My second class in Koine Greek was taught by Jonathan Pennington. That name may not mean anything to you, but he was one of those on the forefront of the (semi-)recent (and still kind of on-going) discussion of voice in NT Greek circles. He focused on the problem presented by so-called “deponent” verbs (verbs with a “passive” form but an “active” meaning). I start here to point out that I have always been aware, for virtually my entire career in studying Greek, that the topic of voice in the Greek verbal system is riddled with issues. The traditional way of describing the Greek verbal system works great for Greek verbs that work like the active/passive voice system in English, but is remarkably unclear for those verbs which don’t. Knowing that is a long way from understanding the issues, and even further still from being able to evaluate the different ideas in different theories. As my Greek has grown over the years, I have kept cycling back to this topic, trying to tie things together at the level of theory and at the level of making sense of the broader field of Greek texts I keep reading. At the end of this post, I have listed some key entries into the field of voice which are worth perusing for further reading.

Recently, while pondering on voice again, some thoughts shown through clearly. At the outset, we need to have a clear idea of what voice is. More specifically, there is need to be clear whether we are talking about morphology or meaning. And here (as in so many areas of grammar study 😊), terminological confusion reigns.

Voice in Greek: Morphology vs. Meaning

A key place to start with voice in Greek is recognizing that the word “voice” does double-duty in descriptions of Greek. It is used to refer to both a morphological category and a meaning category. These categories overlap enough to make this terminological double-duty invisible when first learning, but the closer one looks the more problems one finds. In many grammars, it is not clear at all whether they are talking about morphology or meaning, and when. Embracing a distinction between morphology and meaning is helpful for how we talk about and think about voice. The categories of form and meaning overlap in complicated ways, making things muddier and muddier, and we should try to avoid muddying the waters by not be clear what we are talking about.[1]

Voice as MorphologynWith reference to morphology, the term “voice” describes the different sets of verb endings Greek has, traditionally called active, middle, and passive. Below is a table showing the different sets of endings which exist. Note that I provide two rows, one for the “present” and one for the “aorist.” This is pretty important! I am ignoring the Perfect, since its endings are the same as the imperfective aspect system’s, and it is less vexed in its usage.

Imperfective-ω -εις -ει -μεν -τε -ουσιν-μαι -σαι -ται -μεθα -εσθε -νται

-μην -σο -το -μεθα -σθε -ντο
-μαι -σαι -ται -μεθα -εσθε -νται

-μην -σο -το -μεθα -σθε -ντο
Perfective-σα -σας -σε -σαμεν -σατε -σαν-μην -σο -το -μεθα -σθε -ντο-θην -θης -θη -θημεν -θητε -θησαν
Table of basic Greek voice endings

The mere layout of this chart is a good clue that something is afoot in the system, since there is not parity in the endings across the Greek verbal system.

In the imperfective aspect, there is a so-called primary and secondary set of endings. The primary endings are used with the Present forms and the secondary endings with the Imperfect forms. However, both these endings cover the same territory, in terms of voice. They both do double duty for the “middle” and “passive” voice. That means, in simple terms, that there is no morphological distinction between the “middle” and the “passive” voice in the imperfective aspect verb forms (present and imperfect “tenses”; or the perfect forms, for that matter). The distinction is entirely one of meaning and syntax.

By contrast, in the perfective aspect forms (aorist and, whether it really is perfective aspect or not, the future as well because it makes the same morphological distinctions), there are three distinct sets of endings. Here we have “active” endings and then endings which are traditionally called “middle” (same endings as the middle and passive in the imperfective aspect) and endings which are traditionally called “passive.” These “passive” endings have a -θη show up before the ending.

This traditional breakdown of the voices is based on the morphology of the verbal endings + semantic concerns. Morphology gives us three distinct voices in the perfective aspect forms and only two distinct voices in the rest of the verb system. As no grammar which I am aware of has argued that there are two voices in the present and three in the aorist, we see that the actual conceptualization of voice in Greek relies not on morphology alone, but a mix of morphology and meaning.

Voice as Meaning

The argument for three voices in the imperfective aspect system is based on meaning, rather than morphology. We can find examples of -μαι or -μην type verbs which are clearly middle in meaning and ones which are clearly passive in meaning.

Passive meaning with these endings is not at all difficult to find. Here is a random example pulled out of Matt. 3.9:

  • πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.
  • Therefore every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and is thrown into the fire.

It is obvious that the subject, “a tree,” is not the actor but is receiving the action. One could easily add a dative of means “is cut down with an axe” or an agent “is cut down by the gardener” to these instances.

By contrast, distinctly middle meanings—that is, usages of the word with these endings which are not passive—are much more difficult to find. Consider Matt. 21.26:

  • φοβούμεθα τὸν ὄχλον
  • We are afraid of the crowd.

Here the verb is decidedly not passive, as it includes an object (second argument). This instance illustrates what is true of a great deal of middle uses—they are shut up into certain verbs with certain types of meaning. Included in this category are various verbs formerly called “deponent” which only have a middle-passive form (at least in certain tenses). Outside of these lexically conditioned words, though, the middle voice is pretty weak.

So, I would surmise that the traditional presentation of voices is based on a mash-up of morphology and meaning. These two facets mingle with each other and strengthen each other. They provide a generally unified system, providing we exclude those verbs which do not fit easily in, and do not feel overly uncomfortable at our inability to describe what the middle voice is doing most of the time it is doing anything.

Up to this point, I have continued to beg the question of what voice is. It is time to address that more clearly.

What is voice?

