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35 The Middle Voice

2011.05.0060

Fragment of a funerary lekythos. Names are inscribed above the heads of the three figures: Τιμοκράτης, Κλεόμαχος, Τιμοκράτης.


The Middle Voice

Introduction

So far, all verbs that we have discussed have been in the ACTIVE VOICE. In this lesson, we introduce the MIDDLE VOICE. Voice, you will recall, indicates the role that the subject plays in the action of the verb.

  • ACTIVE VOICE: The subject causes the action (e.g., I move the car).
  • PASSIVE VOICE: The subject receives the consequences of the action (e.g. The car was moved).
  • MIDDLE VOICE: The subject is part or all of the action. In other words, the subject is both the cause and the focus, the agent and experiencer, of a verbal action (e.g. I moved (myself)).

Verbs in the MIDDLE VOICE are extremely common in Greek, and appear in most Greek sentences. A clearer picture of how the MIDDLE VOICE works can be seen if we compare it to the other two voices.

 

Active vs. Middle Voice:

To see the distinction that Greeks made between the ACTIVE and MIDDLE VOICE in transitive verbs, let’s consider the following example. Say you have a horse. If someone frees or unties your horse, then the verb is in the ACTIVE VOICE in Greek: λύει τὸν ἵππον μου, He frees my horse. But if you untie your own horse so that you can ride it, this would be in the Greek MIDDLE VOICE: λύομαι τὸν ἵππονI free (my ownhorse.

Oftentimes, verbs that are intransitive and ACTIVE in English are rendered in the MIDDLE VOICE in Greek, particularly if there is a reflexive quality about them (e.g. I move; I stop). That said, to a native speaker of Greek, the action of some intransitive verbs made sense ONLY in the MIDDLE VOICE.

For example, some verbs that mean come and go in Greek occur only in the MIDDLE VOICE. A subject is inevitably participating in the action of coming or going, so it just seemed natural that some of these verb should be in the MIDDLE VOICE.

Finally, for some Greek verbs, there can be an important distinction in meaning between the ACTIVE and MIDDLE VOICES (S 1728, 1734). For example:

  • αἱρέω in the ACTIVE means I take, but in the MIDDLE means I choose
  • σταθμάω in the ACTIVE means I measure, but in the MIDDLE means I calculate
  • σκοπέω in the ACTIVE means I look at, but in the MIDDLE means I consider

Such distinctions, when they occur, are noted in your lexicon.

 

Passive vs. Middle Voice:

It is tempting, as English speakers, to think of the ACTIVE and PASSIVE VOICE as opposing poles, between which is located the MIDDLE VOICE. Certainly the English terminology for the three voices suggests this conception. It is important to understand, however, that the fundamental dichotomy for Greeks was actually between ACTIVE and MIDDLE.

Greek originally inflected verbs to indicate ACTIVE and MIDDLE VOICES. There were no distinct PASSIVE forms, nor does that voice seem to have been used. As the need for the PASSIVE VOICE emerged, Classical and Koine Greek used the MIDDLE VOICE forms of the verb to represent also the PASSIVE VOICE (S 1735). This makes sense, when we realize that the difference between the MIDDLE and PASSIVE could at times be almost indistinguishable for Greeks.

Consider, for example, the following pairs of sentences:

  • He mows his lawn. (middle voice).
  • He has his lawn mowed by the neighbor. (passive voice).
  • Socrates gets hit with a rock. (middle voice).
  • Socrates got hit by us with a rock. (passive voice).
  • The cup breaks. (middle voice).
  • Cups keep getting broken by him. (passive voice).

Distinguishing voice can be difficult for speakers of English who have been taught that there are only two voices: active and passive. What voice is used, for example, in the following sentences?

  • The bread is baking in the oven.
  • She takes good pictures.
  • He got himself fired today.
  • “The soup that eats like a meal.”

Consequently, while all the Greek verbs in this chapter are parsed – and almost always translated – in the MIDDLE voice, they can occasionally be translated with an English PASSIVE when context demands. One clue to identifying a PASSIVE use of a middle form is to look for ὑπό followed by a genitive; when modifying a passive verb, this construction indicates the agent of the verb. This construction is called the GENITIVE OF AGENT.

