Semantic Gradiance in Middle Lexemes

Transitivity isn’t a binary thing. You can scale it across usage. This is clear in things like lexical semantics. Consider the middle instances of φοβέω, for example.

  • ἐφοβήθησαν δὲ ἀκούσαντες ὅτι Ῥωμαῖοί εἰσιν,
    they grew afraid when they heard they were Roman citizens (Acts 16:38).
  • ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν·
    They were greatly terrified (they feared [with a] great fear )(Luke 2:9)
  • ἐφοβήθησαν τοὺς ὄχλους
    they feared the crowd (Mark 12:12)

Intransitive change of state (grew afraid) –> Semi-transitive experiencer-stimulus (were terrified) –> Syntactic transitive experiencer-stimulus (feared X)

Now from the perspective of the prototypical transitive clause (volitional animate participant acting on an inanimate non-volitional object), all three of these clauses are divergences. And the most transitive version of this verb necessarily involve the active voice:

  • μηδὲν αὐτοὺς ταραχῶδες ἐφόβει
    Nothing terrifying was causing them fear (was frightening them (Wisdom of Solomon 17:9)

What’s the point of all of this? Transitivity is interesting. On the other hand, another point might be that when it comes to describing the semantics of the Greek middle, subject affectedness may certainly be a necessary condition for middle morphology, but it still isn’t the whole story.

Anyway, I’m enjoying my wife’s research on the topic. Her larger thesis project deals with this and many other questions (this is from her data).  And her forthcoming paper at the Cambridge Greek Verb conference, now published in the Greek Verb Revisited examines how metaphor and analogy effect language change in the middle voice with particular reference to -θη forms in the Koine period.

Just don’t get the kindle edition GVR. The formatting is wonky.

Expensive Books that Deal with these Questions:

The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study of Polysemy (Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology) by Rutger Allan

The Middle Voice by Suzanne Kemmer

Grammatical Voice (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics) by M. H. Klaiman

Prototypical Transitivity (Typological Studies in Language) by Åshild Næss

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3 thoughts on “Semantic Gradiance in Middle Lexemes

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  1. Please feel free to ignore my comment if it is too elementary or misguided, but on Mark 12:12, with the Syntactic transitive experiencer-stimulus, is there a rule that you don’t indicate something like “grew in their fear of the crowd”? I can actually see in context that wouldn’t make much sense, but I’m trying to figure out why. Again, so sorry if this is a genuinely stupid question. I’m obviously still learning.

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