Indirect passives in English and Greek


  • Morgan Macleod Ulster University
  • Elena Anagnostopoulou University of Crete
  • Dionysios Mertyris Ulster University
  • Christina Sevdali Ulster University



voice, passive, Greek, English, Early Modern English, indirect passive, recipient passive


The indirect passive construction (e.g. I was given a book) is ungrammatical in many languages; however, it is found in both English and Ancient Greek. Much previous work on indirect passives seeks to explain their origin in terms of language-specific developments, and thus has difficulty accounting for the substantial parallels between indirect passives in languages as different typologically as English and Ancient Greek. Using corpus data, we show that in both English and Ancient Greek the acceptability of indirect passives varies widely across different lexemes, a variation that can be predicted only in part by the thematic roles of the arguments in question. The data also show that in both languages, indirect passives occur earliest and most productively in verbs with multiple, potentially ambiguous argument structures; we propose that indirect passives in English and Ancient Greek may have originated in the reanalysis of what were originally direct (i.e. theme-subject) passives. Despite these similarities, indirect passives in English and Greek ultimately followed different diachronic paths, becoming increasingly productive in English but being lost in Greek; some of the factors potentially responsible for this divergence are also examined.