The Middle Voice and Transitivity

On April 6, 2016 reader David Mccollough raised a question about the connection between the middle voice and intransitivity. Since his question elicited a short discussion that may be of interest to many readers, I am reproducing it here.

παυσονται in 1 Cor 13:8
Because it is intransitive, am I correct in translating the middle voice as simply, “they will stop”? Is it linguistically erroneous to insert the idea, “stop for themselves”?
Thank you!

I answered David’s question with a short, and incomplete comment on the function of the middle voice and transitivity in relation to the verb παύω / παύομαι.

Your question is a great one. And you are correct that παυσονται in 1 Corinthians 13:8 is intransitive and its best equivalent in English would be simply “they will stop” rather than “stop for themselves.”

To translate it as “stop for themselves” would not add anything terribly significant since “they will stop” already communicates that they will stop themselves, rather than stopping someone else, and “stop for themselves” would also sound forced and artificial in English.

I think you are reading the middle voice form very well here. It communicates intransitive. It does not place particular emphasis on the subject in this context.

By the way, παύω is only used one time in the active voice in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:10), and there it has the same causal sense that it has in the active voice in the literature outside the New Testament. When παύω appears in the active voice it has a direct object. That is, it is transitive. In 1 Peter 3:10 the direct object is τὴν γλῶσσαν. One of the functions of the middle voice for παύω is to make the verb intransitive.

The text of 1 Peter 3:10 that I refer to here is 

παυσάτω τὴν γλῶσσαν ἀπὸ κακοῦ
καὶ χείλη τοῦ μὴ λαλῆσαι δόλον
Let them stop the tongue from speaking evil
and the lip(s) from speaking deceit.

David followed up focussing the question more directly on the issue of intransitivity and adding a further example requiring a more precise answer.

Thank you again for your reply! Am I correct in understanding that the middle voice serves to mark intransitivity? That is, if I were writing Koine Greek, and I wanted to write something intransitive, I would most naturally use the middle voice?

However, I did find an instance where there is intransitivity but active voice – Genesis 8:22 θέρος καὶ ἔαρ ἡμέραν καὶ νύκτα οὐ καταπαύσουσιν. 

This follow up was great because it added an example of παύω used intransitively in the active voice. At the time I responded as follows.

This [the use of the middle voice to mark intransitivity] is one of it’s possible functions. It has others, though.

It’s basic function is to indicate that the subject is not only the AGENT of the action expressed by the verb, but is also impacted in some way by that action. This is the relation that lies behind many supposedly “deponent” verbs (better called “lexical middle” verbs) such as ἔρχομαι. When one “goes” somewhere, she or he does the going and ends up in a new location (being directly impacted by the going). So there is nothing defective about these verbs (the meaning behind the term “deponent”). They just fit the usage of the middle voice very well in all of their contexts.

This same relation is also characteristic of very many intransitive verbs in English. In the English sentence “He fell,” the subject “he” is impacted by the falling.

The same is generally true in ancient Greek, but there are clear exceptions. The verb πίπτω (fall) appears in the middle voice ONLY when the effect on the subject is in strong focus. See for example Matthew 10:29, 15:14, and 24:29; Luke 14:5, 21:24). The only place it is used in the middle voice in the New Testament outside those listed here is Revelation 4:10 where the same argument could be made, though it is less clear. In all other instances, πίπτω appears in the active voice despite its natural fit for the middle voice meaning.

Reading this response two years after David’s original question, I realize that I failed to address the example he raised! While I gave a similar example using a different verb, I did not discuss the use of παύω in Genesis 8:22.

It’s time to rectify that omission now.

Here’s the text, along with my translation of it:

πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τῆς γῆς
σπέρμα καὶ θερισμός,
ψῦχος καὶ καῦμα,
θέρος καὶ ἔαρ
ἡμέραν καὶ νύκτα
οὐ καταπαύσουσιν.

All the days of the Earth
seed and harvest
cold and heat
summer and winter
day and night
will not cease.

Τhe verb here is καταπαύω rather than simply παύω, but the semantics are similar. The usage in Genesis may seem slightly unusual given that καταπαύω generally has a causal sense in the active voice, implying something like “put an end to” or “quell” when referring to an ongoing process as it does here and that a middle voice form would be a perfectly natural fit for this context, but the active form can also be used intransitively.

While the middle voice does provide an easy way to give a transitive verb an intransitive meaning, it is not a requirement. Some verbs that are normally transitive, like παύω can occasionally appear as intransitive even in the active voice.

What do you think? Other readers and I would love to hear from you.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.