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In the past couple of years I've noticed a new trend in younger generations of native English speakers, at least in American English and Australian English. But I can't find it discussed anywhere on the internet yet, not in linguistics papers, not in correct usage sites, not in language blogs.

The change is in certain verbs used in the passive being replaced by the verb used in the intransitive.

The most common verb where this change is happening is "to release" when pertaining to media, software, and technology. But several other verbs are undergoing the same change on a smaller scale.

Some made up examples:

  • "the games are being released" → "the games release"
  • "when the building is completed" → "when the building completes"
  • "the movie will be released" → "the movie will release"

My question is, are there some resources where this is being discussed? Especially any linguistics papers or studies?

Also, would these new senses be a kind of ergative? They make an inanimate object the subjects of verbs they are more normally objects of.

UPDATE:

It's been pointed out to me that English verbs used to have a form called the passival which fits the pattern I describe except that the passival was restricted in use to the progressive while this new trend seems to occur in all tenses and forms of the verb. (More links: 1, 2, 3)

LIVE EXAMPLES:

I'll add some real examples here:

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    Not an answer, but this sounds like continuing the trend of other English verbs? E.g., the door was opened vs. the door opened. Also found this example from Google books (1889): "The room measures 28,830 cubic feet, or 576 cubic feet per head."
    – jick
    Jul 14, 2020 at 6:45
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    Another example that still jars to me (even though I know it’s standard in the industry and thus use it myself) is “the book publishes on 15 August”. I wouldn’t call this ergative, though – it’s simply causative alternation being applied to verbs we’re not used to see causatively alternate. Jul 14, 2020 at 12:56
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    A cursory Google search seems to confirm your intuitions: "the movie will release" has only one hit before 2001, but increases greatly over the following years. (A search for "the games release" is tainted by misspellings for "the game's release"; the earliest results for "when the building completes" are either transitive or gerunds as Keelan took it)
    – b a
    Jul 14, 2020 at 14:15
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    Perhaps "inchoative" or "anti-causative" might be good terms, following George Lakoff's discussion in his dissertation "Irregularity in Syntax". Compare "The physicist melts the metal/The metal melts" with "The studio releases the movie/The movie releases".
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 15, 2020 at 20:38
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    @hippietrail From the examples given, it actually seems restricted to a few specific verbs and domains. And such niche phenomena arise too often to be covered. Jan 1, 2023 at 7:44

1 Answer 1

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Are there studies where this is being discussed? Would these new senses be ergative?

This is not a complete answer, but I hope it can help someone to take a few steps farther as well.

As to merely if it is a real phenomenon that right now, a higher number of passive verbs are switching to what appears to me to be something like an active, stative verb,

HISTORICAL COCA is the only large corpus of English that has extensive data from the entire period of the last 30 years – 20 million words per year from 1990-2019 (with the same genre balance year by year). This means that in addition to seeing variation by genre, you can also map out recent changes in English in ways that are not possible with any other corpus – such as with the frequency of awesome from 1990-2019,.

https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/help/coca2020_overview.pdf

this could be a corpus you could search syntactically for passive verbs, and maybe write a script to lemmatize them (get the lemma of it), then search for verbs that are just forms / inflections of those lemmas, and maybe try to see at least informally which words seem to be to undergoing the shift, and why, ie, what commonality the words may have, explaining this phenomenon. I’m going to assume there’s some way to search a corpus for a specific syntactic matching form, but for now I just have this info on some ways of searching in COCA https://www.coquery.org/doc/userguide/syntax.html .

You could try to observe how common this phenomenon is or isn’t, over various points in the past; or, if your hypothesis were simply that it’s becoming more common to use ergative verbs in English, for no reason, you could still ask a testable question like why some languages start to shift towards becoming more ergative overall; and if there is some cross-linguistic tendency for forms requiring multiple words to find single-word variants over time, maybe simply because it’s easier to say, then.

Some materials about how and/or why ergativity evolves, how it gets started, might be:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causative_alternation

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labile_verb

https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:200811/FULLTEXT01.pd

This at least reminded me of the idea of how and why verbs in any language shift towards and become ergative; since presumably they may have all got started in a certain way (or not), and we’re just seeing that in English in certain ways right now but it’s nothing new. So, how do “antipassives” get “grammaticalized”? I don’t know if it’s referring to the same thing but it might give you some terminology to search elsewhere, further with https://www.academia.edu/1802279/The_Grammaticalization_of_Antipassives .

There’s an entire handbook on ergativity which could be good https://academic.oup.com/edited-volume/37094/chapter-abstract/323330077?redirectedFrom=fulltext , maybe this chapter: “Intransitivity and the Development of Ergative Alignment” https://academic.oup.com/edited-volume/37094/chapter-abstract/323334008?redirectedFrom=fulltext .

And this is an analysis of the different types of ergativity: https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00118.x

And here’s a huge bibliography about the concept of ergativity in general:

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780199772810/obo-9780199772810-0132.xml

Perhaps I or someone else can follow up with having searched a corpus for more sturdy evidence demonstrating that this phenomenon exists and is unusual, i.e. that it is not just unremarkable that passives would be shifting to ergatives at any given time, in a language; and to understand better what historical patterns may have been observed, as to why a language might tend in this or a similar direction.

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