Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Double Passives in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2008

The last time I reported on double passives, it was to say that I’d learned they existed in Turkish as well as in English. For those new to the conversation, this post gives an overview of double passives in English. Now I’ve learned of a few other languages with double passives.

First, there’s Hebrew, which I learned about from a single example on a page out of a book I was able to read via Google books. The book is Issues in the Theory of Universal Grammar, and the example is from an article by Edward Keenan:

ha-tvu’a              tigamer                           lehe’sef               ba-    stav
the-harvest(FEM) finish(FUT PASS FEM 3sg) gather(INF PASS) in-the fall
“The harvest will be finished being gathered in the fall”
(42b), p. 38

Ran, if you’re reading, is this accurate? What other verbs in Hebrew can do this?

Next, I found that double passives also exist in Norwegian and Danish. For Norwegian, I read a 2001 paper by Lars Hellan, who calls them “complex passives”. In fact, there are several publications on double passives in Norwegian and Danish that use this term, which is probably why it took me until now to find them. Here’s an example of a Norwegian double passive:

Jon ble  forsøkt                      skutt
Jon was attempt(PAST PART.) shoot(PAST PART.)
“Jon was attempted to be shot.” (2b)

Interestingly, the double passives in Norwegian have a regular passive as the first verb, and the ones that follow are not passive infinitives as in English or Hebrew, but past participles, even though the verbs ‘promise’ and ‘attempt’ take infinitives in the active voice.

This same peculiarity goes for Danish, too, as I learned in this 2006 paper by Bjarne Ørsnes. Here’s an example of a Danish double passive:

bilen    forsøges repareret
the.car is.tried   repair(PAST PART.)
“The car is tried to be repaired.” (2b)

Danish double passives are different from Norwegian (and English) ones in a couple of respects. First, remember this example from an earlier post on double passives?

I read The 10 Most Hated Tricks article, from April ‘03 issue of Skateboarder, and was immediately alarmed when I saw how many tricks were forgotten to be hated on.

Well, you can’t do that in Danish. The top verb has to have an agentive subject (i.e. a subject that actually takes some kind of action), not an experiencer subject like you have in a verb like forget. Second, in English, you can say

They told me to empty my desk.

And you can make it passive by turning the direct object me into the subject:

I was told to empty my desk.

But you can’t take the embedded direct object my desk and make it a subject:

My desk was told to be emptied.

Sure, this is a grammatical sentence, but it can’t refer to the same situation as They told me to empty my desk. It would correspond to the grammatical, but bizarre, active sentence

They told my desk to be emptied.

In Danish, though, you can do this:

bilen    bedes    flyttet
the.car is.asked remove(PAST PART.)
“The car is asked to be removed” (intended meaning, “Someone asks someone to remove the car”) (14)

Ingeborg, if you’re reading, do you have anything to add here? In fact, for any of you readers who are native (or at least fluent) speakers of a language other than English, how do you form the passive version of a sentence like Someone tried to repair the car in that language?

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10 Responses to “Double Passives in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish”

  1. Nicholas Sanders said

    Now I understand the Lothian & Borders Police sign in an Edinburgh side street:

    Cars caught double parking will be prosecuted.

  2. Viola said

    Here is a link to some funny (mis)interpretations which include double passives and the like:

    http://www.asylum.com/2008/04/09/lost-in-translation-awkward-signs-from-around-the-world/

  3. Ran said

    That Hebrew construction sounds mostly O.K. to my ear, and it’s a lot like English “It was attempted to be solved” where neither the active nor the passive would really work perfectly, so the speaker has chosen the one that’s odd grammatically (double passive) over the one that’s odd semantically (saying that the harvest finished doing something).

    Some background:

    In a sense, Hebrew has two verbs meaning “finish.” (I mean, it has tons, but two that are relevant here.) One is “gamar,” and is a normal active-voice verb; the other is “nigmar,” and is the passive/​reflexive/​middle-voice/​mediopassive counterpart to “gamar.” (Disclaimer: I know even less of Hebrew linguistics than I know of English linguistics. These really might not be the right terms at all.) “Nigmar” is the verb used in a sentence like “When does it finish?” (“Matai ze nigmar?”, not *”Matai ze gomer?”), where the subject isn’t actively finishing anything. (Put another way, unlike English “finish,” “gamar” isn’t an ergative verb.)

    Now, with such a double passive, it’s odd because “nigmar” is being asked to take an infinitive complement, which is kind of like a direct object; and “nigmar” doesn’t do that. Its subject is supposed to fill the kind-of-like-a-direct-object role. (In Hebrew, there are some verbs that take multiple kind-of-like-direct-objects, but not as many as in English; and you can’t just do that to a random verb that doesn’t have that construction.) So in some sense the main verb should be a form of “gamar” instead. But that would sound really odd, because the harvest itself isn’t really finishing anything. So, see first paragraph. :-P

  4. Ran said

    Wow, the : – P emoticon looks positively manic.

  5. Sili said

    It’s interesting that I (as a native Dane) have never considered those examples as double passives.

    I should, though, since they’re often turned into ungrammatical double passives.

    Thus you could easily find “bilen forsøges repareres” and so on.

    The archetypal example (which I think I first saw in a column on ‘grammar’) is “Flasker bedes afleveres ved bagdøren” (or something like it). Roughly ‘bottles are.asked are.returned at the back door’.

    Hope that makes sense.

  6. Sili said

    Arrrg! Sorry! I only meant to make the passive-s bold for emphasis. I phail at html.

  7. Neal said

    Ran and Sili:
    Thank you both for your native-speaker data. Don’t worry about the boldface, Sili. I’d fix it, but the new interface doesn’t seem to allow me to edit comments.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    “Bottles are asked to be returned”…the mental image I get is some delivery guy saying to a box of empty bottles, “Would you mind returning yourselves in the back?” On a more serious note, Danish does favor that N bedes at V-s double passive on public notices and signs; a straightforward imperative sounds bluntly rude to most Danes. (Your calling “I need you to V” the “kindergarten imperative” comes to mind here, as an American attempt to avoid blunt wording.)

  9. Neal said

    Thanks, Ingeborg. As for the “kindergarten imperative,” that’s not my coinage; it comes from an article by Ben Yagoda in (I believe) the Good Word column in Slate (see blogroll).

  10. […] years ago, I blogged about how I’d learned that double passives existed in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish, too. The example I quoted in that post was from a 2001 paper by Lars […]

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