What exactly is a deponent verb then?

When teaching Year 10 students about deponent verbs in Latin, I sometimes get asked, “Why are some verbs deponent and some not?” and I’m not, myself, satisfied with the answer, “They just are.” Nor are the students, generally.

Deponent verbs, for the ‘unitiated’ (a cult for which the initiation ceremony involves learning deponent verbs is my sort of cult!) are normally taught in Latin as “verbs which look passive but are active in meaning”. More on the Latin Library website here.

BUT whenever I’m teaching students about them, this doesn’t sit very well. There is one verb in particular which causes problems:

nascor, nasci, natus sum – I am born.

This looks pretty much like a normal passive dressed up to be a deponent verb. I am born is surely from the English verb to bear, and so “I am born” is no more deponent than “I am carried” is it? Or is it deponent because there is no etymologically connected active form “nasco”? (and I’m not talking about the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization!) In any case, it seems to be a bit odd to include it in a list of deponent verbs. Being born doesn’t seem to be very active in meaning in any sense (but then students sometimes struggle with the active nature of the verb to be…)

But the confusion doesn’t stop there. I sometimes suggest to students that part of the reason for deponent verbs being different is that they are sort of half-passives, a bit like the middle voice in Ancient Greek… So the verbs are not really as active as active verbs, and you can’t imagine turning them into the passive, so they have occupied a space between actives and passives. Some examples support this:

arbitror, I think (“I am thought” is possible, of course, in sentences like “I am thought to be the greatest leader in the history of the world”, and the passive dicor, or more commonly dicitur is indeed used, but it is surely rarer than most passive ideas…)

conor, I try (“I am tried”? Doesn’t work very well, particularly if you are using conor in a modular sense.)

miror, I am surprised (already a passive in English. The “admire” meaning certainly can have a passive in English at least, but the ambiguity might explain the deponency [not sure if that’s a word but I like it anyway]).

polliceor, I promise (again, “I am promised” is possible but odder than most passives).

videor, I seem (I’m never quite sure why this isn’t just treated as a passive of video (I see) with a slightly different meaning…)

mereor, I deserve
loquor, I speak
patior, I suffer
proficiscor, I set out
-gredior (with various prefixes), I go…
utor, I make use of
morior, I die
revertor, I return

In the case of most of these, the difficulty with making them passive is simply that they have intransitive meanings, but not all. The problem is that there are some that are very transitive, and whose passive would be not only meaningful but also jolly useful. For example…

sequor, I follow

Surely the Romans must have needed to say “I am being followed” at some stage (in one of those exciting detective stories where someone is on the run from heavies or something…?) The only way of doing this seems to be using a different verb, or saying “aliquis me sequitur” (someone is following me) which is actually a slightly different thing, surely.

Then there are the verbs that ought, if you accept my idea of being difficult to passivise, to be deponent, but aren’t. So ingredior (I go in) is deponent, but ineo (I go in) isn’t. Hmm.

And then there are the semi-deponent verbs. I mean, come on. Either you’re deponent or you’re not, surely? (don’t call me Shirley!)

soleo, solere, solitus sum – I am accustomed

Sigh. I’m left with telling Year 10s “they are just deponent I’m afraid. I know it doesn’t make much sense. At least it’s not Greek, in which almost everything makes no sense!”

I would love to hear from anyone who has a coherent answer to this deponent riddle. And I’ll finish this post with a handy mnemonic made by some of my GCSE students a few years ago for some of the most common deponent verbs: CHUMPS IN LOVE!

CONOR – I try
HORTOR – I encourage
UTOR – I make use of
MORIOR – I die
PATIOR – I suffer
SEQUOR – I follow

IRASCOR – I get angry
NASCOR – I am born

LOQUOR – I speak
ORIOR – I rise
VEREOR – I fear
EGREDIOR – I go out