[Lingtyp] Double-marked passive

Martin Haspelmath martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Tue Mar 23 08:54:35 UTC 2021

It's great to see all these contributions to the discussion, because the 
issue is important – we use traditional terms all the time and we think 
that they are generally understood. But often, they do not have a clear 
definition for everyone.

Mark Post wrote:
> I really think that this is a good illustration of how, in practice, 
> that principle yields irreconcilably confusing results. One cannot 
> help but develop a “comparative concept” on the basis of languages 
> that one knows best, and structural definitions of “passive” tend 
> strongly to favour a viewpoint from European languages. Hold this line 
> too strongly, and one either misses or, potentially, includes and 
> thereby distorts the properties of, constructions that evolved in 
> response to the same sorts of functional pressures, but in different 
> types of languages. Where does one draw lines in cases like this ...? 
> I don’t see that we yet have an agreed set of principles for 
> determining this, nor do we seem content with the uncertainties that 
> can result.

And David Gil, too, says that my definition is "Eurocentric" because it 
excludes elements that are not affixes (like Riau Indonesian /kena/, 
which can occur on its own and thus is not a bound form, i.e. it cannot 
be a prefix).

However, "passive" is a term that originates from European languages, so 
I wouldn't say that a definition that is close to its origins is 
Eurocentric. (Likewise, "classifier" originates in East Asia, and it 
would be odd to say that a definition that excludes unit nouns like 
English "bottle", in "three bottles of water", would be "Asiacentric".)

Bill Croft quite rightly emphasizes the distinction between 
"function/construction" and "strategy" (which plays a big role in his 
forthcoming book "Morphosyntax": 
https://www.unm.edu/~wcroft/WACpubs.html), and he notes that some 
traditional terms have been extended to be used for 
"functions/constructions" generally, while others have been restricted 
to (formal) "strategies".

Is there a general principle for choosing between these options? I think 
that the main principle for scientific terminology should be 
"anti-polysemy": A term should keep its meaning, to the extent possible. 
When a new concept arises, e.g. when a discovery is made (such as 
Givón's insight that passives play an important role in discourse 
patterns), a new term should be created. (I say more about principles of 
terminology in §4 of this paper: https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/005489)

So the reason I would opt for the form-based definition of "passive" (as 
opposed to the function-based definitions favoured by Bohnemeyer and 
Givón-Croft) is that the term "passive" is generally used for a 
strategy, in actual usage. It would be very odd to say that a sentence 
with a fronted object and focused subject like German "Den Mann hat der 
LÖWE gesehen" (= 'The man was seen by the LION') is a passive 
construction. Typologists may be happy with such usage, but they will 
not be understood by linguists more generally if they adopt it. 
(Likewise, Keenan & Comrie's purely functional definition of "relative 
clause" led to the very odd consequence that all adnominal adjectives 
are relative clauses; this did not bother them, because they were 
concerned only with accessibility, but we want to have a definition of 
the legacy term "relative clause" that conforms better to actual usage.)

Maybe what distinguishes my thinking about these matters that I ask not 
only what the best concepts are (which need labels to be attached to 
them), but also how we could arrive at a situation where we no longer 
talk past each other all the time. We will no doubt continue using terms 
like "morph", "affix" and "passive" (because we have strong intuitions 
about them), so regardless of whether these are good concepts, we need 
definitions of the terms that largely conform to our intuitions.


Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig

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