“Deponent” is a Spurious Category

I’ve seen a few posts lately regarding the “problem” of deponency and/or the middle voice in ancient Greek. One blogger even suggests that we use a different word than “middle”, which is a dumb idea, because “middle voice” is a term of art, with a specific meaning that has only a tenuous relationship to the ordinary use of the word.

To a linguist, this is all very bemusing. Trying to build elaborate models and explanations to help English speakers wrap their minds around the idea that ancient Greek speakers used middle or passive constructions in contexts where English would use the active is just pandering to Anglo-centrism — all the models are attempting to explain Greek in terms of the writers’ English-language categories.

Look, folks, news-flash: ancient Greek is NOT English! The categories of ancient Greek are not those of English, and the ancient Greeks’ reasons for using a particular voice in a particular situation may simply be quite different from those of modern-day English-speakers.

And they may indeed have not had reasons! Far more of language is made up of arbitrary convention than most scholars of language would like to admit. A search for “reasons” (or “deep structure”, cough cough) is often at best an exercise in historical linguistics.

It might have been better had Greek been further grammatically from English — it’s hard to shoehorn an ergative-absolutive system, for example, into English-speakers’ conceptual framework — they just have to learn it on its own terms.

So in teaching ancient Greek it’s not a cop-out to say “that’s just how they did it”. The idea of “deponency” is actually a barrier to thinking in ancient Greek, because it tries to keep the learner using English concepts, instead of forming Greek concepts! I think sometimes language pedagogy goes overboard in trying to teach systems of rules. Languages are in general messy, and the most useful and interesting parts of language are often exceptions to the rules.

I’m brushing up on my Attic Greek right now by going through Reading Greek, which I cannot recommend highly enough, but for my own amusement, I’m not bothering with making sure I’ve got all the paradigms, or even memorizing new vocabulary. Of course, I did have the advantage of memorizing lots of paradigms back in school days, but I’m surprised at how much structure and vocab I’ve been picking up simply inductively. It helps that the texts are interesting, colourful and thus memorable.

Fun with False Friends

I’m finding my study of Attic Greek also helping a lot to get back into Koine. Shortly after reading some discussions of diglossia in modern Greece, I was reading the Didache, and came across the following conclusive proof-text:

παγὶς γὰρ θανάτου ἡ διγλωσσία

There you have it. Diglossia is a deadly snare :-)

Update: even better:

τέκνον μου, μὴ γίνου … μαθηματικὸς … εκ γὰρ τούτων ἁπάντων εἰδωλολατρία γεννᾶται

“My child, do not become … a mathematician … for from all that comes idolatry.” Could have used that advice before I went to university!