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Review of  Diachronic Change in the English Passive

Reviewer: Rose Rittenhouse
Book Title: Diachronic Change in the English Passive
Book Author: Junichi Toyota
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 21.394

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Author: Junichi Toyota Junichi
Title: Diachronic Change in the English Passive
Series Title: Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Year: 2008

Rose Rittenhouse, Department of German, University of Wisconsin-Madison


In this book, Junichi Toyota examines the periphrastic passive construction and
its historical and modern significance for the passive-voice system of English.
His work focuses on diachronic processes that have affected the passive
construction's morphosyntactic features and semantic functions. Toyota also
locates the periphrastic passive within a wider grouping of structures
representing an increased level of discourse prominence for an (affected) object
relative to the cause of its affectedness. Over the course of nine chapters, he
calculates various frequencies of occurrence relating to the passive and
passive-like structures by using combined data from multiple corpora (the
Helsinki Corpus, the ARCHER Corpus, the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English and
the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus). These data cover the time period from Old
English through Middle English, Modern English and into Present Day English.
Permeating the entire analysis is the concept of 'gradience' (p. 13) and the
argument that voice and its component structures cannot be categorized
discretely, but rather must be treated as belonging to a continuous system. The
ultimate goal of Toyota's study is to determine how the passive voice has been
modified and realized by speakers over the course of the English language's
history and to couple the historical data with a modern synchronic description.

After a brief introduction, including a quick summary of different theoretical
approaches to studying the passive voice, Toyota turns his attention to the
periphrastic passive in English. In Chapter 2, he divides the modern 'be + past
participle' construction into a verbal (dynamic) passive (e.g. 'the house was
ransacked by gang members' [p. 12]), a resultative (stative) passive (such as
'the window was already broken' [p. 256]) and an adjectival (stative) passive
(as in 'the cottage is surrounded by lovely scenery' [p. 256]). He then devotes
the rest of Chapter 2 and all of Chapters 3 and 4 to an examination of the
development, frequencies and functions of each of these three structures.

Although the adjectival copular construction usually posited as the origin of
the dynamic passive (e.g. by Givón 1990:600, 2006) had already begun displaying
characteristics of the verbal passive in Old English, in Chapters 2 and 3 Toyota
points to Middle English as the time period during which the 'be + past
participle' construction underwent its most significant structural and
functional changes. According to Toyota's calculations in Chapter 2, although
dynamic and stative passives could be identified even in early stages of Old
English, the verbal passive did not begin noticeably surpassing the stative
passive in frequency until early Middle English. After this period, the verbal
passive's frequency did begin increasing steadily relative to that of the
stative passive, and Toyota attributes this rise to the gradual establishment of
the (active) perfective 'have + past participle' construction, which enabled
speakers to more fully reanalyze the aspectual characteristics of the copular
'be'- construction in favor of a dynamic aspect. Toyota argues that once the
'have'- construction could represent perfectivity, then '[i]t is plausible to
think that [the emergence of the 'have'-perfect] reduced the association of 'be'
with perfective aspect' (p. 48). As a result, the dynamic progressive passive
found in such constructions as 'was being debated' (p. 42) and 'are being
applied' (p. 43) became possible. In Chapter 3, Toyota compares the diachronic
properties of 'to be' in the 'be + past participle' construction with general
properties of auxiliary verbs and concludes that the process of auxiliary
grammaticalization was completed during Middle English. Additionally, he notes
that the past participle lost the last vestiges of adjectival features (such as
inflectional morphology) during this period.

After this establishment of the historical foundations of the periphrastic
passive, Toyota briefly reverts to a synchronic perspective in Chapter 4 in
order to define the discourse functions of the passive. Three functions are
commonly suggested in the literature: downgrading the importance of an agent
role, highlighting the salience of an object role, and conveying a sense of
verbal inertness (e.g. a sense of 'inactivization of the situation' [Haspelmath
1990:59] or even 'stativization' [Givón 1990:571]). Toyota acknowledges all
three and initially favors the first two, but although he argues in this chapter
for a gradience approach (which should render impossible a clear distinction
between any of the three functions), 'impersonalisation' (p. 99), a means of
downgrading an agent role, eventually emerges as the primary function (pp.
123-125, 240).

