Break vs. read: Transitivity in Greek

Primary and secondary grammar classes teach that a transitive clause is a clause with an object: Rachel shattered the window and an intransitive clause is one without an object: Rachel walked around the park. The choice of the word transitive is no accident for talking about actions that have two participants, since the concept of transfer, from one participant to another is central to the formulation of transitivity.

  • SUBJECT → OBJECT
    a.  τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους ἔκλασα εἰς τοὺς πεντακισχιλίους
         I broke five loaves of bread for the five thousand (Mark 8:19).
    b.  λαβὼν παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν
         Taking a child, he made him stand among them (Mark 9:36).)

Each of these first two clauses have a subject that is a volitional agent who acts on an affected object. The object undergoes a change of state from the beginning of the event to the end: unbroken to broken bread and a child in one position moved to another position. In each case, the subject functions as the agent that causes the change in the object, Jesus in sentences (a) and (b). The subject is not affected by the event expressed by the verb. Jesus is not broken or placed among anyone.

Sentences like these are probably what most of us would immediately think of if we were asked to give an example of a transitive clause—they are prototypically transitive. Prototypical transitive clauses the following traits (Næss 2007, 44-46):

  • The subject and the object are maximally distinct.
  • The agent subject volitionally instigates the event.
  • The patient object and only the patient is affected.

Other kinds of transitive clauses that do not fully obey these rules. For example, consumption events are a little strange in that both the subject and the object are affected.

  • Consumption transfer: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    Οἱ πατέρες ἔφαγον ὄμφακα
    Our fathers ate unripe grapes (Ezekiel 18:2)

Here, the object, ὄμφακα ‘unripe grapes’, is totally affected by the event, undergoing a kind of destructive process like the object of κλάω, ‘break’, while also distinct in one very important way. The action of eat involves the agent subject, oἱ πατέρες ‘the/our fathers’, transferring the grapes into themselves. Thus, oἱ πατέρες is an affected agent (Næss 2007, 72-81).* Verbs like ἐσθίω, ‘eat’, sit on the threshold between transfer of the action toward the object and transfer to action toward the subject.

* Many reciprocal verbs (e.g. fight, converse, embrace) also involve an affected agent—see Kemmer (1993, 102-108).

Moreover, consumption verbs like these shift the distinctiveness of the subject and object from a state of maximal distinctiveness (both oἱ πατέρες and ὄμφακα exist separately) to minimal distinctiveness (the grapes are now internal to the fathers), as part of their internal event structure.

Similarly, the distinctiveness of the subject and the object may be reduced with verb classes involving dressing and grooming. Thus, below in Matthew 27:24, ὁ Πιλᾶτος is a volitional agent, but the subject and object share a whole-part relationship.

  • Grooming Transfer: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    ὁ Πιλᾶτος … ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου.
    Pilate washed his hand before the crowd (Matt 27:24).

And of course, ὁ Πιλᾶτος is not maximally distinct from τὰς χεῖρας, which naturally results in ὁ Πιλᾶτος also being affected agent subject. The astute reader will also notice that ἀπενίψατο is an aorist middle verb, also. Grooming verbs naturally prefer the middle voice for their relationship—the distinguishability of participants is an important factor in how the active-middle alternation works in Greek.

Other kinds of verbs involve both affected objects and affected subjects, too. These next three clauses are also a little less transitive because they have affected agents. With Luke 19:13, δίδωμι, ‘give,’ is a transference verb. The object is the primary affected participant. It undergoes a change of state from being in the possession of the subject to being in the possession of the dative recipient. It might seem strange that the arrow is pointing in both directions since the possession ends with the dative recipient, but the arrow designates who undergoes a change of state in the event. The nature of giving also means that the subject and the dative recipient each undergo their own change-of-state: from being a possessor to not being a possessor and vice versa.

  • Transference: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς δέκα μνᾶς
    He gave them ten minas (Luke 19:13)

Communication and judgment verbs also have affected agents as well. It is common for communication verbs to have similar syntax to transference verbs, where the content of the communication functioned as what is transferred. While there is no change in physical possession, both the subject agent and the dative audience experience a cognitive change-of-state, one by the process of speech and the other by hearing.

