Pragmatic nature of Mandarin passive-like constructions

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This paper examines the Mandarin <i>bei</i>-construction, which is one of the passive structures typical to many East Asian and South-East Asian languages. The relationship of these passives to the more familiar Indo-European passives has been a topic of much discussion. Huang (forth.:37) suggests that the Indo-European type of languages use passive morphology, which directly alters the argument structure of the active, while East Asian languages use embedding of an active clause or a VP under a ‘get’-like predicate. One of the defining factors of the Indo-European type of passives is the demotion of the Agent (or the suppression of the external argument). Huang (forth.:40) notes, however, that because of the complex structure, the Agent is not demoted in East Asian passives such as the Mandarin <i>bei</i>-passive and the Japanese <i>ni</i>passive. Yet, unlike Huang, I argue that the Mandarin <i>bei</i>-passive is a simple structure and that lack of Agent demotion does not follow from complementation. I suggest that the obligatory Agent demotion in Indo-European passives is the consequence of the thematic hierarchy reflected in the subject-object hierarchy in the basic sentence structure. In Mandarin on the other hand, semantic roles and argumenthood are not the main factors determining the assignment of participant roles in syntax, but pragmatic roles contest with semantic roles. I show that different passive constructions, such as the <i>bei</i>-construction, and different focusing constructions, such as the <i>ba</i>-construction, are components of a voice-like system in Mandarin. I call the these constructions together <i>topic constructions</i>. In many respects, they resemble the <i>focus constructions </i>in languages such as Tagalog. The framework used for the analysis is the Role and Reference Grammar (RRG) and the starting point is the fact that Mandarin is a topic-prominent language lacking purely syntactic relations.


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