For my thesis I would like to conduct a study on the cross-linguistic distribution of agent markers in passives.

In English, this marker is usually realized by the preposition 'by', as in (including a possible annotation, not necessarily English):

The man was killed BY THE DINOSAUR.

man kill-PASS dinosaur-INSTR

Most of the time, all Passive Agent Markers are expected to display some degree of case syncretism (i.e. they might be used to express multiple different elements, e.g. agents and instrumentals).

I have come across several issues regarding the proper grouping/categorization of this kind of element:

  • Languages differ in the amount of distinct passive agent markers and the amount of detail that can be expressed through each marker.

  • Especially to the non-native speaker and reader of grammars, properties of particular markers as well as the distribution in a language may be (partially) hidden

  • Languages differ in what terms may be used to describe equal markers, depending on their syntactic, morphological or lexical properties.

  • Authors of grammars may be biased regarding terms of such markers, e.g. one might choose a known term ("instrumental", "locative"...) over a less well known term ("perlative", "allative" etc.), which makes it more difficult for the analyst to see which categories exist or which might better be split in two

  • Depending on perspective and focus, different quality categorizations may be made (e.g. such that have more or less explanatory power)

... and many more (if you happen to come up with other problems spontaneously, feel free to note them so I can add them here).

There already is one book available on the topic: The Origin of Agent Markers by Enrique L. Palancar from 2002 (available from his homepage; please note furter, better suited references if you know any). I am however afraid that his "solution" might be too complex for my purposes (the book is over 300 pages long).

In this light I would appreciate answers on the question:

Which categorizations of passive agent markers exist and which categories are considered most suitable as the right selection to be able to properly analyze the cross-linguistic distribution of said markers?

Feel free to ask for further information, examples etc.

  • You are starting with the assumption, then, that Passive is a universal constant, occurring in all languages, and that Passive in each language is accompanied by an identifiable Agent Marker. Right? You should probly be aware, then, that this is not the case.
    – jlawler
    Apr 22, 2015 at 18:37
  • No, that is certainly not the case, you're right. What makes you think that I assume Passive were a universal constant?
    – maj
    Apr 22, 2015 at 19:36
  • You asked for a summary of methods used to categorize passive agent markers. Passive agent markers can't be categorized unless they exist commonly, and that can't be true unless Passive Agent has the same sense in any language. Otherwise how could they be identified, let alone categorized?
    – jlawler
    Apr 22, 2015 at 20:14
  • By "Passive Agent" I am trying to refer to the same "agent" (semantically, it might be more than that, like e.g. an experiencer) that was the subject in the active sentence, before the passive sentence was derived from it.
    – maj
    Apr 22, 2015 at 21:39
  • 1
    It's not a very good topic for a thesis. Because you don't seem to have any ideas. If you want something to read about and do research on, hoping that something interesting will come up, I suppose the passive is a place to begin. But a thesis is supposed to have a thesis -- something being proposed -- so be on the lookout for some interesting ideas.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 23, 2015 at 23:56


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