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Which modern IE language(s) have synthetical passive form(s)? Latin did have, but it is not a modern one.

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  • 1
    worth noting that PIE did not have a passive. It had an active and a "middle". In some branches (like Latin) the middle shifted to a passive, and in others (like Greek, Indo-Iranian, and later still North Germanic) a new passive developed
    – Tristan
    Dec 21, 2023 at 17:16
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    @user6726 No. There is even a [[:tag:list-of-languages]] for such question (with some guidance what kind of languages lists are on topic) Dec 22, 2023 at 15:02
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    @Lambie it seems pretty clear to me. A modern language (i.e. one spoken in the present day) that is in the IE family (i.e. it is Indo-European)
    – Tristan
    Dec 22, 2023 at 15:18
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    @user6726 Bit ambiguous whether you mean "off" or "on," no? Dec 22, 2023 at 18:08
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    @Lambie not specifying "modern" would include extinct IE languages (or earlier stages of surviving ones), like Latin, Sanskrit, Hittite, or Tocharian. The fact OP specified "modern" seems to be intended to exclude those
    – Tristan
    Dec 22, 2023 at 21:56

5 Answers 5

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I'll try to give as complete a list as I can, going (surviving) branch by (surviving) branch.

  • Albanian
    • Standard Albanian has a medio-passive voice sometimes described as a passive. It continues the PIE middle, just as the Latin passive did.
  • Armenian
    • Old Armenian had a medio-passive (continuing the PIE middle) but this has been lost in the modern language.
  • Balto-Slavic
    • The PIE middle seems to have already been lost in the earliest stages of all these languages.
    • East Slavic has a neo-middle formed with the clitic -ся "-sja". This can have passive semantics, but can also be reflexive or reciprocal. It derives from the earlier reflexive pronoun * which remains a reflexive pronoun in the rest of Slavic. Compare North Germanic.
  • Celtic
    • A passive voice continuing the PIE middle is attested in Gaulish & Old Irish.
    • The Insular Celtic languages (both the Goidelic and Brythonic languages) have various impersonal or autonomous verb forms. These are prototypically understood as impersonal, but can have passive senses. Depending on tense it may continue the Old Celtic passive or stem from various participles.
  • Germanic
    • A passive voice continuing the PIE middle is attested in Gothic, and in the other Germanic languages solely in the irregular verb *haitaną "to be called" (whence Modern German heißen). This verb has since been either lost or switched to a typical active inflection in all surviving languages.
    • North Germanic has a neo-middle formed with the clitic -s or -st. This can have a passive, impersonal, reciprocal, or reflexive sense. It derives from the earlier reflexive pronoun *sek. Compare East Slavic.
  • Greek
    • Ancient Greek retained a medio-passive sense for the PIE middle, but innovated a new passive voice. This does not survive into the modern language. The medio-passive is retained however.
  • Indo-Iranian
    • Like Greek, Indo-Iranian retained a medio-passive sense for the PIE middle, but innovated a new passive voice.
    • I am not familiar with the details, but a quick overview found synthetic (or at least morphosyntactic) passives for: Gujarati, Kurdish, Marathi, & Rajasthani. This is likely far from exhaustive.
  • Italic
    • Latin had a passive continuing the PIE middle, but this does not survive into the modern Romance languages.

So that would be: Albanian, East Slavic, Insular Celtic, North Germanic, Greek and various Indo-Iranian languages (from both the Indo-Aryan and Iranian subbranches) with forms that are often described as passive, although some of these are more properly medio-passive than true passive.

I have excluded most non-finite passive forms (e.g. passive participles) here, as these are extremely widespread. The Insular Celtic impersonal forms are included however as they appear for each tense and function as if they had a null person as subject, rather than simply being unmarked for the subject's person as is typical for non-finite forms.

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  • Irish and Scottish also have a pseudo-passive called the autonomous form, which is synthetic. Originally, it more precisely states simply that an action takes place, without specifying the subject (and it also still does this), but under the influence of English and its heavy use of actual passives, it has also been used with actual passive meaning for several centuries. For example, Irish itear (from ith ‘eat’) means ‘eating is taking place’ and is autonomous, but itear an bia ‘the food is eaten’ is pretty passive, and itear an bia acu ‘the food is eaten by them’ even more so. Dec 22, 2023 at 11:08
  • And of course, Modern Greek retains the inherited synthetic mediopassive, which functions much like the North Germanic neo-passive in being both passive, reciprocal, reflexive and deponential – so if you include North Germanic and East Slavic in the final list, you should probably include Greek as well. Dec 22, 2023 at 11:12
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    The neo-passive is also quite common as reflexive (vi ses ‘see you’ [= we will see each other], de slås ‘they’re fighting’ [= they hit each other], de mødtes ‘they met [each other]’) as well as an impersonal form that’s somewhere between active, middle and passive (de arbejder ‘they’re working’ vs der arbejdes ‘work is being done; people are working’). Its use as a true passive is actually decreasing, having become more marked as formal over the past century or so (as the analytic passive with blive / bli + past participle has increased in colloquial use). Dec 22, 2023 at 11:27
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    I am not too familiar with either Welsh or North Germanic, but it seems to me that the Welsh impersonal (non-past siaredir 'is spoken/will be spoken/one speaks', and past siaradwyd) has roughly the same claim to be included in this list as the North Germanic -s/-st.
    – Pilcrow
    Dec 22, 2023 at 13:11
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    I believe so, yes. The Irish/Scottish forms continue the 3sg of the Old Irish passive, which was a fully-fledged mood, and certainly the primary present passive 3sg ending -tar/-tir/-thar/-thir/-dar/-dir semi-directly continues the PIE middle ending -tor (through an intermediate form something like -tor-et-i, with a presentive -i and a particle -et- that appears to have fossilised in place after the first tonic element in the clause, i.e., the verb or a preverb). The rest is a bit more complex, if memory serves, but definitely involves the middle. Dec 22, 2023 at 17:15
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The North Germanic languages do! These examples are from Norwegian, but basically the same thing happens in both Danish and Swedish, and apparently also in Faroese and Icelandic.