In Chapter 5, the diachronic examination is resumed, and Toyota first introduces
his version of Croft's (2001: 283-319) 'conceptual space' (p.138), which serves
as a visual representation of the 'voice continuum' (p.137). The conceptual
space allows the reader to see how each construction with some sort of passive
function fits into the overall English voice system (including the active voice
and a middle voice for the classification of structures with middle-voice
functions). The verbal passive is the most prominent construction, and all of
the other structures are plotted around it. The conceptual space as introduced
in Chapter 5 is relatively basic and displays only the periphrastic
constructions (including the impersonal passive). After this point, the analysis
is expanded in order to include functionally related structures including the
'get'-passive, as in 'John got promoted last week' (p. 157) (Chapter 6). Also
taken into consideration are unaccusative-middles (e.g. 'This new car steers
well' [p. 186]), unaccusatives in progressive form like 'The book is printing'
(p. 188), adjectives ending in '-able' such as 'understandable' (p. 197) and
'needs + -ing' constructions (such as 'This TV needs fixing' [p. 207]), all of
which show more of a middle-voice orientation (Chapter 7). Active constructions
with generic subjects like 'they' or 'one', as found, for example, in 'One may
find it highly amusing' (p. 222), are then addressed in Chapter 8. Inversion,
the movement of an element from its unmarked location in a clause to a marked
and therefore more salient position, is also discussed in Chapter 8, but Toyota
does not consider it in the diachronic analysis due to changing word-order
patterns in English over time. What all of these constructions share is the
ability to impersonalize the agent.

The 'get'-passive receives extra attention because it resembles the canonical
passive structurally and is often considered the result of a redevelopment in
English of the distinction between a stative passive ('be' + past participle)
and a dynamic passive ('get' + past participle). Toyota argues, however, that
the 'get'-passive differs from the canonical passive functionally, e.g. the
'get'-passive overwhelmingly focuses on an animate subject that is more involved
in the action affecting it. Additionally, Toyota provides frequencies of
occurrence based on the corpus data that confirm Givón's (1990: 623) and Dixon's
(2005: 359) suspicion that clauses with 'get'-passives exhibit an agent phrase
less often than is found in canonical passives. According to Toyota's
calculation for Present Day English, for example, only 3 (1.4%) of the 209
written and spoken 'get'-passives collected include an agent phrase (p. 159).
These results are congruent with those of other studies, such as Svartvik
(1966:149), Granger (1983: 194) and Carter and McCarthy (1999: 51), which have
found a relatively low occurrence of agent phrases in 'get'-passives. Toyota
adopts the view that the 'get'-passive was historically a reflexive
construction, which distances it from the canonical passive, since
diachronically, the 'get'-passive has performed a function more compatible with
a middle rather than passive voice.

Chapter 9, the conclusion, synthesizes all of the sub-analyses into one
historical account. Passive-voice patterns in Old English, Middle English, early
Modern English and late Modern English/Present Day English are represented via
separate conceptual spaces. Taken together, the conceptual spaces show that Old
English active structures like the adjectival copular constructions and clauses
with indefinite pronouns were the first to communicate passive-voice meanings.
As time progressed, the adjectival constructions became grammaticalized as
passive verbal structures, and middle-voice-related constructions were developed
and incorporated into the passive-voice system. The final conceptual space thus
shows a passive-voice system that spans the entire voice spectrum in terms of
its structural representations and discourse functions.


This book provides a thorough overview of the development of the English passive
voice and its constituent structures and will be of interest not only to
linguists working on the English passive, but also to those working on voice in
the Germanic languages as a whole. Toyota uses a straightforward tabular format
for presenting his quantitative results across time periods, which helps the
reader easily track the diachronic changes in the various frequencies of
occurrence. The combination of many detailed descriptions of previous theories
and Toyota's own statistical results contextualizes his primarily functionalist
approach (an approach that is emphasized through his use of Role and Reference
Grammar's terms 'actor' and 'undergoer' [cf. Foley and Van Valin 1984]). This
way of presenting the data also highlights Toyota's own quantitative
contributions concerning changing patterns in the English passive (for example,
he calculates the frequency of occurrence of inanimate subjects in the canonical
passive throughout all of the time periods and shows that inanimate subjects
have increased in frequency since Old English [p. 161]).

