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sequi as an example is a deponent verb. All forms are translated active, but look like passive forms.

Is this a feature of the Latin language (i.e. were contemporary linguists aware of such a feature) or was the verb sequi simply passive, but we as translators do not have a passive verb for "to follow" in English or other languages and thus need to translate such deponents differently?

An example for what I mean here are self-reflexive verbs: To get used to in english is not reflexive. (I got used to the new president). In German, on the contrary, it is (Ich gewöhnte mich an den neuen Präsident). Here, reflexivity is something I need to know as a German translator when translating the above sentence into German, but an English speaker wouldn't be aware of that.

Is this the same with deponents?

2 Answers 2

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Indeed, historically deponents are descended from a middle/reflexive voice. In historical usage, though, deponents lost this, and can take a direct object. See e.g.:

With plenty other examples, and even verbs like uti can take an accusative in some situations.

One could argue that the forms themselves make the distinction, but functionally, for some of these deponents, there isn't one, and te sequor is grammatically equivalent to e.g. te amo or any other active verb with an accusative for a direct object.

This isn't limited to Latin, though, but is a character of Proto-Indo-European, as Sihler notes in § 414:

In some forms the middle developed a special sense, for example *sekwetor orig. *'keeps in sight' (root *sekw- 'see, view) but already in PIE with the sense 'follows'—perhaps specifically a hunting term—whence G. ἕπομαι, L. sequitur, Ved. sacate, OIr. sechithir all 'follows'. This verb is incidentally an example of a whole type, the so-called deponent verbs, that is, verbs which occur only in the middle voice. They are found in all IE languages that preserve the active/middle distinction in more than remnants, but L is peculiar in that the old middle function (in ossified form) is confined to deponents, and the middle forms that contrast with actives are only passive, a distinctly different category.

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The morphosyntactic behavior of Latin deponent verbs differs from that of passive non-deponent verbs for a few non-finite forms/constructions, where deponent verbs are conjugated the same way as active verbs.

According to "Deponent Verbs" from The Latin Library online (William L. Carey), deponent verbs use the same forms as active verbs for the present active participle, the future active participle and the future active infinitive (which is just the future active participle along with "sum").

So, taking sequor as an example, it is possible to distinguish it from a passive verb even without translating it by using the criterion that the present participle form "sequens" has approximately the same meaning as the relative clause "qui sequitur", while the passive of a non-deponent transitive verb has no corresponding present-participle form with the same meaning.

Some derived forms of deponent verbs also pattern like those of active rather than passive verbs: for example, agent nouns in -tor such as secūtor.


The fact that deponent verbs pattern differently in some respects from the passive versions of non-deponent verbs doesn't mean that they can't be grouped together; for comparison, in English, the category of "active verbs" includes verbs of different behavior such as transitive verbs, intransitive verbs like fall that have a past participle that can describe the state of the subject ("a tree that has fallen" ≈ "a fallen tree"), and intransitive verbs like walk that have a past participle that cannot be used to describe the state of the subject ("a student that has walked" ≠ *"a walked student").

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  • Good catch with the participle.
    – cmw
    Nov 5, 2017 at 18:11

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