Cognitive Approach to the Semantics of the German Passive

Author: Arnett, Carlee
Hopper & Thompson’s (1980) seminal article on transitivity brought forth renewed interest in the passive and other correlates of transitivity. Langacker (1982) and others working with the Cognitive Grammar (CG) framework argue that the passive voice is an independent construction and that it is not a reorganization of the active voice. Language specific problems for the German passive include the use of the dative case to mark certain passive participants, passives formed from verbs and preposition combinations and impersonal passives. This study provides a semantic analysis of all the types of passive constructions found in German and shows that these construction types are related. A corpus of written data is used and the focus is on radial categories of meaning in Modern German.


“…a ground-breaking application of a relatively new framework of linguistic description, Ron Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar (CG), to a well-known and studied area of the grammar of a specific language—the passive in German … The significance of this work by Carlee Arnett lies in its providing important support in favor of a semantic characterization of the German passive, without recourse to questionable concepts of autonomous syntax, which include purely formal constructs such as dummy elements and “abstract case”, multiple levels of syntactic representation, movement rules, universal constraints and filters, etc. As such, the present volume is a very welcome addition to the growing body of analyses of natural languages from the CG perspective, as well as a major contribution to the cognitive analysis of the German language in particular. I am sure that it will be of considerable importance to cognitive grammarians as well as to open-minded researchers of any ilk who are interested in the semantics and function of this construction in German.” – (From the Commendatory Preface) Professor Thomas F. Shannon, University of California at Berkeley

“This book is the first attempt to provide a semantic characterization of the passive in German by way of Cognitive Grammar. Such a characterization has already been provided for English but has been sorely lacking for German. In this well written and well researched book, the author posits a passive prototype for three types of passives: the personal passive with the subject in the nominative case, the personal passive with the nominal in the dative case, and the impersonal passive. Some 841 examples from German texts are used to this end. The author successfully describes the passive as an independent syntactic construction, as opposed to a derivation from its active counterpart. Some assertions of the author include that all passive clauses show some aspects of transitivity, that a variety of passives form a network of meaning, that the uses of prepositions in the passive are extensions of their meanings in active clauses, and that the pronoun es is not a meaningless grammatical marker as is commonly assumed. This study also supports others in the claim that transitivity is a cognitive category organized around a prototype. Anyone interested in a view of language as a conceptual system organized around categories will find this book a welcomed addition to this very important field of study.” – Professor Christopher M. Stevens, Associate UCLA

“Linguistic monographs on syntax normally test the reader's endurance with complex formalism that are inherent to the field, on the one hand, and a minimum concern for writing style, on the other. Fortunately, Dr. Arnett's book on the German passive constitutes a refreshing exception on both accounts by adhering to the principles of clarity whenever possible without compromising on the presentation of the structural intricacies in question: namely, a principled account for the German passive constructions. Her review of how alternate grammatical models (e.g. TGG, GG, GB, RG, LFG, CG) have approached the topic is most welcome and helps explain why German dative nominal passives and impersonal passives with only one participant have not yet received adequate attention in the literature. She finds the appropriate theoretical model for German passives in Cognitive Grammar, in particular, by extending previous work by Hopper & Thompson later refined by Rice. Dr. Arnett convincingly argues against considering the network of German passive constructions as derived from active structures and, then, shows how the concept of transitivity provides the key for understanding the related syntactic and semantic features of the different passive prototypes. Transitivity, in her view, includes not only standard cases involving two-participant verbs, but also those that deal with the notion of agent volitionality and object affectedness. She illustrates these prototypes drawing on a corpus of 841 examples extracted from modern German novels and newspapers. Dr. Arnett's book does service explicitly to syntacticians and implicitly to those engaged in writing German pedagogical materials, while being enjoyable linguistic reading as well.” – Dr. Robert J. Blake, University of California at Davis

Table of Contents

Introduction and Literature Review
Theory and Methodology
The Passive Prototype
Non-Prototypical Passives
Encoding the Agent
Impersonal Passives
Index List of Figures List of Tables