Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug’s Circumstantial Passive

Posted by Neal on September 4, 2005

In researching the double passive in English, I’ve been reading a few articles on Malagasy, which has a similar construction. I’ve learned that Malagasy not only has a double passive, but that it actually has two kinds of passive voice, an ordinary one and one called the circumstantial passive. I’ll illustrate with examples adapted from Paul Law’s 1995 article “On grammatical relations in Malagasy control structures” (in the book Grammatical Relations, edited by Clifford S. Burgess, et al.). First, there’s a sentence in the active voice:

hanasa        ny   lamba   amin’  ity    savony ity    Rasoa
wash.ACT  the clothes  with    this  soap     this  Rasoa
‘Rasoa will wash the clothes with this soap’

In Malagasy, the subject comes last, as seen with the placement of Rasoa above. Now we’ll do an ordinary passive, with the direct object ‘the clothes’ becoming the subject (and therefore appearing at the end of the sentence):

sasana-dRasoa              amin’  ity    savony ity    ny   lamba
wash.PASS-by-Rasoa  with    this  soap     this  the  clothes
‘The clothes are washed with this soap by Rasoa’

Now what if you wanted to make ‘this soap’ the subject? In English, you can’t. It’s not just that ‘this soap’ is the object of a preposition instead of a direct object: Sentences like This bed has been slept in or We were fired upon are quite common. But for some reason it just doesn’t work when the verb takes a direct object as well as a prepositional phrase. You end up with something weird like This soap was washed-the-clothes-with by Rasoa. For this soap to be the subject, you have to do a major workaround, something like This soap was used by Rasoa to wash the clothes. In Malagasy, though, it’s not a problem. You just have to have the right tool, and that tool is the circumstantial passive. Use the circumstantial passive form of ‘wash’, and then ‘this soap’ can go right into the subject position:

anasana-dRasoa           ny   lamba    amin’  ity    savony ity
wash.CIRC-by-Rasoa  the  clothes   with    this  soap    this
‘This soap is washed-the-clothes-with by Rasoa’

I was happy to find out about this kind of passive voice, not just because it was an interesting detail to learn about another language, but because now I have a name for something Doug said about three years ago. He was looking for a packet of some gumdrop-like snacks in the shape of characters from Scooby-Doo. (They’re called, rather misleadingly, Scooby Snacks, even though they don’t look or–I assume–taste anything like the doggy treats that Scooby and Shaggy love so well.) He found several empty bags that someone else had inconsiderately put back in the box, but finally found an intact one, and said:

This one hasn’t been eaten-any-Scooby-Snacks-out-of!

It was so jarring and just plain wrong, and yet so sensible at the same time, that I had to write it down. I don’t think Doug’s grammar will generate sentences like this one anymore, but now I know that at one point in time, Doug’s emerging English grammar was equipped with circumstantial passive functionality.

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One Response to “Doug’s Circumstantial Passive”

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