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Passive auxiliaries in English and German

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Abstract

The passive construction constitutes a marked difference between English, which uses the auxiliary <i>be</i>, and German, which uses <i>werden</i> &#8216;become&#8217;. Originally, however, both languages used both verbs. In this paper I argue, based on evidence from Old English, early Middle English, <i>Tatian</i> and <i>Otfrid</i>, that this situation changed when English and German developed different systems of boundedness. Bounded language use construes situations as completed sub-events, emphasizing narrative progress, and making abundant use of time adverbials, which split up an event chronologically and often take up the first position in a verb-second system. In German when this type of bounded language use was grammaticalised, <i>werden</i> grammaticalised as the only passive auxiliary, precisely because it was already predominantly used in bounded clauses. By contrast, the bounded system disappeared in English, as evidenced in the heavy decrease of time adverbials of narrative progress such as <i>&#254;a</i> &#8216;then&#8217;, and the confusion of verb-second-syntax. <i>Weor&#240;an</i>, the Old English cognate of <i>werden</i>, was highly entrenched in these constructions, and disappeared with them. In general, my analysis shows how the bounded-unbounded distinction makes it possible to account for a major difference in the auxiliary system between English and German.

References

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