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The impersonal passive deletes the subject of an intransitive verb. In place of the verb's subject, the construction instead may include a syntactic placeholder, also called a dummy. This placeholder has neither thematic nor referential content. (A similar example is the word "there" in the English phrase "There are three books.")
Test of unergative verbs
In most languages that allow impersonal passives, only unergative verbs may undergo impersonal passivization. Unaccusative verbs may not. The ability to undergo this transformation is a frequently used test to distinguish unergative and unaccusative verbs. In Turkish, for example, the verb çalışmak "to work" is unergative and may therefore be passivized:
- Burada çalış-ıl-ır.
- here work-PASS-PRESENT
- Here it is worked.
- 'Here people work.'
The verb ölmek "to die", however, is unaccusative and may not be passivized:
- *Burada öl-ün-ür.
- here die-PASS-PRESENT
- Here it is died.
- 'Here people die.'
- Here it is alive.
The Dutch impersonal passive can be seen in the following sentences.:76–7
[De jongens]s fluiten. the boys whistle "The boys are whistling."
Er wordt ([door de jongens]) gefloten. there becomes by the boys whistled "There is whistling (by the boys)."
German has an impersonal passive voice, as shown in the examples below:
- Die Kinder schlafen.
- "The children sleep."
Impersonal Passive Voice:
- Es wird geschlafen.
- It is slept.
- "Someone is sleeping."
In the latter example, the subject (Die Kinder, "the children") has been deleted, and in its place is the dummy es "it".
The sentence can be constructed without an overt subject by placing an adverbial in the first position:
- Heute wird geschlafen. Dort wird geschlafen.
- Today is slept. There is slept.
- "Someone is sleeping today. Someone is sleeping there."
Venetian has the Impersonal passive voice, also called intransitive passive, since it is built from intransitive verbs. The verb parlar "to speak" is intransitive and takes an indirect object marked by a "to" or by co "with": although there is no direct object to be promoted to subject, the verb can be passivized becoming subjectless, i.e. impersonal. The usual auxiliary "to be" is employed, in the form xe "is" (with zero-dummy) or in the form gh'è "there is" (with gh'-dummy) depending on the local variety.
- Xe stà parlà co Marco?
- has DUMMY been spoken to Mark? = has someone spoken to Mark?
- (Literally) "Is been spoken to Mark?"
- Xe stà parlà de ti or Gh'è stà parlà de ti
- DUMMY has been spoken about you = someone spoke about you
- (Literally) "Is been spoken about you" or "there is been spoken about you"
Likewise, the verb tełefonar "to phone / to ring up" takes a dative indirect object in Venetian (marked by a "to"), still it is often used in the impersonal passive:
- Xe stà tełefonà a Marco?
- has DUMMY been phoned Mark? = has someone rung up Mark?
- (Literally) "Is been phoned to Mark?"
Differently from German, the subject can be introduced only with the active voice:
- Gavìo parlà co Marco?
- have you spoken to Mark?
- (Literally) "Have-you (pl.) spoken to Mark?"
Latin also has the impersonal passive voice, the most notable example being the phrase (by Virgil)
- Sic itur ad astra.
It is translated "thus one goes to the stars" (i.e. "such is the way to immortality") or "thus you shall go to the stars" but the word itur is the passive form of ire ’to go’ in the third person singular, so its literal meaning could be rendered like "this is how it gets gone to the stars."
Similarly, Saltatur is literally the third person singular passive form of the verb saltare ’to dance,’ and it means "they (or: people) are dancing." Pugnatum est is a perfect passive form of the verb pugnare ’to fight’, so this form means "they were fighting" or "the fight was going on".
Another example is the answer to the question Quid agitur? (approx. "what's up?", lit. "what is being done?") in a play by Plautus: Vivitur, approx. "not too bad", literally: "one is alive" or more precisely, "it is being lived", from the impersonal (intransitive) verb vivere (’to live’).
- Dixon, R. M. W. & Alexandra Aikhenvald (1997). "A Typology of Argument-Determined Constructions. p. 71–112 of Bybee, Haiman, & Thompson (1997). In Bybee, Joan, John Haiman, & Sandra A. Thompson (eds.)(1997). Essays on Language Function and Language Type: Dedicated to T. Givón. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- The Impersonal Passive in German
- Impersonal and Personal Passivization Of Latin Infinitive Constructions: A Scrutiny Of The Structures Called AcI
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