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This week, we talk all about the middle voice and the many things that that covers, as well as give you all sorts of options to make your own creative use of this feature.  We also have a featured natlang today that has very interesting features as well as some hilarious crackpot historical theories around it.

Top of Show Greeting: Fäesek

Links and Resources:

Featured NATLANG: Burushaski (Wikipedia page)


Email from Thomas:


I just listened to your 52:nd episode, and heard you mention Kahless. I think it’s qeHleS in Klingon. I just thought it would be fun to mention that when I first read about Klingon lacking the k-sound, I wondered if Kahless was a pun. Klingon is actually k-less. There are many other puns in Klingon, like chang’eng “pair” from the siamese twins, but perhaps k-less is too far-fetched.

Thomas Lindroth, Sweden

Email from John:

Hi, I discovered your podcast recently and I’ve been listening to some of your archived episodes. In those early episodes, you reference “nooblangs,” and I was wondering, what are the hallmarks of a nooblang, and how can I tell if I’ve made one?


14 Responses to “Conlangery #58: Practicum — Things you can do with the Middle Voice”

  1. Kraamlep

    I’ve been meaning to ask about things like “It doesn’t read well” for a while, and then last week William’s comments about anti-causatives sent me scurrying off to Wikipedia. Various clicks later, I found the article on the mediopassive voice, which gives the examples in English “The book reads well. The trousers wash easily. Ripe oranges peel well.” So it was interesting to hear William call this phenomenon “potential passive” in this week’s podcast.

    The original example that got me wondering a couple of months ago was when my mother said “It doesn’t notice”, in the context of (I think it was) a small, unwanted pen mark on one’s clothing. You could also say “You don’t notice it” and mean something similar. “It doesn’t notice” feels slightly different from “The book reads well”, but is kind of similar – would this also fall into the category of potential passive/mediopassive?

  2. MBR

    On the retroflex approximant, I have never heard [ɻ] for /r/ in English; nor have I seen it in IPA transcriptions of any dialect. That’s because everybody I’ve ever heard speak rhotic English uses not a retroflex approximant for /r/, but instead a labialized alveolar approximant [ɹʷ]. I learned this when refining the phonology for Hra’anh, which has [ɹ] romanized as “hr”. I now have two languages that use [ɹ] alongside or instead of the trilled [r] or flipped [ɾ] because I like that consonant and I don’t see it enough.

    • Okuno

      I’m pretty sure I’m not the only native English speaker with retroflex affricates for and friends; thus, words like ‘tread’ are [ʈʂɻɛd]. Obviously, though, that’s conditioned.

      On to my idiolect, because I’m pretty sure no one I’ve met screws up rhotics like me. My neutral ‘r’ is something like [ɰ˞] (velar approximant with a secondary rhotic gesture). If I’m trying to have a more “normal” American ‘r’, then I end up using [ɻˠ] (velarized postalveolar approximant). I’m pretty sure there’s something going on between my ‘r’ and ‘w’ articulations, because I’ve never caught myself with any velarization on ‘w’; my ‘w’ is always [β̞] (bilabial approximant). I dunno, I’ve got a pretty weird dialect.

      tl;dr [ɻ] exists, but I expect it’s not very common, since several conditions need to be met all at once.

  3. Zifre

    I’m not entirely sure about this, but it seems like the middle voice in English uses distinct intonation patterns. Mike’s example of “She sells well” sounded immediately middle to me, despite the animacy problem. On the other hand, if I say it with a normal intonation pattern, it sounds totally active. I’m not sure how to explain/write out intonation though, so I don’t really know what the difference actually is. Or maybe this is just confirmation bias.

  4. NATO

    It’s intriguing that you point out the construction with “you”. French uses this instead of a true passive construction, with the word ‘on’ meaning “one”, and this has been calqued into English i.e. Here one speaks French instead of French is spoken here. But, of course, English has its own interesting patterns. Do you realize that where you have ‘you’ in that example of yours, you can replace it with ‘we’ or ‘they’? In fact, using “they” as a sort of bogeyman word is one of my favorite little wrinkles in English…But do you also see that there is a distinction there of first, second and third person there, in ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘they’? (There is a paper out there somewhere that discusses this distinction, but I never could get access. Story of my life.)

  5. john Erickson

    Hi, John from the feedback here. Thanks for the great reply/discussion. It’s made me realize two things:

    A) My conlang Oltengo (it was in the intro a couple weeks ago) is a nooblang in many ways.

