Edited by Marja-Liisa Helasvuo and Lyle Campbell
[Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 277] 2006
► pp. 233–255
Passive — personal or impersonal?
A Finnish perspective
Marja-Liisa Helasvuo’s paper discusses passive constructions in Finnish. Based on a large database of spoken Finnish, she argues that contrary to the received view in Finnish linguistics, there are actually two types of passive in Finnish, namely the so-called simple passive (formed by the verb stem + passive suffix + personal marker) and a periphrastic passive; the latter is the so-called be-passive, formed with the verb ‘to be’ in its 3rd person singular form (on) and a passive participle of the main verb. In the be-passive, the finite verb is in the 3rd person form, but in the simple passive, there is a special passive “personal” marker on the verb. The passive personal marker creates personal reference, but the reference is not explicit, but rather has to be construed from the context. Helasvuo investigates the role of these two types of passives in the Finnish person system and the discourse functions that they serve. She shows that the two passives have quite distinct discourse profiles.
In the linguistic literature, the Finnish passive has been described as impersonal based on the fact that argument relations do not change (see e.g. Comrie 1977). In contrast, in a personal passive, the object of the active clause takes the role of subject in a corresponding passive clause. Helasvuo shows, however, that this use of the term “personal” vs. “impersonal” is misleading: it equates the function of person marking with the coding of the subject role. Instead, she suggests that the function of person marking on verbs is to provide a grammatical means for expressing person, either by explicit reference to person or open reference that has to construed in the context (e.g. the passive). From this perspective, the Finnish passive is by no means impersonal, but instead, is an integral part of the person system for verbs.
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