"impersonal" passives with agents

Björn Wiemer Bjoern.Wiemer at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE
Thu Aug 9 11:38:52 UTC 2001

Dear ALT'ers,

I would be interested to know if anybody of you knows anything more
concrete on the following specific topic: by an "impersonal" passive we
traditionally understand a construction in which the verb (or some form
derived from it, e.g. a participle) bears morphology associated to the
passive, but doesn't have an NP which could be characterized as the subject
of the respective clause. More specifically, there is no NP in the
nominative case (for NOM-ACC languages) which would trigger agreement in
the finite verb or the verbal noun (e.g. gender, number for the
participle). As far as I know, it has remained hitherto unclear whether
so-called "impersonal" passives arise earlier than "personal" passives
(i.e. passives with an agreeing NP). Although the diachrony of passives,
for instance, in Germanic languages seems to indicate that passives arose
first from transitive verbs (or, more generally, from verbs with more than
one argument, with the highest-ranking argument being demoted), before
passive morphology started being applied to intransitive verbs (more
precisely: verbs with only one argument). For this reason, we might assume
that "impersonal" passives -- the natural consequence of the demotion of
the single argument of an intransitive verb -- are diachronically secondary.
         There remain, however, three principal questions not "covered" by
this kind of data:
1. In order for a lower-ranking argument ("patient" or the like) to become
promoted to a syntactic subject (pivot, controller etc.) there first must
occur demotion of the highest-ranking argument ("agent" or the like). Thus,
logically promotion presupposes demotion, and there are plenties of
examples in different languages (known at least since Comrie 1977 on
"spontaneous demotion") in which only demotion of the highest-ranking
argument occurs, without promotion of a lower-ranking one. This looks like
a "passive half-way". The point is, however, how these purely demotional
constructions appeared, i.e. in which diachronic relationship do they stand
in comparison to "promotional passives" (the "normal" ones)? Can anybody
give me more concrete and reliable information on this matter?

2. Passive morphology applied to transitive verbs -- or, more precisely, to
verbs with an ACC-object in the active -- may also render constructions
without a nominatival subject, i.e. "purely demotional passives", with the
object keeping its ACC marking. (This, of course, holds only for languages
which have rich enough case morphology.) Such a kind of "demi-passive" (it
might be argued that they are active, since the ACC-object is retained) is
considered to be a rather rare phenomenon world-wide (cf., for instance,
Shibatani 1998). And one might argue that it is a late development in the
evolution of passives.
         For instance, the Polish construction with the petrified
-no/to-participle (former neuter sg. of the nominal declension) and a
possible ACC-object (e.g., Dano mu.DAT.SG.M ksiazke.ACC.SG.F lit. '(It) was
given him a book') is a rather late development, not known to Common
Slavic. The same holds for Polish "reflexive impersonals" with an
ACC-object (Gosciom.DAT.PL.M pokazuje.3.SG.PRS sie.RM wille.ACC.SG.F lit.
'(It) is shown to the guests the cottage' = The cottage is shown to the
guests), which is an even later development (most probably by analogy to
         Does anyone know of investigations which can show how such
"passives" with retained (or regained ?) active government have arisen and
in which diachronic relation do they stand to "real" passives, both from
transitive and intransitive verbs?

3. I have recently come across an author who gives some Sanskrit examples
of impersonal passives (from one-place verbs) with an agent phrase in the
instrumental; cf.
(1)     gamyate maya    lit. '(it) is going by me' / '(there) is (some)
going by me'
(2)     supyate tvaya   lit. '(it) has been slept by you'
(3)     gatam anena     lit. '(it) has been gone by him'.
Unfortunately, there are no references (neither to sources, nor to
linguists), so that I am not sure how such examples should really be
qualified. Maybe, someone of you is able to give me some information on
such kind of impersonal passive with agent phrases? And, again, do we know
anything about their diachronic relationship with respect to (a) agreeing
(promotional) passives and (b) impersonal passives with an ACC-object?

I can compose a sort of digest if sufficient relevant replies will be sent.
Bjoern Wiemer.

Dr. Bjoern Wiemer
Universitaet Konstanz
FB Sprachwissenschaft / Slavistik
Postfach 55 60, D 179
D- 78457 Konstanz

tel.: ++49 / 7531 / 88 -2582
fax: ++49 / 7531 / 88 -4007
e-mail: Bjoern.Wiemer at uni-konstanz.de

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