Demoting the agent

Demoting the agent: Passive, middle and other voice phenomena. Ed. by Benjamin Lyngfelt and Torgrim Solstad. (Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics today 96.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2006. Pp. x, 333. ISBN 9789027233608. $188 (Hb).

Reviewed by Wolfgang Schulze, University of Munich

This volume brings together a selection of papers presented at a 2004 workshop at the University of Oslo. Demoting the agent refers to constructional techniques that manipulate the syntactic value of referents marked for an agent(ive) function, and other voice phenomena include reflexives and idiosyncratic patterns such as the locative-agent construction in Eastern Khanty. These underlying patterns are strongly related to accusativity, neglecting ergativity-based patterns such as antipassives. The volume includes data from roughly thirty languages, most spoken in Europe, although non-European languages such as Khanty, Hebrew, and Tucano are also included.

The book contains twelve papers, preceded by a preface and an introductory paper and followed by three indices (languages, names, subjects). In the introductory paper, ‘Perspectives on demotion: Introduction to the volume’ (1–20), the editors, Torgrin Solstad and Benjamin Lyngfelt, discuss the semantic and pragmatic value of passives. Elisabet Engdahl, ‘Semantic and syntactic patterns in Swedish passives’ (21–45), elaborates the two types of Swedish passivization alluded to in the introduction. A strong pragmatic perspective is taken in ‘The Eastern Khanty locative-agent constructions: A functional discourse-pragmatic perspective’ (47–82) by Andrey Filtchenko. Filtchenko claims that the locative-agent construction in Eastern Khanty manipulates degrees of agentivity, control, and volition in terms of a discourse status shift.

In ‘Agent back-grounding as a functional domain: Reflexivization and passivization in Czech and Russian’ (83–99), Mirjam Fried presents an interesting study of the constructional value of two types of voice, and in ‘Invisible arguments: Effects of demotion in Estonian and Finnish’ (111–41), Elsi Kaiser and Virve-Anneli Vihman submit a test-based study on impersonal and zero person passives. Dalina Kallulli, ‘Argument demotion as feature suppression’ (143–66), argues in favor of a unified, syntax-based account of passives and anticausatives.

Marika Lekakou’s contribution, ‘A comparative view of the requirement for adverbial modification in middles’ (167–96), addresses the question of why Germanic middles require adverbial modification. In ‘From passive to active: Syntactic change in progress in Icelandic’ (197–223), Joan Maling discusses the typologically well-known fact that in Icelandic the object(ive) in a passive construction can acquire accusative properties. Anneliese Pitz, ‘The relation between information structure, syntactic structure and passive’ (225–48), analyzes the translational processes related to passives in German and Norwegian.

‘Syntax and semantics of the deontic WANT-passive in Italo-Romance’ (249–74), by Eva-Maria Remberger, is a thoughtful study of constructions of deontic modality (i.e. necessivity) present in certain types of passives. In ‘Agentivity and the virtual reflexive construction’ (275–300), Nola M. Stephens turns to so-called virtual reflexives, arguing for a semantic interpretation. The last paper, ‘Arguments in middles’ (301–26) by Thomas Stroik, presents a syntax-based approach to thematic roles in middle constructions.

In sum, this volume is an important and highly welcomed contribution to the study of agent demotion strategies in (primarily) European languages.