  • Communication: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    Ἄλλην παραβολὴν ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς
    He spoke to them another parable (Matt 13:33).
  • Judgment: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    ἔκρινεν
    ὁ θεὸς Αἴγυπτον
    God judged Egypt (1 Clement 17.5).

Judgment verbs involve a similar cognitive change of state on the part of the agent subject that then effects a legal change of state in the object.

Reciprocal verbs like fight are also similar, as in 1 Kingdoms 19:8.

  • Reciprocal: SUBJECT ↔ OBJECT
    ἐπολέμησεν τοὺς ἀλλοφύλους
    He fought the Philistines (1 Kingdoms 19:8).

Both the subject and the object transfer the energy of the event to the other. Which participant is the subject and which is the object has more to do the salience of one participant over the other in the larger story (or perhaps with the politics of the narrator!).

The transfer might go in the opposite direction. Below, reading is a volitional event and πολλοὶ … τῶν Ἰουδαίων are certainly agents in their behavior But they do not act up on the notice. This is because reading is a cognitive event. Even with a physical book, the opening and turning of the pages does not constitute reading. Reading necessarily involves the cognitive effect of the book’s information upon the reader.

  • Cognition: SUBJECT ← OBJECT
    a.  τοῦτον οὖν τὸν τίτλον πολλοὶ ἀνέγνωσαν τῶν Ἰουδαίων
         Thus many Jews read this notice (John 19:20).
    b.  τὰς ἀπειλὰς τοῦ πολεμίου πλήθους ὁ Ἰώσηπος ἔμαθεν
        Josephus learned of the threats of the hostile crowd (Josephus, Wars 3.351).

The same is true of verbs like learn. The transfer from one participant to the other is one entirely cognitive. The main difference is that often times the subject is less volitional than with a verb like read. Verbs of learning may be spontaneous, as is the case of Josephus here: he did not set out to learn of threats. Instead he was informed of them and he gained new information.

Likewise, a verb like ὁράω, ‘see’, similarly involve a transfer to the subject and may or may not denote volitionality on the part of the subject. Usually, however, the subject has less control over what they see.

  • Perception: SUBJECT ← OBJECT
    εἶδον ἄνδρα δόξαντα παρʼ ἑαυτῷ σοφὸν εἶναι
    I saw a man who assumed himself to be wise (Prov 26:12).

Here the speaker in Prov 26:12 is not an agentive subject acting on the object. Instead, they merely perceptually experience the object, without affecting that object in any way. Only one transitivity trait remains: the subject (the speaker) and the object (ἄνδρα) are maximally distinct from each other.

All of these small shifts in the semantics of the clause affect the transitivity of the clause. While all of the examples examined here have both a subject and an accusative object, they are not all equivalent to each other. Some have more agentive subjects than others. Some distinguish the subject from the object well. Others do so poorly. In some cases, the event is clearly caused and instigated by the subject but other times, the event occurs spontaneously, and the subject exerts little control over it. Finally, sometimes the energy of the event moves from the subject into the object, but in lower transitivity clauses, it might move in the opposite direction.

These distinctions are essential for many aspects of grammar in all languages. They motivate a wide variety of different grammatical phenomena from one language to the next. This makes it essential to pay attention to them when working in multiple languages, whether English, Greek, Hebrew, German, Dutch or French. Understanding how one language manipulates transitivity in its grammar and lexicon can pay off dividends for understanding the stories that are told in those languages.

  • Who/what is instigating the event?
  • Who/what is affected by the event?
  • To what degree are the subject and object distinct from each other?

Works cited

Kemmer, Suzanne. 1993. Middle Voice. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Næss, Åshild. 2007. Prototypical Transitivity. Typological Studies in Language 72. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Additional recommended reading

Hopper, Paul and Thompson, Sandra A. 1980. Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse. Language 56. 251-299.
Lazard, Gilbert. 2003. “Transitivity Revisited as an Example of a More Strict Approach in Typological Research.” Folia Linguistica 36, 141-190.
Shibatani, Masayoshi. 2006. “On the conceptual framework for voice phenomena.” Linguistics 44–2, 217–26.

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