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  • Middle Voice in Modern Greek: Meaning and function of an inflectional category
  • Brian D. Joseph
Linda Joyce Manney , Middle Voice in Modern Greek: Meaning and function of an inflectional category. (Studies in Language Companion Series, vol. 48.) Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 2000. Pp. xiii + 262. $94.00.

The so-called "middle voice" has been an enduring part of the Greek language for as long as Greek has had a separate recognizable linguistic identity (thus at least since Mycenaean Greek of the fifteenth century B.C. and, to judge from comparative evidence, for several millennia before that as well). That is, this category is part of the grammatical stock that Greek inherited from Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor language to Greek, English, Russian, French, Hindi, and numerous other familiar (and less familiar) languages of today and of the past. Along with Albanian, however, Greek is the only branch of the Indo-European family to preserve the middle voice more or less in its original form and with at least some of its original functions intact into the modern era.

As this characterization suggests, one could fruitfully look at the Greek middle voice—also referred to in the linguistic literature on the modern language as "mediopassive" (e.g., Joseph and Philippaki-Warburton 1987), "nonactive" (e.g., Rivero 1990), and "passive" (e.g., Holton et al. 1997)—in terms of its historical development, in terms of its form, and/or in terms of its function. Form is certainly relevant, for the middle voice is readily identifiable by special endings (e.g., in the first person singular present indicative, in the second person singular imperative) or special formatives (e.g., for the most part, in the perfective past [aorist] tense). Interestingly, these verb forms are not always used in the same way, nor do they always show the same nuances of meaning.

Examining the different function(s) of the Greek middle voice is thus an appropriate enterprise, and Manney's interesting and well-documented study, a thoroughly revised version of her 1993 doctoral dissertation from the University of California, San Diego, makes an important contribution to the field.

Manney's primary concern is with the modern language, as she attempts to give a synchronic account of how the middle voice is now used and what it means. Her interest is in finding a common core meaning for middle-voice forms. To give an idea of how challenging a task this is, consider some typical uses she takes into account (using her descriptive labels):

  1. 1. "spontaneous state or change of state," e.g., ("the seeds scattered in the yard"); [End Page 287]

  2. 2. "self-affecting or self-contained agentive events," e.g., ("s/he moved away from the fire");

  3. 3. a "subject . . . acting for its own benefit . . . or [not] initiating an event," e.g., ("he grabbed the lifesaver [for himself, intentionally]");

  4. 4. "strong affective involvement" in an action, e.g., ("[F. Castro] is [passionately] defending his regime more than some ideals").

Thus the one form (the middle-voice grammatical "apparatus") can have several meanings, and the "mapping" between form and meaning is not a one-to-one relationship. And, it goes the other way too, as in the next use in which some change-of-state verbs occur with the grammatical trappings of the active voice, not the middle voice:

(5) ("the fruit got overripe").

Moreover, in many instances, these verbs are what might be called "oppositional" middles (not Manney's terminology), where there is a distinction between active and middle form, and the opposition of these two shows what the middle voice can add to the meaning of a verb. Thus, besides (1) there is also (6), where the active form is transitive, taking a direct object versus the objectless intransitive (1):

(6) ("the farmer scattered the seeds in the yard").

And besides (3) there is (7), where the intentionality and/or beneficiary in the active is different from what is seen in (3):

(7) ("he happened to grab the lifesaver [or grabbed it for someone else]").

Also, from a purely grammatical standpoint, as the above examples show, middle-voice forms can be transitive or intransitive. Finally, there are verbs that...


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