Speaker Series: Bill Haddican

Apr 23, 2015 at - | IRCS Conference Room

Object symmetry effects across Germanic


(Joint work with Anders Holmberg)


This talk focuses on the passive symmetry problem—how to understand cross-linguistic variation in the availability of theme passivization out of double object constructions. Some varieties, “asymmetric passive” languages/dialects, allow only the higher, goal argument to passivize, as in the standard English example in (2). Other varieties, “symmetric passive” languages, allow both the theme and goal arguments to passivize. Such is the case for some northern and western British English dialects, which allow both (1) and (2).

(1) Maria was given a book. (Goal passivization)

(2) %A book was given Maria. (Theme passivization)


The consensus view in contemporary syntax to express these cross-linguistic/cross-dialectal differences in terms of locality: in asymmetric passive varieties, passivization of the theme is blocked by the intervening goal argument; symmetric passive languages/dialects differ in having an extra movement step through an equidistant “escape hatch” position, making theme-passivization possible (Ura 1996, McGinnis 1998, Anagnostopoulou 2003). An alternative view is that the variation between (2) and (3) reflects differences in the way that case is assigned to the two objects in symmetric and asymmetric passive languages (Baker 1988, Woolford 1993, Citko 2008).


In this talk, we discuss evidence from large-sample judgment experiments with speakers of British English, Swedish and Norwegian—all of which have considerable cross-speaker variation in the acceptability of theme-passivization. The results suggest that passive symmetry is not a unified phenomenon but rather that there are several different ways that locality can be circumvented. We argue that neither of the two principal models of object symmetry effects—the case approach and the locality approach—are exclusively correct, but rather that both are needed to model the relevant facts across Germanic varieties.