Deponent Verbs Are Not Random

John Kuhner |

Thinking About Why They Are Passive Often Yields Good Results

Are these sheep being active or passive? (source)
Are these sheep being active or passive? (source)

When I first learned deponent verbs, I was led to consider them as yet more arbitrary drudgery that Latin inflicted on innocent students. “Yes, you spent all that time learning that -r/-ris/-tur means ‘passive,’ well now for these verbs it means ACTIVE. Abandon all hope, you’ll never learn Latin!” I also learned a basic definition: deponent verbs are passive in form but active in meaning.

I do not believe these things now. I now believe that deponent verbs are often meaningful, sometimes deeply meaningful. I do agree that they are passive in form, but I think they are generally not active in meaning, because the meaning they represent is, in general, not actually active.

Let me start with the obvious example. Nascor, nasci, natus sum (to be born) is a deponent verb. It has only passive forms. But does it have an active meaning? In English, “to be born” is passive (deriving from the verb “bear”). Neither in English nor Latin can these verbs take a direct object. They are not active. Nascor is passive in form and passive in meaning. The only thing unusual about it is that it has no active forms.

Philosophically, this makes sense. Being born is not something we do; it is something that happens to us. We are the recipient of the action.

Morior, mori, mortuus sum (to die) is also deponent. There are no examples of its active forms being used. The Vulgate says omnes moriuntur (“all die”). You can’t say omnes moriunt. Neither in English nor in Latin can these verbs take a direct object, but there is no doubt that in English “die” is an active verb. You are not died; you die. In Latin, however, only the passive form exists. Which better describes the phenomenon of death? In English, death is something you do; in Latin it is something that happens to you. Philosophically, I think there are reasons for preferring the Latin conception. Most significantly, it does not appear to be merely randomly passive any more than nascor is randomly passive. Both are passive in form and also passive in meaning.

We may add patior, pati, passus sum (to suffer) and apricor, apricari, apricatus sum (to sunbathe) to this category as well. Many more can go in here. The passive form of the verb is a better reflection of the meaning it portrays than the English active form (or Latin active form, when it exists). This is one of the reasons why learning a language with a different structure is so satisfying: you encounter a different way of expressing the human experience, perhaps one that is better than the one you are used to.

Let’s get a bit further into the less clear cases. Sequor, sequi, secutus sum (to follow) and its intensified cousin persequor, persequi, persecutus sum (to pursue, to persecute) sure sound like they should be active verbs. To follow or to pursue implies energy and action. Their English equivalents are active. They frequently take a direct object to complete their meaning. Why would they look passive? The answer is that the Romans felt the phenomenon “following” as fundamentally passive: another way of saying “being led.”

Once you see this, you see other verbs formed along the same pattern. Imitor, imitari, imitatus sum (to imitate) means that the real source of the action is not in the imitator but the imitator’s subject. Interpretor, interpretari, interpretatus sum (to translate, to interpret) makes the interpreter the recipient of what is spoken or written by someone else. Morigeror, morigerari, morigeratus sum (to be nice to, to pleasure someone) means to follow the dictates or whims of someone else.

From here you can see the idea of a deponent verb, and how this idea made the Romans feel that certain verbs maybe should be deponent, even if they came from non-deponent verbs. Sentio, sentire, sensi, sensus means to have a sensation; but assentio (to feel in accordance with something) came to mean to agree with someone, and sure enough the deponent form assentior had taken over before the days of Varro. If agreeing with someone, assentior, was deponent, then it made sense that disagreeing (adversor) could be too, or even arguing with someone (altercor, rixor). Similarly, you need another person if you are going to wrestle (luctor), or have a rivalry with someone (aemulor), or make an agreement with someone (paciscor).

Another idea seems to hide in these deponent verbs, which is the idea of doing an action for one’s own personal benefit. The grammatical subject is the recipient, in this sort of verb, of the benefits of the action. Lucror, to make a profit, would be the classic example of this sort; utor and fruor as well. It represents another shade of meaning in the philosophy of deponent verbs. These Latin verbs seem to emphasize the passive side of these actions. For instance, utor means something very much like “to use” in English. But it emphasizes something like “to derive benefit from, to get utility from.” And so in Latin it is completely acceptable to use a phrase like “uti amicis,” to use your friends. This does not mean you are treating them like expendable tools. It means you derive benefit from their presence in your life. Understanding the deponent idea can help you understand the Latin idiom better than a mere word-for-word translation will.

Let me offer one more general category of deponent verbs: those which imply a unit of measure. As the types of the genus we can use metor, metari, metatus sum and metior, metiri, mensus sum (to measure). The implication appears to be that using a predetermined unit implies some kind of passivity: the person doing the measuring is not the actual standard of measure. This probably explains otherwise completely opaque deponents such as gradior, gradi, grassus sum (to traverse a certain number of steps).

This idea brings us also to the deponent verbs of speaking, one of the most mysterious groups. They probably mean speaking with words, which implies some kind of imitation of someone else. Babies can make sounds; but they are infantes, creatures who cannot use words (for, fari, fatus sum).

Wiktionary lists 588 Latin deponent verbs. If you look at the list, you will note that large numbers of them begin with the prefixes ad- and con-, which confirms how frequently the source of action is outside the subject. Nevertheless, all these ideas and all this philosophy do not mean that everything in a human language is intelligible or intelligent. Some deponent verbs may once have had a reason for being deponent, but that reason has been obscured by the later development of the language. An example might be urinor, urinari, urinatus sum. The word means “to dive into water.” Knowledge of the etymology, however, makes the reason for its passive appearance clearer. Urina was the old word for water; urinari meant to be wetted by something. Later its meaning narrowed. The result is the same — if you jump into water you do get wet — but why it would be passive has become obscure. (Its relationship to the noun urina also became obscure: the noun also narrowed its meaning, from water to urine.) I am sure that many other verbs originally had a reason for being passive which I simply cannot reconstruct. And perhaps on some occasions they are truly arbitrary, the caprices of the people who invented them, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I can see why confiteor would be deponent (I am made to confess), but I am made to confess that I cannot see any reason for vagor (to wander) to be deponent.

Philosophizing about deponents may have a limit. But it is worth doing: I am convinced that you can experience the meaning of many of these verbs more accurately when you understand why they appear in a passive form. For those who are just starting out, I promise that it gets better: once deponent verbs made me feel indignant (indignor) and angry (irascor), but in the end through them I have been brought to wonder (miror) and happiness (laetor).

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res. He is working on a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is Editor of In Medias Res. Formerly president of SALVI, he is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.


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