In past episodes, we claimed that the participants in the activity that the verb represents start off inside the verb phrase. This explains why some languages seem to have both their subjects and objects showing up so low inside any given sentence. For example, in Welsh, the subject shows up between the verb and the object, suggesting it might be somewhere in the VP.
(1) Gwelodd Siôn ddraig
saw-3SGPST John dragon
‘John saw a dragon’
In English, the subject doesn’t stay down there; instead, it moves up into a higher part of the structure. Nevertheless, we can see that it sometimes leaves a bit of itself behind.
(2a) All the patients will [VP get better]
(2b) The patients will [VP all get better]
Now we’ve claimed that, for both syntactic and semantic reasons, we shouldn’t visualize verb phrases as the monolith shown below, on the left. Instead, it’s better to think of the verb phrase as being split, into an upper part and a lower part. The lower half — the meat of the VP — contains the verb itself, and any objects that it needs to feel complete. The upper half consists of a kind of second verb phrase; it ends up encompassing the main one, not unlike how auxiliary and modal VPs sometimes do (e.g., “might have been switched”).
And this new verbal region includes both the subject and, in languages with more well-rounded morphology, a special kind of affix that ties everything together.
A consequence of this division of labour is that we might expect to find some sentences lacking in this layer. To put it in more practical terms, we should look for sentences that are short an agent — a doer to set the events described by the VP in motion. And, of course, when we search through our speech, it isn’t too long before we find just that.
One of the most familiar kinds of sentences that come absent an agent are passive sentences. With their familiar form of “be” and optional ‘by-phrase,’ their most notable feature consists in putting objects in subject position.
(3a) They took David’s sister.
(3b) David’s sister was taken.
And in our recent discussion on the relationship between active sentences and passive ones, we mentioned Burzio’s Generalization, which makes the observation that there’s a one-to-one connection between sentences that have no agent, and sentences which have no phrases marked with accusative case (e.g., “them” versus “they”). We suggested this had something to do with the passive “be” and its accompanying affix “-en.” But in cleaving the verb phrase in two, we can develop a much more satisfying picture. To see how, let’s focus in on what the split really does.
In the episode, we said that one thing this new structure did was give ditransitive verbs like “put” some breathing room inside the lower VP, so that all objects — direct and indirect alike — could live in harmony.
Something else this does, though, is put the main object — which is something that normally shows up with accusative case (e.g., “put him in there”) — right beside our new, little ‘v’ and its agent-adding powers. And this puts us just a step away from understanding what’s going on: if we imagine for a moment that that little ‘v’ is in charge of adding agents and doling out accusative case to whatever’s right next to it, then we can ask what happens when it disappears.
Well, the agent goes missing, and so does any instance of accusative case! Two entirely separate things that shouldn’t really have anything to do with each other unexpectedly synch up, and we finally make sense of Burzio’s Generalization. With that little ‘v’ pulling double duty, agents and accusatives actually go hand-in-hand.
Of course, passives aren’t the only sentences prone to pairing up with more object-like subjects. On top of alternating verbs like “roll” and “melt,” which we first used to introduce the idea of dividing things up, we find that some verbs always arrive agent-free. In “He deteriorated,” “he” plays no real role in what’s happening, and any attempt to use an active subject sounds weird.
(4a) He deteriorated.
(4b) *They deteriorated him.
And raising verbs like “seem” and “appear” work along those same lines; they don’t come with subjects of their own, and sometimes even resort to stealing one from the following clause. Splitting the verb phrase now just means that these verbs come without an upper vP.
(5a) It seems he’s psychic.
(5b) He seems to be psychic.
Even straightforwardly transitive verbs like “eat” and “sell” can drop their agents under the right circumstances, showing off what’s sometimes called the ‘middle voice.’
(6) This idea won’t sell easily.
Expressions like these have even found their way into the slogans of pop culture!
So passive verbs, certain intransitives, and even ordinary transitives can, and sometimes must, occur without this outer layer, fitting snugly into our new paradigm. And some languages even flag when this new structure of ours shows up, in spite of its often stealthy character. Italian uses a separate set of auxiliary verbs when in the presence of a vP (“ha” for “have”), as opposed to when not (“è” for “be”). And a similar verbal scheme can be seen at work in German.
(7a) Maria ha telefonato
‘Maria has telephoned’
(7b) Maria è arrivata
‘Maria is arrived’
(8a) Die Maria hat telefoniert
‘Maria has telephoned’
(8b) Die Maria ist angekommen
‘Maria is arrived’
Thus, the structures underlying all languages emerge little by little, not only by way of English, but through the lens of languages arranged in ways that pull apart and shine light on these otherwise guarded secrets!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about passives, causatives, and more. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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