Re: Human language (long)

John A. Halloran (
25 Jan 1997 19:40:06 -0700

In article <> (Gregoire) writes:

>-> John A. Halloran wrote:
>-> >
>-> > In article <>
> (Gregoire) writes:
>-> > >->
>-> > >Apparently, the passive voice--not centered in the self as chief
>-> > >controller of events--was common in many tribal languages (like Dakota)
>-> > >[see Werner M€ller,
>-> > >"The 'Passivity' of Language amd the Experience of Nature: A Study in the
>-> > >Structure of the Primitive Mind" (1968). It's old and but one example.]
>-> >
>-> > Thanks for the reference - by passive voice do you mean the same as the
>-> > ergative construction?

>Active (western European): "*I* killed the buffalo."

>Passive (indigenous or participatory): "The buffalo was killed by
> my hand." Or even "The buffalo accepted its death from me."

>The difference in feeling as a piece of larger natural forces and
>the self-inflation of doing it all (western colonial entrepreneurialism)
>is enormous, if not unspeakable.

This is very interesting. The late Sumerian scholar Thorkild Jacobsen shortly
before his death offered a tentative explanation of how the Sumerian ergative
construction developed.

The sentence:

lu2-e e2.0 mu.n.du3.0 which is normally translated as

lu2 (man) - e (ergative agent marker) e2 (house) (absolute case)
mu.n (conjugation prefix) du3 (built) (absolute case)

'The man caused the house to be built' in ergative
'The man built the house' in nominative,

Jacobsen characterizes as "passive" and translates it as

'By the man the house was built', taking the suffix -e on lu2 as an
originally locative-terminative mark, saying that over time an originally
locative-terminative mark 'by' has been reinterpreted as an ergative mark on

The reference to Jacobsen is "The Sumerian Verbal Core" in Zeitschrift fuer
Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archaeologie 78 (1988): 161-220, esp. pp.
204-209 and 213-216.

Sandra Chung is supposed to have traced a very similar process in Polynesian
languages. "On the Gradual Nature of Syntactic Change", in Charles N. Li
(ed.), Mechanisms of Syntactic Change (1977), esp. pp. 5-15.


John Halloran