I've read that Icelandic and Old Norse have a middle voice, so I wanted to know if either or both of these distinct grammatical features existed in Old English.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_(grammar)#Middle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediopassive_voice


As far as I can tell from what Mitchell & Robinson say in A Guide to Old English, no.

Verb forms in OE only have one voice - the active voice. The one exception is the word hātte (is called, was called).

If someone wanted to indicate the passive voice in OE, using any other verb besides hātte, they'd either

  • use man (one, one person, someone, anyone) alongside the verb in the active voice, or
  • they'd use 'to be' or 'to become' alongside a past participle.

I suppose that just because Mitchell & Robinson don't mention a 'middle voice' doesn't mean that OE writers never indicated things which would take a middle voice in a language that has a form for it. Perhaps someone else can comment more knowledgeably on that.

  • 1
    Isn't "hātte" just an intransitive verb? The fact that it's translated into modern English as a passive ("is called") isn't sufficient to say that it's passive in Old English. – herisson Jul 15 '19 at 19:29
  • 2
    sumelic, that may be true. I'm not an expert, but I happened to have a copy of A Guide to OE on my desk when I saw this question, so my answer is a summary of what I found there. Mitchell and Robinson do call hātte a "true passive". They say: "One true passive form survives from an earlier stage of the language, viz. hātte..." (Mitchell & Robinson, §89). – rainejen Jul 15 '19 at 19:46
  • Oh, I see! I hadn't realized that – herisson Jul 15 '19 at 20:00
  • Great source. Indeed, there is no morphological passive. Passive voice is almost all periphrastic or contextual in OE. In Hogg and Alcorn, An Introduction to Old English (2012), they say the same thing (esp. p. 83-4). "Despite the above [that passive voice was formed from periphrasis or from using man], there did exist in Old English one morphological passive, namely ha ̄tte , hatton , passive forms of ha ̄tan ‘call’. ... It is probably foolish to attach too much importance to this morphological passive. It looks rather like an idiomatic relic." – TaliesinMerlin Jul 15 '19 at 21:03

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