The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 3/3 - Jim Huang

Speaker: Jim Huang (Harvard)
Title: Variation in non-canonical passives
Time: Thursday, March 3, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

Cross-linguistically, there are two major strategies to produce passive sentences. One produces passives by an operation that de-transitivizes (rather, unaccusativizes) the main verb, and the other does so by superimposing an unaccusativized causative verb on a clause that may itself be active. The first, ‘canonical’ strategy is exemplified by the English be passive, and the second, ‘non-canonical’ strategy is exemplified by the Mandarin bei passive. The English get-passive involves a combination of both strategies, with an unnacusativ(ized) get superimposed on a passivized verb. My talk will address three somewhat related aspects of the non-canonical passives.

In Huang (1999) and Huang, Li and Li (2009) the Chinese bei passives are analyzed as involving a semi-lexical verb with a thematic subject that is related to the event clause by control or predication. In view of recent discussions of the control-vs-raising analysis of get-passives and the chameleon character of unaccusatized causatives, I shall show that both analyses of the non-canonical passives are possible, depending on the scenarios involved, up to certain limits, each exhibiting its own characteristic grammatical properties.

I shall then look at three different verbs that have been treated as related to the passive in Chinese: bei, rang and gei. It is shown that the verbs differ in the ‘bandwidths’ in the spectrum of meaning from the causative to the pure unaccusative, both internally and cross-linguistically. The cross-linguistic variation is particularly true of gei between Southern and Northern Mandarin. With respect to Northern Mandarin gei-VP sentences, which has been the topic of important treatment by Shen and Sybesma (2010), I argue that gei is best treated as a raising verb, an unaccusative verb akin to gibt as in German es gibt and give as in English what gives.

Finally, I discuss a new form of non-canonical bei passive that has emerged in Mainland China, particularly in satirical writings on the web, exemplified by bei zisha, bei xiao-ang, bei siwang, bei lüyou, bei shizong (literally, ‘be suicided, be middle-classed, be died, be traveled, be disappeared’), etc. Relying on the lexical decomposition analysis of causatives as in the previous two points, I propose that these involve the passivization of ‘mental causative’ sentences. I liken these to some examples in English, and surmise on their parametric differences.