Clarifying Allan & Kemmer on Middle Voice: Markedness

Two important questions came up during the SBL panel discussion on deponency that are worth commenting on here at length. One was the challenges of polysemy: is it more helpful to describe the middle voice in terms of a single broad meaning or in terms of multiple meanings or usages? The other was the question of the relationship between the active and the middle, that it seemed problematic that there are numerous active verbs that could be viewed as being “subject affected”—precisely the term used for describing the middle. If the term can be used to describe both diatheses, how can the term be viewed as meaningful. The first of these questions was put forward by Stanley Porter in his paper and the second was stated by Jonathan Pennington, either in the Q&A session or in his paper I can’t remember which it was.

What is striking about both these questions is that both have already been addressed and dealt with in the published research of Rutgar Allan (The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study of Polysemyalt) and Susanne Kemmer (The Middle Voice [Typological Studies in Language]). The second issue is the most easily explained since Allan makes clear his approach to the issue quite plainly early on in his work. And it is that second issue of markedness that is at the forefront of our discussion here.

Middle Voice & Markedness

He devotes five pages to the question of subject affectedness and markedness and then discusses it sporadically through the entire volume. In a nutshell, Allan holds that the key to understanding subject affectedness as a semantic property of the Greek middle is to view it through the lens of asymmetrical markedness. Those of you who have followed Steve Runge’s blog or picked up his recently published grammar (Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament) should probably already have a good idea about what markedness is. To quote Steve:

Markedness is an organizational framework for taking a complex set of data and organizing it into meaningful groupings to facilitate description of the members. The organization is accomplished by taking the most simple, basic member of the set, and using it as the canon against which the other members are contrasted. The most basic member is referred to as the default. The other members of the set are then described by how each differs from the default and from the other members. The default option is the one used when, to paraphrase the Hallmark commercial, “you do not care enough to send the very best.” In other words, when there is nothing special that one wants to signal as present, the default is the natural choice. For this reason, the default is generally the most frequently occurring member of the set. It does not signal or mark the presence of any special feature. In this way the default is also called the unmarked option.

Within this framework, Allan regards the Greek active as the unmarked member of the set and the middle is the marked member. For the middle, Allan regards subject affectedness as always being present, but for the active, subject affectedness might be present or it might not. The active simply says nothing about its presence in either direction. To quote Allan directly on this:

Since the active voice can occur in environments in which the subject is affected (contextual neutralization), it can be concluded that the active is unspecified as to the semantic feature subject-affected­ ness. Conversely, the middle voice is semantically marked with respect to affectedness of the subject. As a consequence, event types that do not involve subject-affectedness cannot be expressed by a middle verb (29).

Allan’s claim is that while active verb may or may not appear in contexts where the subject if affected, middle verbs must always appear in contexts where the subject is affected.

With this in mind, I have no intention to criticism Pennington. Quite the contrary. He came to his (correct) conclusions about the problems of deponency on his own with no outside influence and thus was not familiar with the work of Rutgar Allan until only recently. Pennington is to be commended for his independent and collaborating research on the Greek middle.

So that’s one problem with subject-affectedness taken care of. What about the other? What about the problem of polysemy? Because this post is already moving toward the long side, I’ll deal with that in the next post. Don’t worry, it’ll appear soon. Much of it is already written.

5 thoughts on “Clarifying Allan & Kemmer on Middle Voice: Markedness

  1. I’m suffering from some discomfort about the word, “polysemy,” in particular, with a distinction between what it is and what it is not.I think my own suspicion that the “Active” forms are unmarked must have come
    simultaneously with Allan’s; it came of noting that ἀποθνῄσκω and πίπτω and πάσχω are frequently used with the ὑπὸ + genitive agent construction, and that ἐγείρομαι is ordinarily middle in the sense, “awake, rise”, active in the causative sense “awaken, raise” — but the present imperative active is more frequent than the present middle in the sense, “get up.”

    1. I made the mistake of beginning to write this post with the intent of discussion polysemy along side markedness with markedness first (as you see here) and then polysemy second. But both sections grew a little large in length for a blog post. I’ll be putting up the rest of it hopefully this evening, assuming that work doesn’t take up too much of my time.

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