To begin, let’s remind ourselves what we mean when talking about voice. If we keep mixing up meaning and morphology, our concept of voice stands in limbo between ending types and sentence types. Here I will use the following notion of voice, taken from SIL Glossary of Linguistics:

Voice is a grammatical category that expresses the semantic functions attributed to the referents of a clause. It indicates whether the subject is an

– actor

– patient, or recipient.

In short, voice refers to how the subject (and object, if present) of a sentence relates to the verb. In my view, voice is foundationally a meaning category (one could say, a property of sentences) which has a complex relationship to the morphological endings (one could say, a property of words). When working at understanding voice, we need to be asking things like, “Which part of the sentence is the actor, doing the actiton of the verb? Does this verb have a patient/recipient?

Key concepts for understanding voice

To talk about the meaning of voice, we need some conceptual apparatus which most of our Greek education has neglected to build, if only coming through basic grammar instruction (in English or in Greek). In such a course of instruction we become well adapted at talking about subjects and objects, but these are not as helpful in navigating what voice does. Consider the following example:

  1. John hit the ball.
  2. The ball was hit by John.

What this simple active—passive sentence pair illustrates is that the grammatical role of subject covers a rather wide ground of nouns with markedly different relationships to the action of the verb. In (1) John, the subject, performs the action. By contrast, the subject of (2) is acted upon. These two subjects play opposite roles in the sentence, yet both belong in the grammatical category subject. Talking about “subjects” in discussing voice does not easily allow us to see the way in which voice variation works.

To talk about voice, a different set of categories is more enlightening, one which aims to describe not the grammatical role (subject, object, etc.), rather the semantic role played by the different noun (phrases) in the sentence. The two key semantic roles we need for dealing with voice are:

  • actor
  • patient/recipient

The actor is that part of the sentence which performs the action. It is the source of the “energy” inherent in the verb being used. In an active sentence like (1) the actor is the subject; in a passive sentence like (2) the actor is either unexpressed or is expressed in a separate agent argument, but it is not the subject. The heart of passive voice is that the subject is not the actor.

The term patient/recipient is ready at hand for discussing the role of the subject in a passive sentence. A patient is acted upon, it is the recipient of the “energy” inherent in the verb being used. In passive sentences, the subject is the patient, rather than the actor. In this way, we can see that active and passives are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The subject of a passive sentence is the object of an active sentence. It is the patient/recipient of the action.

What we can see is that put in these terms, sentences (1) and (2) are mirror images of each other. While the grammatical role of the different nouns changes, their semantic roles do not.

  1. Actor[John] hit Recipient[the ball].
  2. Recipient[The ball] was hit Actor[by John].

So far so good. But how do we describe the role of the subject in a phrase like “He washed himself”? Here the subject is both actor and patient/recipient of the action of the verb. The subject performs an action, and is thus the actor, yet the subject also receives the action, and is thus patient/recipient. This is the one structure English has which is consistently close the middle voice in meaning. And, as pointed out in Part I of Musings on Voice, it is ironic that most Greek verbs do not even use the middle voice to communicate the subject acting upon themselves (the so-called “direct reflexive”).

Summary remarks

In this post we made an important distinction that voice is often used to talk about morphology and about meaning. While these overlap to some degree in Greek, there are all kinds of holes in the system. The most obvious being that only the aorist and future even have three voice forms. Thus, the notion of a middle voice in the rest of the Greek verbal system is driven by meaning and syntax (for example, a middle voice verb can have a patient/recipient [i.e., an object], while a passive does not), not by morphology at all.

The second important thing we did was to introduce some key concepts for thinking about voice. Voice has to do with how the noun phrases (the subject and object) relate to the main verb. The semantic roles of actor and patient/recipient are of greater use in discussing voice than the grammatical role of subject and object.

This is just a starting point. More thoughts on voice to come.

Reading suggestions

As promised, here are some works that are worth perusing when thinking about voice. Some more accessible than others, though, reader beware, none of these are easy reading!

Allan, Rutger J. “The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study in Polysemy.” Brill, 2003.

Aubrey, Rachel. “Motivated Categories, Middle Vice, and Passive Morphology.” In The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis, 563–625. Bellingham (WA): Lexham Press, 2016.

Aubrey, Rachel E. “Hellenistic Greek Middle Voice: Semantic Event Structure and Voice Typology.” Masters of Arts in Linguistics and Translation, Trinity Western University, 2020.

Benedetti, Marina. “Steps in the Middle (Voice): Ancient Greek Grammarians, Bopp and Beyond.” Historische Sprachforschung/Historical Linguistics 129 (2016): 154–69.

Horrocks, Geoffrey. “What’s in the Middle? Two Voices or Three in Ancient Greek?” Keria: Studia Latina et Graeca 22, no. 2 (2020): 7–23.

Emde Boas, Evert van, Albert Rijksbaron, Luuk Huitink, and Mathieu de Bakker. The Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Chapter 34.

Tronci, Liana. “Aorist Voice Patterns in the Diachrony of Greek: The New Testament as a Sample of Koine.” Journal of Greek Linguistics 18 (2018): 241–80.

[1] Some grammarians use distinct terms to refer to “voice-as-morphology” and “voice-as-meaning”, alternating between “voice” and “diathesis” (the English transliteration of the Ancient Greek grammarians term for “voice”). While this is a helpful idea, different grammarians and linguists use these terms in opposite ways, leaving us in the same problem of confused and confusing terminology.

[2] There is a deeper historical unity between the active endings as seen in the present and aorist verb forms, but that need not detain us here. First, the active voice is hardly the problematic one in description and second, these endings are what we actually see on Greek verbs (aside from the athematic, aka -μι verbs, which have yet again a deeper historical relationship to these endings but come out looking different).