Renaming the Greek "Middle" Voice?

I agree with Carl Conrad that the term “Middle Voice” creates the false impression that the real contrast in Greek is between active and passive and that the “middle” voice is something of a misfit in an otherwise clear system. I have been thinking about what term could be used to replace “middle” that would avoid this implication and better fit the actual usage of what we have all been calling the “middle” voice.

Here’s my problem: The Greek middle voice is clearly NOT equivalent to the English reflexive construction, but it IS very much like the reflexive of some other IndoEuropean languages. I happen to be a fluent speaker of Spanish, so examples from that language are very easy for me to produce, but the same is true for French and Italian according to what I have read on those languages.

Here are a few Spanish reflexive constructions with English equivalents. Notice that there is a good deal of difference between the two languages in their use of reflexives. All of the Spanish sentences have reflexive constructions. Many of the English equivalents do not.

Me corté.
I cut myself.
Me corté el dedo.
I cut my finger.
Me voy.
I’m leaving.
Me compré un nuevo reloj.
I bought myself a new watch.
¿Te diste cuenta que Alfredo ya llegó?
Did you realize that Alfredo has arrived?
Se despertó el bebe.
The baby woke up.

Of course I could write hundreds of these examples easily, but I think this is enough to make the point. Reflexive constructions vary widely between languages. The Greek “middle” voice is very much like the reflexive of Romance languages, but quite unlike the English reflexive. If I were writing a Greek grammar in Spanish, there’s no question of what I would call the “middle” voice: la voz reflexiva. But calling it the “Reflexive Voice” in English could cause serious confusion since many “middle” voice Greek verbs require active voice English translations, not reflexive ones.

So, what should we call the “middle” voice to avoid the confusion caused by the term “middle” and also avoid the confusion that could be created by calling this voice “reflexive” in English?

14 Thoughts to “Renaming the Greek "Middle" Voice?”

  1. This is a difficult question.

    Would it be possible to not get ride of the term Middle, but rather to get rid of the term Passive for everything but the -θη- forms?

  2. The term “middle” cannot really be dispensed with, any more than we can dispense with the term “tense.” Proto Indo-European is said to have only an Active and a Middle-Passive (or Medio-passive) voice, and there are two landmark studies, Suzanne’s general study of Middle Voice and Rutger Allan’s study of Homeric and Classical Greek Middle voice usage. What is needful, in my opinion, is: (1) acknowledge that passive meaning is an option for the middle morphoparadigms (including -θη- forms), and (2) eliminate the term and all the concomitant baggage in the train of the term “deponent.”

    1. That should have been Suzanne Kemmer’s general study of Middle Voice.

      1. Carl & Micheal, have either of you seen the similar study on Modern Greek?

        Middle Voice in Modern Greek
        MANNEY, Linda Joyce (Author)

        It’s available to read online for free here:

        Just search for the title.

        1. Wow. Thanks for the link, Mike. It’s fantastic to see such resource available for free!

        2. John Benjamins Publishing has made a nice move with the digital world — it would be nice if other publishes whose audience is chiefly the research library would follow in kind.

      2. Yes. I can see that actually replacing the terminology would be an unwieldy challenge. I posed the question the way I did because I really do think the naming is unfortunate and misleading. As you have argued so well, Carl, it creates the impression that the middle voice fits somewhere on a continuum between active and passive, and this of course is not helpful.

        For the purposes of a beginning grammar (my own in particular), I wonder if there is some way to qualify the term “middle voice” that might help. Something like “The Middle (or _____) Voice”? That is, is there a term that could be used in the discussion of the middle voice while keeping the traditional term for practical reasons.

  3. […] it or not, I pulled these quotes together completely separate from Micheal Palmer’s post on Middle Voice. In fact, I compiled them the day before he even posted and while we have been known to e-mail each […]

  4. I want to make sure that my comparison between the Greek middle voice and the Spanish reflexive should NOT be taken to suggest that they are equivalent. My point was only that the Greek middle is a lot more like the Spanish reflexive than it is like the English reflexive and that calling it the “reflexive voice” would create little confusion in Spanish, but a great deal of confusion in English.

    Consider this example from Matthew 2:4 where the Greek middle parallels a reflexive in neither English nor Spanish.

    ἐπυνθάνετο παρ᾽ αὐτῶν ποῦ ὁ χριστὸς γεννᾶται.
    Les preguntó donde habrá de nacer el Cristo.
    He asked them where the Christ was to be born.

    The verb ἐπυνθάνετο is middle voice here, but its translation is not reflexive in either Spanish or English. The reason it is middle voice in Greek, though is clear. Herod requests this information for his own use, his own benefit.

    1. Suzanne Kemmer in The Middle Voice, nicely distinguishes reflexive from middle usage in languages that use refexive constructions to express middle sense.

      1. I have not had the opportunity to read Kemmer’s book, and at $68.00 for the paperback, I’m unlikely to get to soon. Perhaps I’ll find it in a nearby library this summer.

        Here’s a link to the book’s page at John Benjamins:

  5. […] the “problem” of deponency and/or the middle voice in ancient Greek. One blogger even suggests that we use a different word than “middle”, which is a dumb idea, because “middle […]

  6. Kent Andersen

    Our gramatical terms stem ultimately from the grammar attributed to Dionysios Thrax. The form of the verb which everyone calls the “middle” is uneqivocally called “passive” (pathos) by Thrax. His examples are túpto: (energeia, active) and túptomai (pathos, passive). Nowhere in the entire Greek and Roman grammatical literature is there ever mention of the so-called “aorist passive” in Greek which is also active in form. Unknown (or simply ignored) to most is also the fact that Thrax clearly states that there are two and only two diathesis of the onoma (nouns and adjectives). Can anyone explain why the verb should have three diatheses, but the noun and adjective only two?

    1. Thanks for bringing up Dionysios Thrax’ discussion of this topic. There is no reason to assume that the number of “diathesis” should be the same for nouns and verbs, but I’ll have to go back and reread his discussion of voice to respond more fully.

      By the way, you can read his discussion in Greek here. To go directly to the relevant section on voice, try this Greek wiki.

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