The diachronic study is heavily dependent on the three-way distinction between
verbal, resultative and adjectival passives. Although descriptions of the
stativity tests used are available in the appendix, and justifications are given
throughout the book for categorization choices, the reader may at times disagree
with Toyota's classification decisions, particularly in relation to the
dynamic-vs.-stative division. Periodically, examples of one group can be found
which might have been classified differently had a different stativity test been
applied. In Chapter 2, for example, Toyota lists this Old English quote as a
resultative: '& he his feorh generede & þeah he wæs oft gewundad' ('and he saved
his life and yet he was often wounded') (both citation and translation taken
from p. 31). This quote may fall under a non-dynamic category based on one of
Toyota's tests, the pseudo-cleft test (p. 258) (which only dynamic passives
should pass), since 'What he does is (to) be wounded often' is of questionable
grammaticality. Under another of the tests, the agentivity test (p. 257),
however, a dynamic reading could obtain: the adverb 'deliberately', the addition
of which should render a stative passive (including a resultative)
ungrammatical, can be inserted into the passive and result in the grammatical
phrase 'was often deliberately wounded'.

The motivation for Toyota's layout of the conceptual spaces is also not entirely
clear. As stated above, the conceptual spaces place the verbal passive in the
center. This means that the active voice and the constructions relevant to it
lie above the passive region, while the middle voice and its associated
structures lie below. The argument is made that the conceptual space should
reflect the fact that the analysis itself is 'passive-centric' (p. 144), but
this design, while useful for showing the relations of the various forms to the
verbal passive, obscures the relations between the active and middle structures
relative to each other and requires the reader to mentally reorder elements in
order to properly conceptualize the overarching voice continuum.

Of greater concern are contradictions between the definition of a term and its
subsequent use in the text. For example, based on the majority of the book, the
resultative passive and adjectival passive should differ because only the
resultative passive highlights an affected object. The adjectival passive
carries perfective aspect but does not imply that the subject of the clause has
been affected by an external source; this difference can be seen in Toyota's
abovementioned resultative example 'the window was already broken', where
someone or something had to actively break the window, versus his adjectival
example 'the cottage is surrounded by lovely scenery', where the scenery is not
performing any actual action on the cottage. Thus, the resultative passive
should be located between the verbal and adjectival passives in terms of
function. The initial definition of the three types of passive, however, lists
the adjectival passive as the intermediate form: ''...the adjectival passive is
stative, like the resultative, but it still preserves undergoer-orientation,
i.e. a causer-causee relationship exists in the adjectival passive'' (p. 13). Not
until pages 30-31 does the reader find the definition that will be used
throughout the rest of the book: in the adjectival passive, ''[t]he subject is
the actor, but the degree of volitionality is quite low and the outer cause is
totally absent,'' whereas ''instances of [the resultative passive] are all
stative, although some kind of actor is detectable in them.'' Additionally, the
clause '[t]he house is surrounded by the forest' is provided on p. 12 as an
example of the resultative passive, but on p. 239 as an example of the adjectival.

Despite these issues, Toyota's analysis successfully combines a detailed
synchronic account of the passive voice with a plausible diachronic explanation
for the modern phenomena. His use of data from multiple corpora spanning all of
the time periods of English fits well with the gradient approach and results in
a conceptual space that reflects not only the functional relationships of the
passive to other structures, but also temporal relationships. Toyota is
therefore able to present a full picture of the evolution of the passive and its
related structures.


Carter, Ronald, and Michael McCarthy. 1999. The English 'get'-passive in spoken
discourse: description and implications for an interpersonal grammar. English
Language and Linguistics 3. 41-58.

Croft, William. 2001. Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in
typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 2005. A semantic approach to English grammar, 2nd edn. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Foley, William A. and Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. 1984. Functional syntax and
Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Givón, T. 1990. Syntax: A functional-typological introduction, Vol. 2.
Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Givón, T. 2006. Grammatical relations in passive clauses: A diachronic
perspective. In: Passivization and typology: Form and function, ed. by Werner
Abraham and Larisa Leisiö, 337-50. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Granger, Sylviane. 1983. The 'be' + past participle construction in spoken
English: With special emphasis on the passive. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Haspelmath, Martin. 1990. The grammaticalization of passive morphology. Studies
in Language 14. 25-72.

Svartvik, Jan. 1966. On voice in the English verb. The Hague: Mouton.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Rose Rittenhouse is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research focuses on voice in the early Germanic languages.

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