Note the following examples:

  • τὸ βιβλίον ὑπὸ τοῦ ποιητοῦ γράφεται. The book is being written by the poet.
  • αἱ πόλεις ὑπὸ τῶν Περσῶν λύονται The cities are being destroyed by the Persians…

 


Conjugation

Middle Voice Personal Endings

Recall that Greek has two conjugations:

  • μι verbs (athematic)
  • ω verbs (thematic)

In the ACTIVE VOICE, these conjugations use somewhat different endings to designate person and number, as well as the infinitive. In the MIDDLE VOICE, both conjugations use exactly the SAME PERSONAL ENDINGS to designate person and number, as well as the infinitive mood. All endings are short.

 

If a verb is athematic (-μι conjugation), then these endings are added directly to the tense stem.

μαι = I (1st person singular)

μεθα = we (1st person plural)

σαι = you (2nd person singular)

σθε = y’all (2nd person plural)

ται = (s)he, it (3rd person sg)

νται = they (3rd person pl)

σθαι signals that a verb is in the infinitive. The persistent accent of the infinitive is on the ANTEPENULT.

 

If a verb is thematic (-ω conjugation), then a thematic vowel (-ο/-ε) is added before its endings. Note that the second person singular regularly appears in one of two contracted forms that result from the loss of the INTERVOCALIC SIGMA (S 628).

ομαι = I (1st person singular)

ομεθα = we (1st person plural)

(-εσαι →) –ει or –ῃ = you (2nd person singular)

εσθε = y’all (2nd person plural)

εται = (s)he, it (3rd person sg)

ονται = they (3rd person pl)

εσθαι signals that a verb is in the infinitive.

 

Present, Indicative, Middle

To begin building a Greek verb, we start with the VERB STEM, which tells the action that a verb describes.

  • δεικ = “show”
  • λυ = “loosen, destroy”
  • λαβ = “take”

Recall that some verbs add a marker (often a ν) to the stem to indicate that the verb is in the present tense. If so, these markers are retained in the MIDDLE VOICE:

  • δεικνυ = “show” (present tense stem)
  • λυ = “loosen” (present tense stem = verb stem)
  • λαμβαν = “take” (present tense stem)

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of δείκνυμι (athematic; S 418; GPH p. 156)

δείκνυμαι

δεικνύμεθα

δείκνυσαι

δείκνυσθε

δείκνυται

δείκνυνται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: δείκνυσθαι

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of λύω (thematic; S 383; GPH p. 69)

λύομαι

λυόμεθα

λύει/ῃ

λύεσθε

λύεται

λύονται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: λύεσθαι

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of λαμβάνω (thematic)

λαμβάνομαι

λαμβανόμεθα

λαμβάνει/ῃ

λαμβάνεσθε

λαμβάνεται

λαμβάνονται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: λαμβάνεσθαι

 

Future, Indicative, Middle

Recall that adding –σ– to the verb stem marks a verb as in the FUTURE TENSE. So now the stem looks and sounds like this:

  • λυ + σ = “loosen” λυσ = “loosen” (future tense stem)
  • δεικ + σ = “show” δειξ = “show” (future tense stem)

Remember: ALL VERBS, whether they be –μι verbs or –ω verbs in the present, use –ω verb endings in the future tense. This is true in both the ACTIVE and MIDDLE VOICES.

 

The Future, Indicative, Middle of δείκνυμι 

δείξομαι

δειξόμεθα

δείξει/ῃ

δείξεσθε

δείξεται

δείξονται

The Future Indicative Middle Infinitive: δείξεσθαι

 

The Future, Indicative, Middle of λύω (S 383; GPH p. 75)

λύσομαι

λυσόμεθα

λύσει/ῃ

λύσεσθε

λύσεται

λύσονται

Future Indicative Middle Infinitive: λύσεσθαι

 

Contract Verbs

The rules of vowel contraction operate in verbs when the stem ends in one of the vowels α, ε or ο. In these cases, this final vowel of the stem contracts with the thematic vowel of –ω verbs. Observe the following inflections, paying close attention to the contractions that result in the 2nd person singular. Note also that the accent of the infinitive is on the antepenult of the uncontracted form.

