Subjects and Objects in the Finnish Passive
Miriam Nussbaum

The Finnish passive is used to describe actions with unspecified performers, and is therefore used in situations where a passive without an agent phrase would be used in English. It differs from the English passive, however, in that what seems to be the derived subject is in the same case as it would be in the corresponding active sentence and subject-verb agreement rules are not triggered, as the following examples show: 

Minä vein hänet poliisiasemalle.      (active)
I take-PAST-1SG s/he-ACC police-station-ALL
‘I took him/her to the police station.’

Hänet vietiin poliisiasemalle.            (passive)
s/he-ACC take-PASS-PAST police-station-ALL
‘S/he was taken to the police station.’

Minut vietiin poliisiasemalle.             (passive)
me-ACC take-PASS-PAST police-station-ALL
‘I was taken to the police station.’

The analysis of this construction as passive has been doubted for several reasons. Shore (1988) argues that it would be better taken as “indefinite,” citing the lack of verbal person and number marking, the fact that intransitive verbs (even unaccusatives) are usable in this form, and the inadmissibility of an agent by-phrase as reasons why it is too different from other passives to be classified as one. Blevins (2003) also notes that the actor in Finnish passive sentences must be human and that direct objects are retained, concluding that what takes place is a process of impersonalization rather than
passivization. Manninen and Nelson (2004), on the other hand, do analyze this verb form as passive, arguing from typology that the features taken by Blevins and Shore as evidence against a passive analysis either are not important cross-linguistically for classification as a passive or can be explained by the Finnish (topic-prominent) version of the EPP. In this paper, I attempt to shed some light on this question by examining grammatical phenomena relating both to the unspecified actor in these sentences and to the element in subject position. I show that although the unspecified actor is incapable of
binding, it can participate in control relations, and is therefore more present than a mere deleted agent in a passive would be. I argue, in fact, that failure of binding by the unspecified actor is to be explained not by its deletion, but by the impossibility of agreement. This analysis is not contradicted by the results of some subjecthood tests that were originally used by Zaenen, Maling, and Thráinsson (1985) for Icelandic, where subjects can also have an exceptional morphological relationship with verbs. For the apparent derived subjects in Finnish passive sentences can be shown – in contrast to non-
nominative subjects in Icelandic – not to be unambiguously subjectlike.

Selected sources:
Blevins, J. (2003). Passives and impersonals. Journal of Linguistics, 39, 473–520.
Manninen, S., & Nelson, D. (2004). What is a passive? The case of Finnish. Studia
Linguistica, 58 (3), 212-251.
Shore, S. (1988). On the so-called Finnish passive. Word, 39, 151-176.
Zaenen, A., Maling, J., & Thráinsson, H. (1985). Case and grammatical functions: The
Icelandic passive. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 3, 441-483.


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