Level: Linguistics

Passive and active voices in sign language

Verbs can be either passive or active in a sentence structure in language, including ASL (American Sign Language). Passives can be expressed in various ways in languages.

Linguist Terry Janzen explains that "there seem to be two types of passivizing constructions in languages. One is the word order change like English, and the other is a morphological marker that falls on the verb complex - ASL seems to be more like this."

Janzen thinks that "it’s true that topicalization is not the same as passivization, and OSV does not passivize. We think there is a morphological passive form that occurs on verbs in ASL that has nothing to do with word order." Let's look at active voice, passive voice, and topicaliztion.

In active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward. E.g. "The dog bites a man's finger" in English. As for ASL, DOG (IX1) BITE MAN POSS(IX2) FINGER.

This ASL sentence DOG BITE MAN POSS FINGER is the subject-verb-object (SVO) order.

Now, look at the OSV structure: /\MAN POSS(IX2) FINGER/\ IX1 DOG BITE, where the symbol /\ means raised eyebrows (topicalization) and the inflected verb BITE has a spatial agreement.

That is, the sentence /\FINGER/\ DOG BITE is the object-subject-verb (OSV) word order. This OSV sentence structure is known as topicalization.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by some other agent. It's clearly identified by the preposition "by" in English. E.g. "A man's finger was bitten by the dog" in English. In ASL, as Janzen explains, passivization is attributed to a patient's point of view rather than the agent's; that is, defocusing the agent, or having empty reference of the agent.

Janzen and Barber in their journal article demonstrate several ASL sentences with passive construction. A few adapted examples are excerpted from their article to illustrate passivation.

IX-me NAME fs-BIENVENU. NAMED-ME/\ (signed name). "My name is Bienvenu. The name I have been given is (signed name)."

Another example is IF LOOK-OVER-SHOULDER, IX-me TYPE-STILTED." "If my shoulder is being looked over, my typing becomes stilted." or "If someone is looking over my shoulder, my typing becomes stilted." (Janzen, p 292.)

Not all English passive verbs can be translated into ASL passive verbs and vice versa. Some can maintain the same passive or active voice structure in translation without changing its value of the agent or object.

E.g. "The boss is not well-liked."
/\THAT IX BOSS/\ IX-plu LIKE/\ [neg]NOT[neg].

If an interpreter or a signer fails to use the facial grammar properly (e.g. raised eyebrows), the statement would result in a skewed meaning; that is, "the boss doesn't like".

"My car was washed last night." It would be translated into /\MY CAR CL3(ix1)/\ WASH(ix1) DONE LAST+NIGHT, where CL3 is a horizontal "3" classifier that represents the car and the verb WASH is in spatial agreement with the pronoun (classifier).

In addition to the OSV structure used in passive voice structure, rhetorical question (with raised eyebrows) is another way of indicating a passive voice structure.

What are the reasons for using a passive voice utterance in any language?

- When the subject is unknown. E.g. The agent may be sometimes filled in as SOMEONE or IX-plural (e.g. THEY). And the sentence structure can be either OSV (passive) or SVO (active).

- The subject is irrelevant.

- To avoid using accusative "pointing-who" statements or to avoid taking personal responsibility.

- To focus or emphasize on the person or thing acted on. /\BOOK/\ GONE/MISSED!

These are some examples to give you an idea of passivization in sign language. It may be easy to overlook the existence of passive voice in sign language for some reasons, but sign language linguistics and neuroscience help us see and think beyond a boundary of spoken language about the nature of language!


Terry Janzen, Barbara O'Dea, Barbara Shaffer. "The Construal of Events: Passives in American Sign Language". Sign Language Studies. pp 281-310.

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