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of λαλέω (S 385; GPH p. 110)

(λαλέομαι →) λαλοῦμαι

(λαλεόμεθα →) λαλούμεθα

(λαλέει/ →) λαλεῖ/

(λαλέεσθε →) λαλεῖσθε

(λαλέεται →) λαλεῖται

(λαλέονται →) λαλοῦνται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: (λαλέεσθαι →) λαλεῖσθαι

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of ἐρωτάω (S 385; GPH p. 101)

(ἐρωτάομαι →) ἐρωτῶμαι

(ἐρωταόμεθα →) ἐρωτώμεθα

(ἐρωτάει/ῃ →) ἐρωτᾷ

(ἐρωτάεσθε →) ἐρωτᾶσθε

(ἐρωτάεται →) ἐρωτᾶται

(ἐρωτάονται →) ἐρωτῶνται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: (ἐρωτάεσθαι →) ἐρωτᾶσθαι

 

The Present, Indicative, Middle of δηλόω (S 385; GPH p. 118)

(δηλόομαι →) δηλοῦμαι

(δηλόομεθα →) δηλούμεθα

(δηλόει/ῃ →) δηλοῖ

(δηλόεσθε →) δηλοῦσθε

(δηλόεται →) δηλοῦται

(δηλόονται →) δηλοῦνται

Present Indicative Middle Infinitive: (δηλόεσθαι →) δηλοῦσθαι

 

Vocabulary Notes

  1. The vocabulary for this chapter introduces a number of verbs that were used by the Greeks only in the MIDDLE VOICE. The term DEPONENT VERBS (Latin for put down, lay aside) is often used to describe these verbs, since to English speakers it appears that they somehow lost their ACTIVE forms (S 356). These verbs, however, never lost their ACTIVE forms, for they never had any. They are, and were meant to be, MIDDLE VERBS in Greek. As you study the vocabulary, consider why it made sense to Greeks that these particular verbs were best rendered in the MIDDLE VOICE.
  2. If the vocabulary entry ends in –ομαι, then it has a thematic vowel and is an –ω verb.  Otherwise, it is athematic.

 

– τὸ τέλος –


Key Terms and Concepts

  • MIDDLE VS. ACTIVE VOICE
  • MIDDLE VS. PASSIVE VOICE
  • GENITIVE OF AGENT
  • ATHEMATIC MIDDLE VOICE PERSONAL ENDINGS
  • THEMATIC MIDDLE VOICE PERSONAL ENDINGS
  • CONJUGATING THE PRESENT, INDICATIVE, MIDDLE
  • CONJUGATING THE FUTURE, INDICATIVE, MIDDLE
  • CONJUGATING THE PRESENT, INDICATIVE, MIDDLE: CONTRACT VERBS

Vocabulary

 

αἰσθάνομαι, αἰσθήσομαι perceive

ἀποκρίνομαι, ἀποκρινοῦμαι answer

ἀφικνέομαι, ἀφίξομαι come to, arrive at

βούλομαι, βουλήσομαι want, prefer

γίγνομαι, γενήσομαι happen, become, be born

δέχομαι, δέξομαι welcome

δύναμαι, δυνήσομαι be able, can

ἕπομαι, ἕψομαι follow

ἐργάζομαι, ἐργάσομαι work

ἡγέομαι, ἡγήσομαι lead, consider

κτάομαι, κτήσομαι get, acquire

μάχομαι, μαχοῦμαι fight

πορεύομαι, πορεύσομαι go, march

σκοπέω/σκέπτομαι, σκέψομαι look at, examine, consider

χράομαι, χρήσομαι use

Exercises

I. Memorize the vocabulary.

II. Conjugate in full, including the infinitive, the following verbs in the Present, Indicative, Middle:

  1. ἡγέομαι
  2. μάχομαι
  3. δύναμαι
  4. βούλομαι
  5. χράομαι

IΙI. For the following verbs, 1). Provide the correct accent, 2). Change from the active voice to the middle voice in the present tense and 3). in the future tense.

Example: φυετε: 1) φύετε 2) φύεσθε 3) φύσεσθε

  1. κελευομεν
  2. παυουσι
  3. δεικνυασι
  4. λαμβανω (fut. tense is always middle: λήψομαι)
  5. ἐρωτᾳς
  6. αἱρουμεν
  7. διδασκω
  8. δηλοι
  9. λυειν
  10. μιγνυναι

License

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The Middle Voice by Wilfred E. Major and Michael Laughy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.