In Ancient Greek, does the middle voice of φιλέω (φιλέομαι) mean “I love in my own interest,” “I love myself,” (reflexive) or “I am loved” (passive)?

By: | Post date: 2017-06-05 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics

I’m going to do some backgrounding on this for people not blessed enough to have delved in the waters of Greek.

English makes a distinction between active and passive voices of a verb.

Homeric Greek made a distinction between active and middle voices of a verb. It distinguished between you actively doing something to the world, and you just sitting there. If you were having things done to you (passive), you’re just sitting there. If you are doing things to yourself (reflexive), you’re just sitting there. If you two are doing things to each other (reciprocal), you’re just sitting there. And if you are doing things for yourself, you are still just sitting there: in all these instances, you are not actively doing something to the world, outside of yourself.

The distinction puts some instances that in English would be active into the middle voice. The verb for sleep is in the middle voice. So is the verb for work.

So, in that division of the world, the middle voice of ‘love’ can mean all of the above: “I love for myself”, “I love myself”, and “I am loved”.

In Homeric Greek, you occasionally have a verb form in the aorist that looks somewhat different from the middle. This ended up extended to the future tense in Attic (in a very morphologically awkward way), and it was supposed to be the emergence of a distinct passive voice in those tenses, whereas the future and aorist middles kept their middle meaning (“just sitting there”, including reflexives, reciprocals, and self-benefit).

That’s the theory. In practice, you will still find aorist passive forms with middle meaning, and aorist middle forms with passive meaning: they were easily confused, and Greek writers really did confuse them. The legacy is that in Modern Greek, we only have active and passive forms in the aorist…

… and the passive forms have the same range of meanings as the Homeric middle: the forms have switched, the underlying meaning hasn’t. Remember: the middle/passive distinction only ever happened in the aorist and future, and even there it was garbled. In the present, imperfect, perfect and pluperfect, Greek continued to use the one voice for both middle and passive, throughout. Greek simply got rid of the outliers in the aorist: it kept the semantics the same.

So, if I may introspect on the modern verb αγαπιέμαι: in the plural, it would be interpreted as “we love each other” (αγαπιόμαστε), and in the singular, it would be interpreted as “I am loved”. That’s not about preference of one meaning over the other, that’s about context and plausibility. Other words have different default interpretations. An inanimate subject of κλέβομαι “be stolen” is passive; a human subject will be interpreted as reciprocal (we stole each other = we eloped).

And there is the possibility of confusion between middle and passive still. I once used the middle of self-benefit with reference to shopping: I announced to my cousin that ψωνιστήκαμε “we went shopping (for things for ourselves)”. My cousin told me to shut up, because the idiomatic interpretation of the verb “to shop” in the middle/passive voice was not self-benefit, but passive: “we were shopped for, someone went shopping to buy us”. Which applies to street prostitutes.

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