Active+Reflexive vs. Middle Voice: What’s the Difference?

What reasons are there for a Greek speaker to use a reflexive pronoun with a verb rather than the middle voice? If we assume, as most traditional approaches to Greek voice do, that the middle voice is, at its core, reflexive, then this becomes a very interesting question. Consider: Luke 10:29 or Titus 2:14.

  • Ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν· Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον;
    But wanting to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
  • ὃς [Ἰησοῦς Χριστός] ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν
    who [Jesus Christ] gave himself on our behalf.

The first essential grammatical point to understand here is that neither of these two verbs (δικαιόω and δίδωμι, respectively) fall into any of the natural semantic classes of middle verbs (see Aubrey 2014, Allan 2003, Kemmer. 1993): spontaneous process, body action, perception, cognition, etc. Most of the time, those semantic classes are the primary determiner of whether middle morphology would be acceptable, “naturally middle semantics” you could call it.

For naturally middle events related to pronoun types, the big ones are:

  • Naturally reflexive events (esp. grooming, & other body actions)
    Naturally reciprocal events (receiving, buying, selling, etc.)

Most transitive verbs function within a different alternation: Caused vs. Non-caused action. Consider the verbs in the table below:

Active Caused: Middle Spontaneous/Self-propelled
ἀνακλίνω cause to recline, cause to lie down ἀνακλίνομαι recline to eat
ἀναπαύω make someone rest, have relief ἀναπαύομαι to rest, to find relief
ἀποκόπτω to cut something, someone ἀποκόπτομαι to get castrated
ἀφανίζω make disappear ἀφανίζομαι disappear
βόσκω cause cattle to eat, feed βόσκομαι to graze
βυθίζω cause to sink βυθίζομαι sink (intrans.)
γενεαλογέω trace a lineage γενεαλογέομαι be a descendant
διεγείρω waken someone διεγείρομαι awaken
ἐκχέω cause to pour out ἐκχέομαι spill out
ἐμπίπλημι fill, satisfy ἐμπίπλημαι enjoy
ἐγείρω set/stand something up ἐγείρομαι stand up, rise (intrans.)
εὐοδόω cause to prosper εὐοδόομαι prosper
πνίγω strangle, choke (trans.) πνίγομαι drown, choke (intrans.)
σείω to shake smth. σείομαι quake, shiver/shake (intrans.)
σκορπίζω make hard σκορπίζομαι become hard
σκοτίζω make dark σκοτίζομαι become dark
τήκω melt smth (trans.) τήκομαι melt (intrans.)
ὑπολείπω leave behind ὑπολείπομαι remain
φέρω bring, bear, carry φέρομαι move, come
φλογίζω ignite φλογίζομαι burn
χωρίζω cause separation, divide χωρίζμαι leave a group (separate oneself)
ψύχω make cold, dry ψύχομαι become cold, dry

The event structure and required participants of an active relative to its middle form needs to be accounted for in the use of the reflexive. Δικαιόω is a transitive verb that does not fit this pattern. The lexical semantics of the verb assumes an event structure wherein a judge declares an acquittal verdict on behalf of the defendant.

In the case of δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν, you have transitive event where a judge declares an acquittal verdict on behalf of the defendant. Within that frame, there are necessarily two distinct participants: judge, defendant. A defendant declaring himself innocence is an unexpected situation. Those two don’t naturally merge together well into one participant in the same way that, say, ἐγείρω (Ι raise something up = cause it to be stood up) vs. ἐγείρομαι (I stand up) or νίπτω (I wash someone else = cause someone to be washed) vs. νίπτομαι (I get washed/wash myself). δικαιόω just doesn’t make that shift so easily. The reflexive then is used to maintain a greater degree of distinguishability and, to an extent, signal to the audience that this isn’t a normal transitive two participant situation. The same is true of ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν. ‘Giving’ is an event that does not comfortably merge two participants into a single participant. As such, middle voice morphology is not really a viable option for the event structure.

Of course, there are verbs that fall into the natural middle classes where a verb is still used in the active with a reflexive, though not many. These usages have a different motivation that perhaps will be explored another time. But one such usage embodies the story of Good Friday and Easter well:

  • ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν, καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.
    He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. For this reason, God exalted him and graciously granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and beneath the earth and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:8-11).

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη.

(Many thanks to my wife, Rachel Aubrey, for contributing feedback and discussion on this brief article)

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