The World’s Last `Passives’ Workshop


Now don’t get me wrong, I love thematic workshops. And the event I was just at in Vienna was a great conference with lots of stimulating talks and post talk conversations.  But it wasn’t a thematic workshop. In fact, it convinced me that in the name of  progress in our field, we should now be willing to say that passive is not a Thing, and therefore there can be no workshops about it.

Ian Roberts and Michelle Sheehan (only the former in person) started off bravely to convince us of the position that the apparent disunity of the thing called passive across languages, can be tamed via a choice tree of parameters. It was a nice try, but as you will see I was not convinced.

Gereon Muller treated us to a tour de force of `removal’  derivations. I always like it when somebody can give an internally coherent and fully spelled out implementation of something that has hitherto been treated in a completely different way. It is both exciting and disorienting to be guided round a problem, seeing it with new eyes, using a different toolbox. In this way, the problem and its solution get transformed.  I like to think it allows me to understand the analytic problem itself better, in a way that potentially transcends implementations.  In some way Gereon contributed to the deconstruction of passive this weekend because his new tool box made natural classes and unities where there were none before, and focused on just one component of the passive problem (that of removal of the agent).

When it comes to morphology, one could imagine being interested in the precise nature of the participle in the English passive, as I was in my talk.  This is a  different set of analytic concerns that quite literally deconstructs the passive and just concentrates on one ingredient of it, the participle itself. In arguing for a unity behind the participle in all its uses, including perfect (PassivesViennaV3), the talk undermines the centrality of the unity behind the passive itself.   In the talks of Remberger and Ledgeway we also saw one ingredient of the passive embedded within modal or buletic categories in Romance, in ways that were historically and synchronically challenging.  Indeed, morphological ingredients turn out to be crucial. In Greek and Albanian (described for us in Kalluli’s talk),  the morphology is an inflectional verbal ending, known famously, as NonActive, and which has been the subject of a number of very influential theoretical articles over the years. Not only is the morphology for making passive different in these languages, it also covers more semantic and argument structure options than simply the passive as understood from English. Significantly, Terzi has shown in her work that contrary to what has been found for English-like languages, passive (i.e. nonactive Voice) is not recognisably impaired in agrammatic patients in Greek (handout here).  This suggests that the psychological status of nonactive morphology is also different between the two languages. Why should this be? One can only speculate. Terzi suggests based on her work with children, that it is the robust and common reflexive use,  which has rich lexical content and which precedes `passive’-like interpretations in children’s competence,  that is the basis for the form being  relatively well preserved in Aphasia.  Object relatives, as expected,  are bad for Greek agrammatic patients, so it’s not that they have been misdiagnosed.    As we know, in many other Indo European  languages, reflexive morphology is used to cover some of the things that NonActive voice covers in Greek and Albanian, including some passive like uses.   So over and over again,  the particular cluster of properties that have been given the label passive, based on the English participle construction with auxiliary be,  does not correspond neatly to a single form or strategy in other languages.

In this workshop, we were treated to many examples like this.  Faruk Akkus and Julie Anne Legate had a joint paper on double passives in Turkish,  where  the same piece of morphology doubles as a passive and as an impersonal.   In the construction that doubles the suffix in question, it turned out that  the inner passive one can feed a subsequent impersonalization.  Ben Bruening’s poster on Passamaquoddy passives argued forcefully that the sequence of suffixes found there, and the morphologically distinct ways that the `passive’  gets expressed, shows that the connection between syntax and morphology in the verb suffix system is simply arbitrary and templatic, and does not conform to `mirror’. The data was fascinating, but for me only succeeded in reinforcing the impression that the false unity behind our label of `passive’  what was going wrong here. See Bruening’s manuscript in progress on the rebel anti-mirror approach to morphology.

So. Thank you Vienna and to the organisers of the World’s Last Passive Workshop (Akemi Matsuya, Kleanthes Grohmann and Eva Maria Remberger and her graduate students)!  And thank you to all the speakers and poster presenters for a stimulating time. In the future, I look forward to workshops on templatic morphology,  on removal derivations, on whether there are parameters and what they should look like,  on argument structure alternations, on implicit agents, etc. etc. But Passive?  I for one have become convinced during this weekend that it is an old convenient cover term that has outlived its purpose.  But, that’s progress!


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