Over the weekend, I speculated on how English might work as an ergative language. Today, on National Grammar Day, I’m taking it a step further into the reversed grammar of ergative languages, to show what might happen if you tried to use the passive voice in ergative English. What would that even look like, when our ergative English already has its transitive verbs agreeing with their patients?
In you’ve forgotten what that looks like, here’s the suite of sample sentences we arrived at in our morphologically and syntactically ergative version of English. The pronouns in red are in the ergative case; they denote agents who do things to others. The pronouns in blue are in the absolutive case; they denote either “subjects” (in this context, someone or something that performs an action which doesn’t directly affect someone or something else), or patients who are affected by an action.
- She kiss me.
- I kisses her.
- Her smiles.
- Me smile.
Before I go further, I need to comment on the vocabulary. First of all, the terms agent and patient have to be understood as referring not only to very obviously agentlike roles such as “hitter,” “writer,” and “creator,” and very patientlike roles such as “struck,” “written,” and “created,” but also to pairs such as “seer” and “seen,” or “one who loves” and “one who is loved.” This is true for ordinary English as well as our imaginary ergative variety.
Second, we saw earlier that the term subject has a specialized meaning when we’re talking about whether a language is ergative or not (or more concisely, its morphosyntactic alignment). It’s not just any subject; it’s the subject of an intransitive verb. So what term do we use when we want to talk about the subject of a transitive verb? In the last post, we called them agents, in keeping with the subject-agent-patient terminology of morphosyntactic alignment. But now, the agents aren’t going to be the … subjects? … anymore. In Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, Bernard Comrie’s attitude is “Tough noogies, welcome to the real world!” That is, it’s no simple matter crosslinguistically to say what’s a subject. Is it the thing that the verb agrees with? Maybe, but in some languages, transitive verbs agree with both their agents and their patients. So before reading further, say goodbye to your old notions of what’s a subject. The closest we’ll come is when we note which noun(s) a verb is agreeing with.
So now, onward to passives and antipassives. Ordinary English, as well as many other so-called “nominative-accusative languages” gives you two options for expressing a transitive verb. There’s the more straightforward option of the active voice, with agent as the noun that the verb agrees with (She kisses me; I kiss her); and the more complex passive voice, in which the patient is promoted to the place where verb agreement goes on, and the agent disappears or is expressed in a by phrase (I am kissed (by her); she is kissed (by me)).
In ergative English, the more straightforward option has the patient as the noun that the verb agrees with: She kiss me; I kisses her. The more complex option, analogous to the passive in ordinary English, is the antipassive. To show antipassive, I’ll use the passive morphology from ordinary English, to give you the maximum effect of how things are turned around here. In the antipassive, the agent gets promoted to agree with the noun, and the patient gets moved to the background:
- Me am kissed (by her). [Think of it as "I do some kissing (on her)."]
- Her is kissed (by me). [Think of it as "She does some kissing (on me)."]
Now actually, ergative English probably wouldn’t use an antipassive to express these thoughts. Just as ordinary English tends to use passive in situations where the agent is unknown, unimportant, or just less important than the patient; ergative languages tend to use antipassive when the patient is unknown, unimportant, or less important than the agent. (This is according to Ann Cooreman in “A Functional Typology of Antipassives”, in Voice: Form and Function, 1994, edited by Barbara Fox and Paul J. Hopper.) Functionally, they’re like detransitivized English verbs, such as eat, teach, write, etc. When you say “I’m eating,” or “I’ve taught for years,” or “Write every day,” the patient is assumed to be something obvious: food, courses or students, stuff you write.
Thinking about passives and antipassives, I thought about the disapproval of passives that speakers use to avoid placing (or accepting) blame. “Don’t say ‘Mistakes were made’! Admit your responsibility and just say, I made a mistake’!” If English were an ergative language, would English teachers tell their students, “Don’t say ‘Me am eaten!’ Take responsibility for your actions and say what you ate! Don’t try to gloss over it!”
Well, no, they wouldn’t, because all that was phrased in ordinary English. They’d say … let’s see … “Let no one say ‘Me am eaten’…” Ah, forget it! It was tricky enough to get my ergative examples straight as it was. Right now I am absolutely ergatived out!