    B) That’s okay. 🙂

  6. Andrew J Smith

    Japanese does have a passive voice. It also seems to have middle-like verbs, but no morphological middle voice. Some examples for middle-like verbs would be the series with 起こす (okosu). Okosu means “to wake someone, raise someone, cause something.” This is a fairly straightforward transitive verb. However, two related verbs, 起きる (okiru), and 起こる (okoru) are intransitive, but have some middle voice tendencies. Okiru is intransitive and means “to wake up, to rise” which seems reflexive. These first two verbs are similar in use to the French “lever” and “se lever.” Okoru is intransitive and means “to happen, occur” which seems very middle-like to me, and is similar in use to the French “se passer.”

    Now, the passive voice: Japanese does have a morphological passive voice, for example the passive of okosu is okosareru, which means “to be woken.” The Japanese love to use the passive voice as a way to avoid putting blame on other people, and sometimes on themselves. A fun addition is the causative passive form okosaserareru, which means “to be caused to wake someone.” Fun. And, no, Japanese has no separate word for “not.” It is only in special verb/adjective/copula forms, but there are several ways to say “no.”

    As far as gustar goes, I’m thinking that the object is simply fronted because it is more relevant or animate. I mean, gustar means “to please, be pleasing” so technically, I should be able to say, “Unas lenguas gustan me.” However, going back to the animacy episode, the speaker and speech act participants, and people in general, are higher on the animacy scale, thus, “Me gustan unas lenguas.” I know it seems a stretch, but perhaps Spanish simply places more importance on more animate things. Also, from what I understand, the actual reflexive verb gustarse should mean something like, “to take pleasure, have fun, be happy,” similar to its meaning in Ladino.

    Come on baby / Don’t fear the nooblang / Baby take my morphemes / Don’t fear the nooblang / We’ll ignore the “emphasis” / Don’t fear the nooblang / Baby I’m your lexicon! / Laa la-la la la / Laa la-la la la (This is your fault, Mike.)

    • Zifre

      I don’t think you’re analyzing gustar correctly. You can’t say “Unas lenguas gustan me.” because in Spanish the object pronouns always come before the verb. It is grammatical to say “Unas lenguas me gustan.” but it sounds strange. Although Spanish is normally SVO, VOS is used when the subject is focused. It actually seems very unlikely that the subject of gustar would _not_ be the focus. Thus, it is nearly always at the end. Even ignoring “encantar” and other object experiencer verbs, there are many verbs that work this way. For example, “Llegaron unos amigos.” is generally more natural than “Unos amigos llegaron.”. The only time you would put the subject at the beginning with these verbs is when it is highly topical (and probably definite).

      • Andrew J Smith

        Okay. I forgot that personal object pronouns always precede the verb, except when they are cliticized. I had never learned about focus in Spanish; that’s not normally taught in language classes. My real point is that I don’t feel that “gustar” is middle-like. Now, I would be fine to understand “gustarse” as middle-like, but I don’t know if it really occurs in Spanish.

  7. Philip Newton

    To the best of my knowledge, Kahless is called “qeylIS” in Klingon (that’s an ell followed by a capital eye in the middle there).

  8. Matthew McBride

    I was wondering if Middle Voice exists in Active/Stative languages? Especially in Active/Stative languages which indicate agent and patient with case.

  9. Roman Rausch

    One fun aspect of the middle voice is the semantic shift of the middle verb, which is particularly useful and inspirational for creating vocabulary. Some random examples from Russian:
    красть ‘steal’ -> красться ‘sneak’
    купить ‘buy’ -> купиться ‘be gullible, believe someone’s deception’
    нести ‘carry’ -> нестись ‘run, rush’
    водить ‘lead, guide’ -> водиться ‘be native to’ (as in: ‘The Targ is native to the Klingon homeworld’) or ‘be customary’
    Ancient Greek offers plenty of examples, too, of course. What I’d like to have is a dictionary of middle voice semantic shift curiosities. I’d read it all day and be delighted.

  10. Chickenduck

    Hate to be picky, but the correct German phrase is “Ich wasche MIR die Hände”, not “ich wasche mich die Hände”.

    “Ich dusche mich” is correct, but when you use phrases like “I brush my hair” etc in German (where the hair is the direct object), it uses the dative reflexive pronoun instead of accusative. Then you add infinitive strings at the end and get cool phrases like “ich habe mir die Haare schneiden lassen müssen” (which looks wrong to English-native learners of German because it’s lacking a past participle).

    Great show, working my way through the back catalogue and enjoying all of it!

  11. Rhamos Vhailejh

    I think that the kitchen sink phase is actually very important. When one first finds some nifty linguistic feature, it can often be extremely difficult (more/less so for some than others) to retain all of the information that one is trying to absorb, as some of these features can get pretty complicated; especially if one isn’t well versed in the terminology. By kitchen sinking features you’re actually giving yourself a chance to put those new ideas into practice and internalize them, and from this, one will then understand *why* it actually wasn’t a good fit for the language, and can safely expunge it from the language while also taking away a far more thorough understanding of that feature, making one a much better linguist in the end.


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