Among others, I recently read the passive definition by Martin Haspelmath (from THE GRAMMATICIZATION OF PASSIVE MORPHOLOGY, 1990), which states (page 26/27 of the book, the second/third page of the article):

It is well known, of course, that most passives involve some marking on the verb, but a number of cases have been mentioned in the literature that appear to be passives without special verbal morphology.

I claim that in general passive constructions without passive morphology do not exist. On closer inspection it turns out that the alleged cases of such passives should be analyzed differently.

He then goes on to list a few languages that following his approach do not actually have a passive, but only passive-like structures (or that have less passive constructions than previously thought) - among others English, Mandarin Chinese, Kinyarwanda, Acehnese and Palauan. (Edit: I might have misinterpreted this point a little: He does not propose that English has no passive at all, he only referred to one particular structure etc. - see the answer below! This does not make my question invalid, though.)

I'm not exactly sure whether I correctly grasp the extent of this approach.

Are there any other languages that are commonly said to have a passive, but that do not, according to this definition?

(E.g. the construction in Irish does not seem to count then, if I understand correctly - in the Doyle 2001 grammar, page 42, it says: "Modern Irish has a periphrastic passive, but no morphologically marked one."

Excerpt from the grammar:

"The periphrastic passive corresponds to the three types of aspect mentioned above:

    1. Progressive passive - bí + Subject + PRT + VN
    1. Prospective passive - bí + Subject + le + VN
    1. Perfective passive - bí + Subject + verbal adjective (VA)

Ta an tae a ól ag Maire. is the tea PRT drink-VN at Mary 'The tea is being drunk by Mary.' "

Also: Using this approach, are there any languages where one would still consider the existence of a passive controversial?

  • Hmm, this reminds me of the arguments about whether English has a "future tense," since it is not morphologically marked. Jul 21, 2015 at 22:07
  • Probably Acehnese (and for that matter, several versions of Malay) is an example of non-marked "passives". If they are passives. Which is impossible to determine, because Acehnese is not English.
    – jlawler
    Jul 21, 2015 at 23:34
  • 1
    @jlawler: I'm not sure if I understand. What makes English so important in deciding whether Acehnese has a passive?
    – maj
    Jul 23, 2015 at 9:03
  • Because English has one, and it works differently from what's called "passive" in Acehnese in some crucial ways (roughly, the passive verb still agrees with the original agent subject, instead of agreeing with the new passive subject). Is it the same phenomenon, or is it just a metaphor?
    – jlawler
    Jul 23, 2015 at 15:26

1 Answer 1


Haspelmath's point is really one of terminology. He says that passives have to be morphologically marked and it is not enough for a construction to have a passive meaning with some possible corresponding change in syntax (word order). He does NOT actually say that English does not have a passive. Only that some constructions considered passive because of meaning/syntax such as 'destruction of the city by the enemy' are not actually passives. This is fairly sensible in the cases where additional constructions can claim the passive label - there are lots of constructions in English with passive meanings but no passive morphology ("they killed him" when they stands in for a generic de-emphasised agent) or in Slavic languages where things like reflexives are used in a similar way. Although, Haspelmath would accept the reflexive (or other) morphology as a possible way of morphologically marking the passive (a case of functional polysemy). But he does not make it clear how he classified languages where there are multiple morphological ways of expressing the passive but one canonical passive.

I'm not sure, that this is an all that interesting thing to ask. It would be somewhat interesting to see how many languages have had 'passive' identified simply under the theoretical assumption that all languages have a passive but it's ultimately a question of terminology. All those languages probably express some passive-like semantics through other means but those constructions do not have all the features of a passive but that is a question of how the term is defined - not one of what actually happens in the language which, as far as I can, tell is not really in dispute in most of these cases.

  • I guess I seriously misinterpreted the text then. Are you saying that even if a language has only a construction that is commonly referred to as a reflexive (but inherently can have passive meaning as well) it is sufficient to say that this language has a passive, according to Haspelmath? Also, would you say that he would count e.g. the construction in Irish as a passive?
    – maj
    Jul 23, 2015 at 8:51
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    How does "they killed him" have passive meaning??
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 23, 2015 at 12:21
  • The same way He's too tired to do it "has passive meaning". The word "passive" is intrepreted like "passive aggression", though the grammatical passive construction has nothing to do with emotional or physical state. This is a subject on which Geoff Pullum has waxed exceedingly wroth.
    – jlawler
    Jul 23, 2015 at 15:36
  • @maj To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how Haspelmath would deal with the reflexive situation but his text seems to imply that this would include a passive because morphology is included. He says he's fine with a construction having multiple meanings. Jul 23, 2015 at 19:47
  • @curiousdannii This perhaps wasn't a good example because the 'passive meaning' depends on context. Of course, 'X killed Y' is a prototype of an active construction. I was trying to focus on the generic impersonal 'they' or 'you' (as in, Imagine you kill someone.) which can be used to deemphasize the agent in the same way a passive does. Another example is things like ergative verbs in English as in 'The vase broke'. Jul 23, 2015 at 19:50

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