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Most languages I know of make use of 'active' more than 'passive'. It appears that the passive is derived from the 'canonical' active. Are there any languages that use more passive than active? Or can a language with only the passive form exist without a canonical active?

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    This is not exactly what you are looking for, but it may interest you if you don't know about it yet: in ergative languages, the subject of an intransitive sentence gets the same marking as the patient in a transitive sentence (as opposed to accusative languages like Latin, where the subject of an intransitive sentence gets the same marking as the agent in a transitive sentence). – Keelan Feb 27 '19 at 12:21
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    Yes, I'm aware of this morphosyntactic alignment, this is not what I'm after. I should have phrased my question differently. I want to know if there exists a language in Nominative-accusative pattern that uses more passive than active. – Tsutsu Feb 27 '19 at 17:54
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You clarified in a comment on another answer:

What I meant by more occurencs is the degree of tolerance in the usage. English, French, German allow freely verbs to passivize (with very few exceptions), as do Hebrew and Arabic, but Berber (my native) does not allow verbs to pasivize freely. I can say in statistical terms that only 26% of verbs are allowed to passivize. This is why I thought there might be another language that goes in the other direction, i.e. doesn't allow active occurence more often, and prioritizes the passive. This is why I raised the question.

And with this clarification, the answer is: yes!

Ancient Greek had three voices: active, middle, and passive. The middle and passive were identical in almost all forms, so I'm just going to refer to them as "mediopassive" here, even though there are some differences between them.

Unlike in English, all Ancient Greek verbs can take mediopassive forms—even the intransitive ones!

Sometimes this gives the verb a sense of "…for one's self", as in ᾄδ-ω "I sing" > ᾄδ-ομαι "I sing for my own benefit". Other times it emphasizes the subject's role, or has a different meaning altogether, like an idiom.

Other times, the verb has no active forms at all: it can only ever be mediopassive! For example, ἔρχ-ομαι means "I go", but there is no active *ἔρχ-ω.

Finally, some verbs can be either active or mediopassive in the present, but only mediopassive in the future, such as ἀκού-ω "I hear", ἀκού-ομαι "I am heard", ἀκού-σ-ομαι "I will hear".

In other words, Ancient Greek seems to prefer the mediopassive over the active, morphologically. I can't think of any verb that's actually forbidden to have mediopassive forms, while many verbs (the deponents and semi-deponents) can never be active.

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  • Thank you! This is what I wanted to know. Can you give me one sentence with translation into English with the verb 'go' ἔρχ-ομαι, or is it a sentence, I can't read Ancient Greek. I wonder whether 'go' is considered as a canonical passive in the Ancient Greek? IF yes, this is an important point, because passive verbs are said to be derived from a canonical active (derivational appraoch). – Tsutsu Feb 27 '19 at 19:46
  • @TsutsuT. It's pretty much a full sentence by itself, but for a fuller one, ἔρχομαι Ἀθήναζε (érchomai Athěnaze) means "I'm going to Athens". I'm not sure whether it's "canonically" passive or not, on the semantic level, but the morphology is mediopassive through and through. – Draconis Feb 27 '19 at 19:53
  • please one last point, where is the morphological passive in 'ἔρχομαι' ? which part is the morphological passive, affix, clitic, or...? – Tsutsu Feb 28 '19 at 10:25
  • @TsutsuT. It's the suffix -ομαι (-omai). AGrk marks the active and mediopassive by using two totally different sets of endings, though, so you'll only see -omai in the first-person singular. – Draconis Feb 28 '19 at 15:01
  • I think there are some inaccuracies in this answer. First, as you mention, though middle and passive are morphologically identical in most tenses, they're distinguished in some, and even when identical they're semantically and syntactically distinct; so even if it's true that Greek prefers the "mediopassive", that's not quite the same as a preference for passives. And in any case there are many verbs that never occur in middle or passive forms, e.g. ἐθέλω, πάσχω. – TKR Mar 3 '19 at 4:36
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Passive is not a universal feature of human languages. Indo-European languages have always had passive constructions, of one sort or another. It's used to allow different kinds of noun phrases to become subjects; to express different ways of describing something. Every language has this need. But this doesn't mean every language uses "active" and "passive" to fulfill it.

Even Indo-European languages can have more voices than active and passive. Sanskrit and Greek (and Proto-Indo-European) had three voices -- Active, Middle, and Passive -- which were distinct in use and meaning, and varied quite a lot from verb to verb. Many verbs had only passive or middle forms, with no active, or active and middle with no passive, etc.

Outside Indo-European, one finds ergative language families, like Mayan or Caucasian, which don't even have a concept of "subject" -- and therefore no concept of "passive", which relies on "subject". There is often a so-called "antipassive" construction in ergative languages, but the details vary.

Finally, in Austronesian languages, there is usually a three-way contrast between intransitive subject, transitive subject, and direct object, with a variety of rules, constructions, and affixes to swap one for another. Malagasy has six or seven constructions called "passive" that promote various kinds of noun phrases to subject position in different contexts.

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    Are you aware of any NOMINATIVE/ACCUSATIVE language which allows more occurences of passive than active? In other words, is there a language that demotes always the agent status in the sentences? – Tsutsu Feb 27 '19 at 17:56
  • There are way too many assumptions in that question. Sanskrit and Greek were accusative languages, but every verb had its own usage patterns. Passive does not always refer to agent status, and "more occurrences" requires a much tighter statistical definition -- more occurrences of types or of tokens, for instance? – jlawler Feb 27 '19 at 18:02
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    What I meant by more occurencs is the degree of tolerance in the usage. English, French, German allow freely verbs to passivize (with very few exceptions), as do Hebrew and Arabic, but Berber (my native) does not allow verbs to pasivize freely. I can say in statistical terms that only 26% of verbs are allowed to passivize. This is why I thought there might be another language that goes in the other direction, i.e. doesn't allow active occurence more often, and prioritizes the passive. This is why I raised the question. – Tsutsu Feb 27 '19 at 18:22
  • English only allows transitive verbs to passivize; that's a general constraint in I-E. When you say "26% of the verbs are allowed to passivize" do you mean that 26% of the clauses contain passive verbs (tokens), or do you mean that 26% of the verbs in the dictionary can be passivized (types)? – jlawler Feb 27 '19 at 21:39
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    I mean the second point, verbs in the lexicon that are allowed to passivize. – Tsutsu Feb 28 '19 at 10:23

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