In Norwegian, the present tense active is marked by the suffix -er. But transitive verbs can also take -es, meaning that the verb is passive.

  • Jeg lager mat I make food

  • Maten lages The food is being made

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  • this passive is in fact present in all the modern North Germanic (Scandinavian) languages! It has its origin in the reflexive pronoun being suffixed to the verb (and does not continue the Proto-Indo-European middle), and in Old Norse still had this reflexive sense, before gradually shifting to its modern passive sense
    – Tristan
    Dec 21, 2023 at 17:15
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    Isn't synes the passive of a different verb? I thought that se has a regular passive ses...
    – jogloran
    Dec 21, 2023 at 18:03
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    @jogloran is correct. Synes is the mediopassive of syne, not se, though it generally acts as an active verb. The mediopassive of se is ses (reciprocally as in vi ses ‘see you’ or actually passive as in dette ses tydelig ‘this is (~ can be) clearly seen’). Also, intransitive verbs can take mediopassive forms as well, most commonly found in impersonal constructions (jeg arbeider på X ‘I’m working on X’, det arbeides på X ‘work on X is being carried out’). Dec 21, 2023 at 19:39
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    And of course, mutatis mutandis, the mediopassive in -s is also found in Danish and Swedish, while Icelandic and Faroese have retained the older form in -st. Dec 21, 2023 at 19:41
  • @jogloran and Janus. Oh yes, you are both correct. I will update the answer. Dec 22, 2023 at 8:44
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In Ukrainian and Russian, you can form the passive voice form of practically any transitive verb by adding the reflexive particle -ся to the active voice form of the verb. Historically, this particle is a weak form of the impersonal reflexive pronoun себе (Ukr.) / себя (Ru.) “oneself”:

  • Я готую їжу. “I am making food.”
  • Їжа готується. “The food is being made.” (lit. “The food is making itself”)

Such forms with -ся are officially considered passive, see meaning 3 here, although adding that particle to a verb is rather word building than conjugation, готувати “to make” and готуватися “to be made” are different lexemes. Besides, both Ukrainian and Russian have the ‘real’ passive voice formed by “to be” + the past passive participle, but this kind of the passive voice is used only in the past and future since the present tense of the verb “to be” is not normally used in the two languages. As a result, in the past and future tenses two parallel passive forms are possible, analytic and synthetic, the former usually with the perfective meaning and the latter imperfective:

  • Їжа була приготована. “The food was made.”
  • Їжа готувалася. “The food was being made.”
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  • Reflexive verbs Slavic in general. The difference is just in how close is the binding of the enclitic. Vařím jidlo. Jídlo se vaří. However, that does not mean that all reflexives are passive. Even in your link it is just point 3 or 3. The difference should probably be made xlear more explicitly. Dec 22, 2023 at 22:59
  • @VladimirFГероямслава — You're right, the verbs with that enclitic can be not only passive, but also reciprocal and reflexive (and probably even deponential). Still, since this very question is exclusively about the passive voice, I see no need to explain all the shades of meaning of the Slavic verbs with the reflexive enclitic, within the framework of this very question only their passive meaning is of some importance, the rest is irrelevant here.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 23, 2023 at 0:42
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Punjabi and Sindhi both have synthetic passive conjugations for verbs, formed by infixing and shift of stress from the stem to the infix.

An example from Punjabi:

ਖਾਵਣ کھاوݨ (ˈkhā.vaṇ) gerund, “to eat”

ਖਵੀਜਣ کھویجݨ (khaˈvī.jaṇ) gerund, “to be eaten”

ਖਾਂਦਾ کھاندا (ˈkhān.dā) imperfect participle, “eats”

ਖਵੀਂਦਾ کھویندا (khaˈvīn.dā) imperfect participle, “is eaten”

The passive conjugations of verbs in Punjabi are mostly fossilized archaic forms although there are a handful of loan verbs to which the pattern has been applied. In Sindhi the formation of passives is more regular and broadly applicable.

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What actually about English active participle “singing”, passive participle “sung”, as thus in lots of modern IE languages?

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  • What is wrong with this answer?
    – fdb
    Dec 22, 2023 at 15:23
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    "Synthetic" means (or at least entails) that the passive form does not involve an auxiliary verb. In English, it does: the passive form consists of the auxiliary verb to be plus a participle.
    – Pilcrow
    Dec 22, 2023 at 18:03
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    @Pilcrow But the passive participle can be used without an auxiliary, e.g."fried fish"
    – fdb
    Dec 22, 2023 at 18:38
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    Sure, but this is not what linguists mean when they talk about a synthetic passive voice. They mean that the predicate in a passive sentence is synthetic (as opposed to analytic, i.e. involving an auxiliary construction), not that a passive participle can be used as an attribute of a noun.
    – Pilcrow
    Dec 22, 2023 at 19:01
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    @fdb typically when people talk about "a synthetic passive" they mean a finite verb, not non-finite ones (so not participles or infinitives). Whether they can head an independent sentence is a common test for this and would include things like the Latin passive, Celtic impersonal forms, and the North Germanic neo-middle, but not the passive participles common throughout Indo-European
    – Tristan
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:54

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