I recently acquired the book Voice and Mood: A Linguistic Approach, by David L. Mathewson. Since I have been thinking and writing about voice recently, I thought I would give a sort of review and interaction with the voice part of this work. To keep it from being too long, I have broken it up into two posts. Here in Part 1 I will summarize Mathewson’s work. In Post 2, I will respond to Mathewson’s work in terms of its strong points and points which raise major questions for me.

First, to be clear, Mathewson’s book is not meant as an exhaustive discussion of voice. It is short enough to be used as a supporting book in the context of an intermediate/advanced seminary Greek setting. In other words, it is not a monograph-length treatment on voice (or mood), but a much shorter work that can be added into an already crammed Greek course.

Voice and Mood is the inaugural volume of what promises to be an interesting series called Essentials of Biblical Greek Grammar, edited by the influential Stanley Porter. Hopefully the series delivers further volumes in a timely fashion. The audience of the series can be surmised from the following excerpt where Stanley Porter explains the aim of the series:

This new and innovative set of volumes is designed to introduce scholars, students, and others who are interested in recent developments in Greek language studies to some of the most important topics in current discussion. This series is accessible and suitable for use in the classroom and in research.[1]

Voice and Mood: A Linguistic Approach, vii. Preface by Stanley Porter.

I emphasize introduce in this excerpt because that is all that this slim volume does. It is not meager or skimpy, but it is far from a full treatment of even the major issues open in current discussion. Instead, Mathewson gives signposts for those more interested, while carving out a novel approach of his own to the issue of voice in Greek. With approximately 70 pages (and fairly small pages at that) devoted to voice, this volume gives more direct discussion of voice than can be found in most grammars of Greek, but still leaves much to be uncovered and figured out by the reader.

I will begin with an outline of Mathewson’s proposal about the Greek voice system.

Mathewson on Voice in Greek

Mathewson works within the Systemic Functional Linguistic approach (SFL) to Greek. His overall approach to voice is indebted to Stanley Porter, Matthew O’Donnell, and a recent dissertation by Bryan Fletcher “Voice in the Greek of the New Testament.” Following Fletcher, Mathewson treats ergativity as central to understanding the Greek voice system. By ergative he is referring to actions which occur “from within” with no reference to external cause (31). In English, ergativity is limited to transitive/intransitive pairs of the sort seen here:

  1. Mary sailed the boat.
  2. The boat sailed.

In (1), there is an animate subject presented as responsible for the action. In (2), the subject is not responsible for the action, rather it is the entity through which the action of the verbal complex occurs. Sentence (2) is ergative, while (1) is not.

In terms I have used in other posts on voice here, in sentence (1) the subject is an agent and the object is the patient/recipient. While in sentence (2) the boat would require a different label since it is clearly not an agent, but it is also not the patient/recipient. That would be the case in the passive sentence:

  • 3. The boat was sailed by Mary.

In (3) the boat is the patient/recipient and Mary is the agent. We need to appeal to a different role to describe the nature of “boat” in sentence (2). In Mathewson’s scheme, he calls it the medium. The medium is the entity through which the action of the verbal complex occurs. (30) This gives language and a pattern to describe the difference between actions which are viewed as caused by an agent—both sentences (1) and (3) above—and those which are viewed as not caused by an external agent—sentence (2) above.

Ergativity, though, cannot be directly adopted from the English stream of SFL study (SFL originated in English study and often requires quite profound modification to work in Greek). In the English examples, ergativity is limited to transitive/intransitive pairs. However, in Greek this notion more closely maps to the different voices and, as we have already pointed out in a previous post, middle voice verbs in Greek can be either transitive or intransitive.

If you want a deeper dive into ergativity and voice, go get the book and check it out.

Where does this leave us with voice? Mathewson writes:

“Voice in Greek indicates a perspective on how a process is caused in relationship to the role of the subject within the verbal complex. Greek voice indicates where causality and agency lie in relationship to the S + V complex.”

Voice and Mood, 33

What is novel about this approach? In one sense, nothing really. In another sense, it is a tweak, a new way of tying together a lot of the data which is out there, to try to bring a clear presentation of the data.

Let’s look at the basic voice system Mathewson detects in Greek (38).

He envisions the voice network in Greek as the outcome of two choices. First, the choice is direct or indirect causality, which can be modeled as here, with ± Active, as the Active voice indicates direct causality. In the Active voice, the subject is the agent—the entity who/which causes the action of the verb. Since nobody really has trouble explaining most active voice verbs, we can jump over this and think briefly about the middle and passive.

If the choice is – Active, then we enter the territory where the subject is the medium. This term is likely unfamiliar (unless you are reading lots of stuff about SFL). This choice corresponds to the choice of presenting the grammatical subject of the sentence as a non-agent. What the middle and passive voice share in common, according to Mathewson, is that the subject is the medium in both of them, rather than the agent. Here we see a difference in the way he presents voice from the way other versions of functionalism applied to Greek have been doing so. In other versions, the middle voice is conceived of as indicating subject-affectedness. The subject is conceived of as the doer of the action with the affects of the action bending back to the subject.

Where the middle and passive differ is that the passive, like the active voice, involves the notion of an agent (may or may not be present in the text, but logically always present). The middle, by contrast, does not profile an agent external to the action at all.

“What distinguishes the two voices is the different perspective on causality and agency. With the passive voice there is an external agent and cause, expressed by a circumstantial element (a prepositional phrase), if specified. However, with the middle voice there is no external agency, and the action is internally caused (ergative). Or, with the middle voice the cause of the action originates within the medium + process complex, and agency is implicit with the medium and the process, whereas with the passive voice the cause the cause of the action originates outside of and external to the medium + process configuration.”

Voice and Mood, 35-36

I find this analysis interesting and definitely helpful as an overarching approach. While not yet a devoted follower, by any means, it will certainly influence my own thinking on voice.

In the next post, I will include more response and reaction to Mathewson’s work.