What's Next for the Online Grammar?

Well… It’s been a long time since I’ve made any substantive changes to my online grammar. In part this has been because responsibilities at work have taken too much of my time. Another reason, though is that I’ve been struggling with what to do with the issue of voice.

My original intention was simply to convert to a form suitable for the web the old grammar that I wrote in the early ’90s. I intended to do very little editing. Shortly after I posted the lesson on passive voice, though, I realized that this is not a workable option. My views on voice have changed too much to simply post what I wrote back then. So… I have delayed further progress on the grammar till I can see how revising this part will affect the remainder of the lessons.

In the mean time, I hope to post here a few thoughts on particular verbs, especially ones that have middle voice lexical forms (present tense/aspect), but active voice forms for other principal parts. Take ἔρχομαι, for example. While it’s meaning fits nicely with the semantic value of the middle voice, and it consistently has middle voice forms in the present, its aorist forms are typically active voice (ἦλθον, etc.). If we dispense with the notion of “deponent” (as I think we should), how do we account for this variation of voice forms between tenses/aspects without going into too much detail for an introductory grammar?

4 Replies to “What's Next for the Online Grammar?”

  1. I applaud your decision against regurgitating traditional doctrines about ancient Greek voice, once you realize how inadequate they are. It is a very complicated subject, about which I’ve been struggling to figure out how best to formulate intelligibly what I’ve learned about the complexity. Your question about ἔρχομαι/ἦλθον goes straight to a major problem in our effort to make sense of voice morphology and usage. For one thing, Greek literature lays bare a lot of the linguistic history of a changing language and preserves lots of linguistic “fossils” from earlier eras of the language that have survived because they are staples of everyday discourse. Such is the word for “come” or “go.” Lots of Greek verbs, not ἔρχομαι alone, display principal parts filled in with suppletions — verb-forms from different roots than that of the standard lexical form (even in English, “went” serves as a past tense of “go” but actually derives from the same IE root as Latin _venire_). The root ἐλευθ/ἐλουθ/ἐλυθ has a middle future ἐλεύσομαι but an “active” (or default) aorist ἦλθον (older ἤλυθον) and and “active” (so-called “Attic”) perfect ἐλήλυθα (older ἐλήλουθα). As is generally recognized, “second” aorists and “second” perfects are “fossil” forms; the middle-passive perfect seems to be a late development; certainly many perfect “actives” are default perfect-tense forms of middle verbs, e.g. πείθομαι/πέποιθα “trust/obey”, γίγνομαι/γέγονα “come to be.” Although there are second-aorist middles that seem pretty old (e.g. ἐπιθόμην, ἐγενόμην, ἠγρόμην), the aorist “active” too may have been a default form. In fact, of course, the “active” is really a default form unmarked, the middle form is marked for subject-affectedness. Although it’s an old commonplace that Greek is a language of precision, it is a morphological monstrosity that never underwent the systematizing that Latin had in the second century B.C. and that Sanskrit evidently had in the era of the Upanishads. Making sense of Greek morphology is a bit like attempting to build a rectilinear urban layout in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains.

  2. Ah, yes. This complexity of morphological forms is precisely what makes an introductory grammar a real challenge. How do you do justice to the complexity while keeping it simple enough to be understandable to a beginning student?

    I’ll do my best, but feel free to criticize. An online grammar can be revised fairly inexpensively.

  3. This is a central question — one that I doubt will be dealt with as much as it needs to be at SBL with their panel discussion.

    In my database & computational morphology, I’m treating Actives and Middles as completely separate lexical classes. I’m not even treating them as derivationally related. This is mainly because its impossible to determine which is derived form the other: we have activa tantum verbs and media tantum verbs, and then verbs that look like the middles are the basis form with the active actually being causatives and then actives that look like a basis form with middles looking like passives.

    Then with issues like ἔρχομαι/ἦλθον, I’m simply treating them as suppletive. As I understand it, the most commonly used words in languages tend to be the most irregular and/or archaic in their lexical and inflectional forms.

    Anyway…my two cents.

    I haven’t been around much lately either. I’ve had my next post on pronominal clitics keeping me from writing anything else.

  4. Thanks, Mike and Carl.

    Sometime over the next couple of weeks I intend to replace the lesson on the aorist passive with one on middle voice forms. I’ll probably fail to present the issue as clearly as it could be presented, so feel free to criticize, and I will do my best to revise responsibly.

    I still have another week of classes before a short Summer break, so it may take a week or so to make any real progress.

Comments are closed.