding in how languages function generally, the tendency to make Greek either more like English than it is (and thus safe and familiar) or less like English than it really is (and thus exciting and exotic). Four or five dissertations come to my mind that have done one or the other, but I will refrain from naming them out of respect for their authors who, despite that, are good scholars. Nobody is perfect, after all.

2 Morphology / Morphologie: Ein Internationales Handbuch Zur Flexion Und Wortbildung/an International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation, edited by Geert E. Booij et al. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 1145-64.

3 The only reference to Deponency in this massive book is in the previous chapter on valence changing phenomena. And in that instance it is used only as a technical term for any type of verb that does not participate in valence alternations and is written by a different contributor (1139).


16 thoughts on “Dionysius Thrax & Translating Πάθος

Add yours

  1. It would help to have a quotation of the relevant bit of Dionysius Thrax as it is not long and close, careful attention to its wording may be useful:

    διαθέσεις εἰσὶ τρεῖς, ἐνέργεια, πάθος, μεσότης· ἐνέργεια μὲν οἷον τύπτω, πάθος δὲ οἷον τύπτομαι, μεσότης δὲ ἡ ποτὲ μὲν ἐνέργειαν ποτὲ δὲ πάθος παριστᾶσα, οἷον πέπηγα διέφθορα ἐποιησάμην ἐγραψάμην.

      1. The morphologically “active” examples cited by Thrax are pretty interesting:

        1. πέπηγα may appear morphologically as a perfect active indicative of πήγνυμι “I fix” (but cf. πέπηχα), yet LSJ says: “but in the best authors, πέπηγα is used as the pf. Pass., Il.3.135, etc.”

        2. διέφθορα likewise may appear morphologically as a perfect active indicative of διαφθείρω “I utterly destroy” (but cf. διέφθαρκα), yet LSJ notes: “pf. διέφθορα intr., to have lost one’s wits, “διέφθορας” Il. 15.128.”

        I wonder whether it is significant that both of these examples are also perfect (and also have an alternative perfect active form).

  2. It seems that what LSJ has in mind when they say “passive” is either “stative” or “intransitive” (or both). I don’t see the Iliad citation given as having a passive meaning: παρὰ δ᾽ ἔγχεα μακρὰ πέπηγεν “and beside them their long spears are fixed.”

    But again in term of what Thrax says, I’m not sure if he gives enough information to draw any conclusions about what μεσότης actually refers to or even if its relevant to the modern discussion…

    1. I think LSJ called it passive because the English “are fixed” is passive, but I would agree that this is really stative (or intransitive).

      The more I stare at Thrax’s brief analysis, the less relevance I think it has to the modern discussion. I think Thrax wants a simple binary opposition between ἐνέργεια and πάθος but recognizes that there are stuff that does not fit nicely into it: the stative perfects and the (aorist) indirect reflexives, with their respective active and middle morphology. Shibatani’s interpretation of Thrax is a decent attempt at explaining it, but he may be crediting Thrax with more coherence than he really had.

      1. The English “are fixed” by itself without a context is ambiguous. If the sense is “are fixed [by someone/something]” then the English would be passive, but the Iliad passage clearly is not passive.

        132 They that of old were wont to wage tearful war against one
        133 another on the plain, their hearts set on deadly battle, even
        134 they abide now in silence, and the battle has ceased,
        135 and they lean upon their shields, and beside them their long
        136 spears are fixed. (Murray’s Loeb translation)

        The spears are fixed or still. The English is definitely stative.

        Shibatani’s interpretation of Thrax is a decent attempt at explaining it, but he may be crediting Thrax with more coherence than he really had.

        That was Carl’s thought too–I shared a draft of this post ahead of time with him–and why I tried to focus only on the question of energeia and pathos rather than on mesotes.

        1. My guess would be that LSJ’s labelling of it as passive has nothing to do with the actual construction and meaning and everything to do with the traditional label of the morphological form.

  3. Mike and Stephen:

    I want to thank you both for this discussion. It’s refreshing! I’ve been too busy lately to follow or comment, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this discussion now that I’ve had a few minutes to process it.

    Mike, I agree with your suspicion that Shibatani would probably not see his argument as an endorsement of the notion of deponency. Thank you for posting the long quote. His discussion of Dionysius’ treatment of voice is insightful, though I agree with Stephen that “he may be crediting Thrax with more coherence than he really had.”

    1. Micheal, thanks for the feedback, with this discussion, I would side with Stephen about Thrax’s coherence as well.

      I had hoped I could get my next batch of comments up before Christmas, but this season is a little busy. We might just pick up after the new year.

      Merry Christmas!

  4. Mike, you are correct in your assumptions regarding your question and my (non-)answer, and your comments that flow from there. I just stumbled upon this and the previous page as I was googling something else (obviously related) as I revise the paper for publication.

    Fundamentally, πάθος needs to be read on its own terms rather than through the lens of 2000 years of western grammatical terminology that have developed mostly apart from it: “that which is affected;” “state or condition;” “what one has experienced.”

    I agree; but I would also apply the first part to DT.

    I have been studying an earlier portion of the Bachmann passage that I quoted in the paper, and the rubric is: Περὶ μέσων ἡημάτων, and the opening sentence is: Κοινὸν ῥῆμα εἴτε μέσον ἐστὶ τὸ λῆγον εἰς -μαι, καὶ ποτὲ μὲν ἐνεργειαν, ποτὲ πάθος σημαῖνον. “The ending in -μαι is a common or middle verb, sometimes indicating action, and sometimes reception.” For the moment, let’s ignore the Latin influence. I was struck by how inadequate the standard glosses “actitivity” and “passivity” are in this context, especially the latter. Now I stumble upon your missive, and find that you have been wrestling with the same words. The English uses of passive, even when viewed as a purely grammatical term, strikes me as quite misleading. Hence my translation above. I have been ruminating, wondering whether it really helps or not. One is not really passive, simply because one is the receiver of an action. At the same time, it is clear that the sense intended by the writer is not limited to the “middle”, but covers both “active” and “passive” since the 2 examples he gives are: βιάζομαι τὸν φίλον and βιάζομαι ὑπὸ τοῦ φίλου. Unfortunately we don’t know who it was or when it was written.

    Having found it, I will follow the discussion with interest.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Hi Dr. Taylor,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m excited to hear that we’re on the same page. I agree that DT deserves to be read on his own terms as well. I don’t know if you have yet seen Stratton Ladewig’s dissertation, but as far as I can tell, that is exactly what he does not do. I look forward to seeing your paper in print. There’s an article by Albert Rijksbaron that you might be interested in (if you haven’t seen if already):

      Rijksbaron, Albert. “The Treatment of the Greek Middle Voice by the Ancient Grammarians.” In Philosophie du langage et grammaire dans ľantiquité, 427–44. Cahiers de philosophie ancienne, vol. 5. Éditions Ousia: Grenoble, 1986.

      I haven’t yet read it, but I’m looking to request it via interlibrary loan in the new year.

      I’m working on getting the next batch of comments on the panel discussion up later today.

      Merry Christmas!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: