More on concealing the truth: intransitives, passives and …anti-passives!

Nov 16, 2011 by

[Thanks to Dave Howard for bringing up some of the issues discussed in this post]

To continue with the earlier theme of telling the truth, telling lies and concealing the truth, I’d like to address the issue of potentially concealing the truth by using argument structure.

In linguistics, “argument structure” refers not to the way arguments pro/against some notion are presented in discourse, but to the relation between the verb and the participants in the event expressed by that verb. Different verbs may appear with a different number of arguments. For example, a transitive verb like devour or murder appears with two arguments: an Agent (the participant who is doing the action) and a Theme (the participant undergoing the action). The Agent typically appears as the subject and the Theme as the object; for example, in John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln the Agent/subject is John Wilkes Booth and the Theme/object is Abraham Lincoln.

In contrast, intransitive verbs appear with only one argument, which can be either an Agent or a Theme (in either case, the sole argument of the intransitive verb appears as the subject of the sentence). The verbs of the former type are called “unergative” and the verbs of the latter type — “unaccusatives”. For instance, verbs like walk, play, work, laugh, smile, sing and dance appear with an Agent; for example, the subject in The child laughed is the one who did the action (in this case, laughed). Conversely, the sole argument of verbs like melt, fall, arrive, come, sink, break and grow is a Theme, in the sense that it is the one who undergoes the action.

(While most verbs are either transitive (2 arguments) or intransitive (1 argument), a smaller number of verbs appear with no arguments at all, e.g. rain and snow, or with three arguments, e.g. give and introduce. We will leave them aside for now.)

Note also that many verbs can appear either as transitive or as intransitive. Take the verb eat: unlike devour, which must occur with both a subject and an object (hence, the ungrammaticality of *John is devouring), eat can occur as a transitive (e.g. The chef is eating the chocolate) or as an intransitive (e.g. The chef is eating). Similarly, a verb like melt can occur as a transitive (e.g. The chef is melting the chocolate) or as an intransitive (e.g. The chocolate is melting). Note that when eat is turned into an intransitive, it preserves the Agent/subject (the chef), whereas when melt is turned into an intransitive, it preserves the Theme/object (the chocolate).

While some verbs have an intransitive variant (like melt or sink), most transitive verbs may also lose an argument when turned into a passive: for example, an active John opened the door corresponds to the passive The door was opened (by John) (by John is in parentheses because it is optional, that is it can be dropped altogether). In passive voice, the form of the verb changes (e.g. from opened to was opened), the Theme/object (here, the door) becomes the subject and the Agent/subject is demoted: it can be either dropped altogether (e.g. The door was opened) or appears in an oblique form (in English, with the preposition by, as in The door was opened by John). Some verbs allow three different structures:

  • active, transitive: John opened the door
  • active, intransitive: The door opened
  • passive: The door was opened (by John)

Note that using one of the latter two structures — active intransitive or passive — allows us to conceal (some of) the truth since only one of the two participants, the Theme, is expressed overtly. For example, by saying The vase broke (active intransitive) we avoid accepting blame (cf. the active transitive I broke the vase). Similarly with the passives, since the Agent/subject can be left unmentioned, it is a great way of concealing who committed the dead. For example, compare the passive The taxes have been raised again with the active (transitive) The government has raised the taxes again!

Even though active intransitives and passives are similar in that they leave the Agent unexpressed, there is a subtle difference between the two constructions. In particular, active intransitives imply an internal cause: e.g. The boat sunk describes an event that happened on its own, without any external participant doing anything to the boat. In contrast, passives imply an external cause, even if another participant is not mentioned explicitly (recall that in passives the Agent may be mentioned explicitly, as in The boat was sunk by the captain). For example, in contrast to The boat sunk, the passive The boat was sunk implies that someone actually sunk the boat. This implicit Agent becomes evident in sentences like The boat was sunk in order to collect the insurance. Here, in order to collect the insurance expresses the purpose of the sinking of the boat, but who has this purpose in mind? The implicit Agent of the passive the boat was sunk!

While using the passive construction allows us to conceal the Agent (the “doer”), some languages also have the opposite construction, called “anti-passive”, which allows one to conceal who the action applies to. As with passive, anti-passive involves three modifications (compared to the active), two of them involving the form of the Agent and the Theme and the third — a change in the verbal morphology. An example of anti-passive comes from an Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal.

In Dyirbal, an active transitive sentence consists of the Theme marked with the absolutive case (no overt morpheme), the Agent marked with the ergative case (here, suffix -ŋgu) and a verb in the active form.

Transitive, active:
yabu ŋuma-ŋgu bura-n.
mother.ABS father-ERG see-NFUT
‘Father saw mother.’

In contrast, in the anti-passive construction, the Agent appears sentence-initially and marked with the absolutive case (again, no overt morpheme); the verb acquires a special anti-passive morpheme (suffix -ŋa); and the Theme is demoted: it can be either omitted altogether or appears in an oblique form (marked with the dative suffix -gu).

ŋuma bural-ŋa-nyu (yabu-gu).
father.ABS see-APASS-NFUT mother-DAT
‘Father saw someone/mother.’

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