Grammar Lesson of the Day: Deponent Verbs
Deponent verbs are the bane of the young Latin student’s existence. They take the form of the passive voice, but they have active meaning. And they are darned common: loquor, I speak; confiteor, I confess; morior, I die. Many of them are transitive verbs, and so they can take an object where the “look” of the verb wouldn’t suggest any. Why would the Romans have such a ridiculous thing?
Many of these verbs, though, really do occupy a middle space between active and passive. They are like Greek verbs in the middle voice, in which the subject is both acting and acted upon. Consider these sentences:
I hurt the quarterback.
I was hurt by her remark.
Notice the differences between the three? In the first, the true active voice, the subject is the agent of the verb. In the second, the true passive, the subject suffers the action of the verb. But in the third – what? The subject is the agent, because he’s actively experiencing something named by the verb; but he suffers the verb. “I’m hurting” does not mean “I am walking around the neighborhood punching people,” but “I am feeling hurt; something is hurting me.”
Most of the deponent verbs are of this sort. Consider: morior, I die. I’m agent and patient at once. Consider: sequor, I follow. Again, I’m doing something; but something at the same time is being done to me: I am made to come after someone else. Literally, I am made to come second. Consider obliviscor, I forget. When I forget something, I am not describing a change that takes place in it, but a change that takes place in me. The thing is wiped clean from the slate of my mind. But if I then remember it, again I’m the one that changes, and not the thing. My car keys are in my jacket pocket. I forgot that that’s where they were; the change is in me. They’re still sitting there. Now I remember that that’s where I left them. They don’t notice. They don’t move. I’m the one who moves – I walk over to my jacket, grumble, “What’s the matter with me today, anyhow,” and stumble out the back door. Consider: fieri, to become. That may be the definitive active-passive verb: when A becomes B, A is doing something: and something is being done to A.
Language isn’t always irrational, you see.
Now you may ask, “If there are Latin verbs with passive forms but active (or pseudo-active) meaning, are there verbs with active form but passive or pseudo-passive meaning?” Yes, there are, but we’re so used to them we don’t think of it much. I’ll talk more later about this delightful wrinkle in English. Consider these sentences:
Jacques Pepin cooks well.
Wild turkey cooks well.
Need I say more? “Moose is good eating,” said I to my new next door neighbor in the tundra.