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THE PROBLEM OF A MIDDLE VOICE




This problem arises chiefly in connection with the possible double use of a number of verbs in Modern English. Compare, for instance, such pairs of sentences as these:

I opened the door The door opened

I burnt the paper The paper burnt

I boiled the water The water boiled

We resumed the conference The conference resumed

We apply the rule to many The rule applies to many

cases cases

First let us formulate what is established and does not depend on anybody's point of view or interpretation, and then we will proceed to analyse the questions which admit of different solutions.

The facts, then, are these. In the sentences of the first and in those of the second column we have verb forms sounding alike but differing from each other in two important points:

(1) In the first column, the verb denotes an action which is performed by the doer on an object in such a way that a change is brought about in that object, for instance, the door was closed and then I acted in such a way that the door became open; the paper was intact, but I subjected it to the action of fire, and it was reduced to ashes, etc.

In the second column a process is stated which is going on in the subject itself: the door opened (as if of its own will), the paper disappeared in flames, etc. Compare, e. g., His camp had filled. (LINKLATER) The teas making. (L. MITCHELL)


120 The Verb: Voice

This, of course, is a difference in the relation between the subject and the action (and, for the first column, the object).

(2) In the first column, the verb is followed by a noun (or pronoun) denoting the thing which is subjected to the action denoted by the verb. In the second column, the verb is not followed by any noun (or pronoun). In the first column the verb is transitive, in the second column the verb is intransitive.

What we have said so far is nothing but an objective description of the state of things found in these sentences, no matter what theory a scholar may prefer.

Now we must turn our attention to the possible theoretical interpretation of these facts, and here the problem of voice will arise.

One possible interpretation is this. In every line we have in the two columns two different verbs which may be represented in some such way as: open1, verb transitive, open2, verb intransitive; burn1, verb transitive, burn2, verb intransitive, etc. If this interpretation were adopted, the whole problem would be shifted into the sphere of lexicology, and from the grammatical viewpoint we should have to state that open1 here stands in the active voice (correlative with was opened), and open2 has no voice distinction at all (since from the intransitive verb open2 no mutually opposed voice forms can be derived).



Another interpretation would run something like this. In both columns we have the same verb open, the same verb burn, etc. and the difference between the two is a difference of voice: in the first column it is the active voice (showing an action performed by the doer on the object), while in the second column it is the middle voice, denoting a process going on within the subject, without affecting any object. The difference between the voices, though not expressed by any morphological signs, would then be a difference in meaning and in syntactical construction, the active voice characterised by connection with a following noun or pronoun denoting the object of the action, and the middle voice characterised by the impossibility of connection with such a noun or pronoun. This interpretation would mean the admission of a special voice, the middle voice.

Still another interpretation would be the following. The verb in both columns is the same and the voice is the same, too, since there is no morphological difference between the two columns, and differences of meaning and of syntactical construction are not sufficient reason for establishing a difference of voice. If this view is accepted, we should have to define the category of active voice in such a way that it should include both the first-column and the second-column examples.

The choice between these interpretations depends on the principles which a scholar considers to be the most essential and the




The Problem of a Middle Voice 12t

most likely to yield an adequate picture of language facts. If, for instance, it is considered essential that a difference in grammatical categories should find its outward expression by some morpheme, etc., the second of the three suggested interpretations will have to be rejected. If, on the other hand, it is considered possible for two morphological categories to be distinguished in meaning and syntactical use without any special morphemes to show the distinction, that second interpretation will be found acceptable.

Without prejudice to the first or second interpretation, we will now follow up the third, which seems to present the greatest interest from a theoretical point of view. In doing so, we will assume that we do not accept either a reflexive or a reciprocal or a middle voice, so that only two voices are left, the active and the passive. If, then, we are to bring under the heading of the active voice such cases as the door opened, the paper burnt, the water boiled, etc., we shall have to give that voice a definition wide enough to include all uses of that kind as well (this may make it necessary to change the term for the voice, too).

Let us now consider the opposition between the voices: opened (in any sense)/ was opened; burnt (in any sense)/ was burnt from the point of view of meaning. It should at once be clear that the second member of the opposition (was opened, etc.) has a much more definite meaning than the first: the meaning of the type was opened is that the subject is represented as acted upon, whereas the meaning of the first member (opened, etc.) is much less definite. We could, then, say that opened is the unmarked, and was opened, the marked member of the opposition. The meaning of the unmarked member is, as has often been the case, hard to define. What seems the essential point in its meaning is, that the subject is represented as connected with the origin of the action, and not merely acted upon from the outside. Some such definition would seem to cover both the type he opened the door, and the type the door opened. Whether the subject produces a change in an object, or whether the action is limited to the sphere of the subject itself — all these and similar points would depend partly on the syntactical context (on whether the verb is followed by a noun / pronoun or not), partly on the lexical meaning of the verb and its relation to the lexical meaning of the noun expressing the subject (compare the old man opened... and the door opened), partly, probably, on a number of other factors which are yet to be studied. The question whether it is more advisable to keep the term "active voice" or to substitute another term for it would also have to be discussed.

If this view is adopted, all the special cases considered above: he shaved (in the reflexive meaning), they kissed (in the reciprocal meaning) would fall under the heading of the active voice (if this


122The Verb: Voice

term is kept) and their peculiarities would have to be referred to the context, the lexical meaning of the verb in question, etc.

The following phenomena would also belong here: the book sells well, the figures would not add, the rule does not apply in this case (as different from we do not apply the rule), and a number of others, which have been variously treated as ''absolute use", 1 use of the active form in a passive meaning, etc.

As to form, it has been already said above (p. 115) that the passive is the marked, and the active the unmarked member of the opposition. Thus, then, the passive is marked both in meaning and in form and the active as unmarked both in meaning and in form.

This solution of the voice problem in Modern English appears to be convincing. However the other interpretations (mentioned above as first and second) ought also to be reasoned out to their logical conclusions.

1 See M. Deutschbein, System der neuenglischen Syntax, S. 101, on such cases as the work does not pay.



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