5

I was wondering how so-called "middle constructions" like the English ones exemplified in (1), which are typically translated with a reflexive verb in Romance languages (e.g., see the Catalan examples in (2)), are expressed in Latin. See also this video for a very basic introduction to so-called "middle constructions" (in the sense of (some) recent linguistic literature).

(1) a. Whales frighten easily.

b. These dishes break easily.

c. Messages transmit rapidly.


(2) a. Les balenes s'espanten fàcilment.

b. Aquests plats es trenquen fàcilment.

c. Els missatges es transmeten ràpidament.


As pointed out by Levin (1993: 5), only causative verbs of change (e.g., frighten, break, open, dry, etc.) typically enter into the so-called "middle construction" (in the sense of the abovementioned links). For example, according to her, stative verbs (e.g., see, believe, etc.) do not typically enter into this construction (e.g., *Whales see easily is ill-formed).

I was wondering (i) whether a similar set of "middle constructions" can be identified in Latin and (ii) whether similar semantic restrictions like the ones pointed out above by Levin apply to their equivalent Latin constructions (e.g., reflexive and/or mediopassive constructions, constructions with deverbal adjectives ending with -bilis suffix, etc.).

NB I: here I'm specifically interested in those "middle constructions" that receive this (appropriate or not!) label in the (recent) linguistic literature above (e.g., see the links above). I.e., although it is related to this topic, my question is not whether there is a "middle voice" in Latin.

NB II: so-called "middle constructions" (again defined in the sense of links above) are typically separated from so-called "anticausative/ergative constructions" (see this link): for example, the former can be formed from agentive verbs, whereas the latter can't (e.g., cf. the well-formedness of These horses saddle easily vs. the ill-formedness of *These horses saddled easily. NB: the verb saddle (meaning 'to provide with a saddle') is necessarily agentive).

  • 1
    Perhaps of interest: thepatrologist.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/… – Ethan Bierlein Dec 13 '19 at 15:10
  • @EthanBierlein Thanks for this interesting document. I've taken a look at it and I've realized that it basically deals with the connection between (historical) "middle voice" and Latin deponent verbs. However, I've been unable to see any reference to the treatment of so-called "middle constructions" in the sense of the links/video above. – Mitomino Dec 13 '19 at 17:52
  • The basic answer is that Latin had already lost the middle voice, if it ever had any. Are you interested in the various substitutions under which the middle voice could be subsurmized, or only in the specific examples. I mean, I thought Spanish "the vase broke itself" was a proper continuation of middle voice, which McWorther talking about reflexive pronouns has compared to "the car broke down on me" – vectory Dec 14 '19 at 22:15
  • @vectory As noted above, so-called "middle constructions" (e.g., These dishes break easily) are different from ergatives (e.g., These dishes broke). The former have a generic meaning and often require an adverbial expression (e.g., easily). As noted above, agentive verbs can enter into the middle construction but not in the ergative one: cf. the well-formation of These books {read/sell} well vs. the ill-formation of *These books {read/sold}. Note that "the vase broke (by itself)" (or its Romance equivalent with reflexive) is not a middle construction (in the sense above). – Mitomino Dec 15 '19 at 17:23
  • 1
    @vectory You're right. In some cases it is not always easy to distinguish them formally. Some nice contrasts given in the first link above are: cf. *The glass broke with a hammer (ergative) with This glass breaks easily with a hammer (middle). The former is ungrammatical, whereas the latter is ok. This contrast has to do with the fact that ergatives are incompatible with instrumentals, which require an agent, whereas middles are compatible with them. That's why middles are compatible with agentive verbs (These books read/sell easily), whereas ergatives aren't (*These books read/sold). – Mitomino Dec 16 '19 at 19:16
0

These "middle constructions" look like using transitive verbs intransitively. To do this in Latin you would use either the reflexive pronoun se or the passive form of the verb.
Example:
The cat opens the door. Feles ianuam aperit.
The door opens. Ianua se aperit.

There are some more examples in the book Bradley's Arnold Latin Prose Composition

| improve this answer | |
  • The examples you've provided exemplify the so-called "causative alternation" (cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causative_alternation ). Please note that the reflexive variant here (also called "anticausative" or "ergative", i.e., the one without the causer (e.g., feles 'the cat')) does not exemplify the middle construction (in the sense given above). Please see above for some remarks on the need of distinguishing "middles" from "ergatives" (see my Nota Bene II above and also some comments posted below my question). – Mitomino Dec 18 '19 at 16:11
  • Please see also my previous post on a related question (latin.stackexchange.com/questions/9421/… ). The intransitive examples there are not examples of "middle constructions" (in the sense above, i.e., in the one given in (some) recent linguistic literature). – Mitomino Dec 18 '19 at 16:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.