tlhIngan-Hol Archive: Wed Nov 25 16:39:11 2009

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Re: The topic marker -'e'

Christopher Doty (

Okay, let me try to clarify a bit what I was saying, since I clearly
wasn't explicit enough.  I often forget how much knowledge a lay
person has about linguistics and terminology, and I didn't give enough
background.  This is pretty long, and not much about Klingon, but I
need to outline what I meant a bit more clearly for those who care (if
only to find some typo or mistake I've made and then respond only to
that :).

There are basically two ways to look at differences and similarities
between languages: based on structure or based on function.  Although
structural comparisons are sometimes advocated, I personally believe
(based on lots of evidence and logic; see e.g. below) that identifying
functions, and then looking at the structures that code those
functions provides a much more sound way of examining language.

Consider the case of the passive. About the English passive, we could
say: "Passives in English lose an argument (the A), the O becomes the
S, and the A can optionally be added back in with a phrase starting
with 'by'. Because Klingon doesn't show any of these structural
features, it has no passive."  Although this reasoning appears sound,
if we make a bit more extreme, we can see that it's silly: "Passives
in English have an A that can be optionally added back in with a
phrase starting with "by." Because no other language uses the word
"by," there are not passives in languages other than English."  This
second line of reasoning is much more obviously silly, but essentially
exactly the same: there is no reason that we should expect two
different languages to have the same structures doing the same.

A better way to look at things, then, instead of starting with
structures, is to start with functions.  When we consider what the
various structures that are called passives do in different languages,
we see that the function of a passive is to demote an non-salient
agent.  Now, there is a cline of other features that go along with
this, such as an O becoming and S, or the A being reintroduced, but
none of these things are needed to say that a structure *functions as
a passive*.

When we take a functional perspective to Klingon, we see that there is
a structure to remove/demote an A when it isn't
important/relevant/known: the suffix -lu'.  Now, Klingon doesn't have
the switching of O to S (as I said earlier, I misread that section),
and you can't add the A back in.  This makes the Klingon construction
with -lu' rather a non-canonical passive, but it is, *functionally*,
still a passive.

(Structurally this is, in fact, an inverse construction--which I won't
go into, unless someone wants me to, either on or off list.  However,
the interaction of inverse systems with passives is not all that rare
cross-linguistically, and certainly isn't rare in the Pacific
Northwest, where inverses are often indistinguishable from passives.)

I hope that clarifies what I meant.  I couple of more comments below:

On Wed, Nov 25, 2009 at 15:59, David Trimboli <> wrote:
> This is also not antipassive voice. In antipassive voice, the object
> vanishes or gets demoted; this does not happen here.

I never said anything about this being an antipassive; the antipassive
I was referring to is the use of intransitive prefixes with otherwise
transitive verbs.  This has nothing to do with antipassives.

> I just found something interesting on Wikipedia: fourth person in
> Baltic-Finnish languages:
> These languages have a "common person" which is formed by simply leaving
> out the agent. This sounds very much like Klingon {-lu'}.

This is interesting for a whole variety of reasons, but as I explain
above, the "forth person" in Finnish functionally removes the A.  The
quote from Wikipedia is "The *function* is simply leaving out the
agent" (emphasis mine).  Structurally, it is actually a different
conjugation of the verb.  The issue is a bit more complicated in
Finnish, too, but note that even in Finnish, this construction is
called "passiivi," or "passive."

In North American linguistics, fourth person usually has a slightly
different meaning, which is really referring to an inverse
construction (that is, we're back to looking at inverse and passives
as being similar to/the same as fourth person, even though they have a
whole variety of names that people attach to them).

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