Since the active and middle voices of the 2nd aorist forms of “to stand” are intransitive (ἵστημι – ἔστην vs ἐστάμην), are these forms synonymous?

By: | Post date: 2017-06-13 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics

James Garry’s answer to Since the active and middle voices of the 2nd aorist forms of “to stand” are intransitive (ἵστημι – ἔστην vs ἐστάμην), are these forms synonymous? This is the answer to this question. And my thanks, James.

What I’m writing here is an answer to a more general question: how much do active/middle voice distinctions matter? It’s an elaboration of Nick Nicholas’ answer to 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)?

My thanks for your indulgence.


English distinguishes between Active and Passive verbs. The distinction is fairly clear cut. An intransitive verb is always active. If a transitive verb is active, the subject is doing stuff; if the transitive verb is passive, the subject is having stuff done to them.

Homeric Greek worked on a different, Active/Middle distinction; in many ways, that distinction has lasted to this day. In that distinction, if a verb is transitive, the active still means you’re doing stuff, and the middle means you’re having stuff done to you. Or that you’re doing it to yourself. Or that you’re doing it for yourself. Or that you’re doing it to each other.

And that’s the easy bit.

What happens when the verb is intransitive?

When the verb is intransitive, it could be active, or it could be middle.

There is a kind of semantics to it. Kind of. If the intransitive verb is active, it means that you’re doing stuff, you’re acting. If the intransitive verb is middle, it means that you’re just sitting there, that you’re passive—or at least, that your actions are inward. So run or go are active. Work or sleep are middle.

Does that distinction sound unconvincing? Good. Because it was.

I mean, the distinction was there. But it was not stable, and it was not consistent, and it was not rigorous.

The distinction was inconsistent enough that some intransitive verbs got to be either active or middle; lampō ‘shine’, for example. In fact, some perfectly transitive verbs also got to be either. So for lambanō, there is an active usage, meaning ‘take’, and a middle usage, meaning ‘take hold of, seize’.

Now, if you are approaching grammar synchronically, like a good structuralist, any contrast in grammatical form must correspond to some contrast in meaning. There has to be some nuance there; some notion of more active vs more passive, some connotation picked up from other actives or middles, some subtlety. It can’t just be random.

People speaking the language at a point in time have good reason to think so. Writers are certainly going to be alert to all the connotations and resonances latent in the language, and they will exploit them. Yes, synchronically there is no such thing as a true synonym.

If you’re working in the diachronic model, you are much more cynical about structuralist notions of paradigm and meaning distinctions, because your business involves watching those structures morph and evaporate.

It’s an overly fuzzy view of language. It’s why a century of Indo-European historical linguistics, which focussed primarily on phonology, did not come up with a concept of the phoneme: it was too busy seeing sounds change to work out the structure of sounds. But it’s a healthy cynicism to bring to bear, when there are overly subtle nuances in play. Even if they’re there, they’re evanescent.

The instance that has made me sceptical about fine active/middle nuances in Greek is phaîo. It’s a verb I spent hours trying to work out in Pindar: The tale of φαῖο.

I couldn’t work it out, because it wasn’t in the grammar books: the 19th century editions of Pindar, that the grammar books were based on, used the active optative of ‘you would say’, φαίης, and that’s what the grammars had documented. The 1971 edition of Pindar switched to the middle optative φαῖο. Both forms turn up in manuscripts.

‘Say’ is one of those intransitive verbs that could appear in the active or in the middle (in the optative mood in particular). Was there a subtle semantics involved? Was there a notion of actively saying something versus passively saying something? Like, asserting versus conceding, or something like that?

Nah. It’s much simpler than that. It’s a dialect difference. Attic used the active in the optative of phēmi ‘say’; Doric, the dialect of Pindar, used the middle. (The edition switched the voice, because they figured that the scribes that had copied Pindar over the generations were more familiar with Attic than Doric.) Attic used the active and Doric the middle, not because Athenians were more assertive than Spartans, or anything like that. It was simply a random choice, that the dialects made in one mood of one verb, when they split apart.

Just like Greek, a few centuries later, replaced the middle ergazomai ‘work’ with the active douleuō ‘originally: to slave away’. No nuance there. Not in the long run: in the long run, nuance gets squashed and overrun by the shifts of language.

Lucky are those who settle down to a single period of language, that delve into its treasures, and that look upon its nuance and subtleties and paradigmatic contrasts as something more substantial, more rich, more verdant—than the cobwebs that Time knows them to be.

Don’t weep for historical linguists, though. We have our own entertainments. And sometimes, we pause to read the literature too, and let go of our cynicism.

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