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Testing the boundaries of the middle voice: Observations from English and Romanian

  • Andreea S. Calude EMAIL logo
From the journal Cognitive Linguistics


The middle voice has received ample attention in the literature, yet the precise boundary between middle voice and other related constructions still remains elusive. For example, do sentences like Mary slept (*herself) well last night and Mary washed (herself) thoroughly and expertly belong to the middle voice or the reflexive domain, or are they simply intransitive one-participant structures? While ambiguity between reflexive and middles has been noted by (Kemmer, Suzanne. 1993. The middle voice. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.), I show that the problem is more widespread. Depending on the marking patterns available in a given language, such ambiguities can occur between middles and prototypical intransitive one-participant events, or between middles and reflexives. Using data from two languages with distinct marking patterns – English (a language with a reflexive marker but no middle marker) and Romanian (a language with one marker of each type) – I discuss the possibility of distinguishing middles from other related constructions. In English, it is shown that the him/herself test can be used to distinguish direct middles from intransitive one-participant events. In Romanian, we see middle and reflexive markers used together in the same construction without contradiction, bringing together both middle and reflexive semantics (as well as marking). In agreement with (Maldonado, Ricardo. 2000. Spanish reflexives. In Zygmunt Frajzyngier & Traci Walker (eds.), Reflexives: Forms and functions, 153–185. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.) and (Manney, Linda. 2001. Middle voice in Modern Greek: Meaning and function of a morphoyntactic category. Amsterdam &Philadelphia: John Benjamins.), the account given here supports the view of the middle voice as a unified phenomenon, and following (Maldonado, Ricardo. 2009. Middle as a basic voice system. In Lilian Guerrero, Ibáñez Sergio & Belloro Valeria (eds.), Studies in role and reference grammar. México: Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, UNAM.), the main function of the middle is to profile the core properties of events (but not necessarily to reduce the relative elaboration of participants, as proposed by Kemmer, Suzanne. 1993. The middle voice. Amsterdam &Philadelphia: John Benjamins.). So, unlike active and passive voice which concern the focusing of various participants (namely, Agents and Patients, respectively), the middle voice focuses the event itself.


I am grateful to Gerry Delahunty for discussion of the data and for various readings of the manuscript, to Alison Southby for editorial suggestions, and to the anonymous referees and journal editor whose helpful comments have helped me enormously in developing my arguments and ideas. I also acknowledge Frank Lichtenberk who first introduced me to the middle voice and even though he is no longer here to help guide me in person, his memory will always be with me in this and all other work I do. As always, the usual disclaimers apply.

Appendix A. Glossary of abbreviations


first/second/third person

emphatic pron.

emphatic pronoun






middle marker


past tense





Appendix B. Additional examples from Romanian

Romanian middles

1.Ion s-a desenat uitîndu-se în oglindă.John drew himself [by] looking in the mirror.
2.Ion s-a dezamăgit aşa de repede.John became discouraged quickly.
3.Ion s-a speriat de uriaş.John got scared by the giant.
4.Maria se vede in oglindă.Maria sees herself in the mirror.
5.Maria s-a citat adeasea.Maria has cited herself often.
6.Maria se luptă din greu.Maria is fighting hard.
7.Maria se luptă cu Marius.Maria is fighting with Marius.

Romanian reflexive emphatic middles

8.Ion s-a desenat pe el însuşi azi dimneaţă.John has drawn himself this morning.
9.Ion s-a dezamăgit pe sine însuşi.John has disappointed himself.
10.Ion s-a speriat de sine însuşi trântind uşa.John scared himself slamming the door.
11.Maria se vede pe sine însăşi în oglindă.Maria sees herself in the mirror.
12.Maria s-a citat pe sine însăşi adeasea.Maria has cited herself often.
13.Maria se luptă cu sine însăşi.Maria is fighting hard with herself.


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Received: 2016-4-26
Revised: 2016-12-4
Accepted: 2017-2-21
Published Online: 2017-10-21
Published in Print: 2017-11-27

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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