• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show full table of contents
6.2.4.The function of the past/passive participle and the auxiliary

So far, Section 6.2 has shown that there are probably no more than two verbal constructions in which participles may appear as the complement of some other verb, viz., the perfect tense and passive construction. This section considers what the function of, respectively, the perfect/passive auxiliaries and the past/passive participles is. We will begin by arguing that past and passive participles are similar in that they express a perfective meaning aspect. If this is true, it may have certain implications for the function of the auxiliaries.

[+]  I.  The meaning contribution of the past/passive participle

Section 1.5.1 has shown that the characteristic property of perfect-tense constructions is that the eventuality denoted by the main verb is presented as completed. This is illustrated for the transitive verb lezen'to read' in the primeless example in (131): whereas the imperfect-tense construction in (131a) presents the eventuality of reading a book as an ongoing event, the perfective-tense construction in (131b) presents it as completed. The primed examples in (131) illustrate the same thing for the unaccusative verb vallen'to fall'.

Example 131
a. Marie leest een boek.
  Marie  reads  a book
  'Marie is reading a book.'
a'. De bladeren vallen.
  the leaves  fall
  'The leaves are falling.'
b. Marie heeft een boek gelezen.
  Marie has  a book  read
  'Marie has read a book.'
b'. De bladeren zijn gevallen.
  the leaves  are  fallen
  'The leaves have fallen.'

The question we want to raise now is whether the perfective meaning is introduced by the past participle of the main verb or by the accompanying perfect auxiliary. The latter would imply that the expression of perfective meaning requires the presence of an auxiliary, but this happens not to be true. The examples in (132), for example, show that the past participle may also express perfectivity on its own as an attributive modifier; in this function it stands in opposition to the present participle which is used to express imperfective meaning.

Example 132
a. het lezende meisje
  the  reading  girl
a'. het gelezen boek
  the  read  book
b. de vallende/gevallen bladeren
  the  falling/fallen  leaves

Note in passing that in the case of transitive verbs, the modified nouns also differ in the two attributive constructions; while the past participle modifies a noun that corresponds to the internal (theme) argument, the present participle modifies a noun that corresponds to the external (agent) argument of the verb lezen'to read'. The internal argument of the unaccusative verb vallen'to fall', on the other hand, can be modified either by the past or by the present participle. See Section 2.1.2, sub IID, for more extensive discussion of this.
      That perfective meaning is expressed by the past participles can also be shown by means of non-finite constructions such as (133), which are normally used to express surprise by the speaker about some presupposition apparently held by his interlocutor; it often functions as an emphatic denial of this presupposition. Example (133a) presents the eventuality of Peter taking his degree as ongoing: the (presumed) completion of this eventuality is situated after the speech time. The default interpretation of example (133b), on the other hand, is similar to that of the corresponding present perfect sentence Jan is gisteren gepromoveerd'Jan took his PhD degree yesterday' in that it locates the (alleged) completion of this eventuality in the time interval preceding speech time.

Example 133
a. Peter/Hij, promoveren? Nee!
  Peter/he  take.his.degree  no
  'Peter/him, taking his PhD degree?! No way!'
b. Peter/Hij, gisteren gepromoveerd?! Nee!
  Peter/he  yesterday  taken.his.degree  no
  'Peter/Him, he took his PhD degree yesterday?! No way!'

      The discussion above strongly suggests that perfective aspect is a meaning contribution of the past participle. In fact, it appears that we may attribute a similar meaning contribution to the passive participle. The reason for claiming this is that it is not a priori clear whether the participle in (132a') is a past or a passive participle: the fact that we can easily add an agentive door-phrase to this example suggests that the latter is at least a possibility. Of course, similar examples cannot be given for unaccusative verbs like vallen'to fall' in (132b) simply because such verbs do not allow passivization.

Example 134
het door Marie gelezen boek
  the  by Marie  read  book
'the book read by Marie'

A viable working hypothesis therefore seems to be that past and passive participles are alike in that they both present the eventuality as completed; see Duinhoven (1985) for a similar conclusion. Section 1.5.1 further argued that the perfect tenses do not locate the eventuality of the event as a whole in a specific temporal domain, but only its end point. In future examples such as (135), for example, it is not the complete event of the reading of the book/falling of the leaves that is situated after speech time, but only the reaching of the end point of this event—Marie may have started reading the book a long time ago, and the same thing may hold for the falling of the leaves.

Example 135
a. Marie zal het boek vanmiddag gelezen hebben.
  Marie will  the book  this.afternoon  read  have
  'Marie will have read the book by this afternoon.'
b. De bladeren zullen morgen allemaal gevallen zijn.
  the leaves  will  tomorrow  all  fallen  be
  'The leaves will all have fallen tomorrow.'

The past/passive participles in the attributive constructions in (132) and (134) are like set-denoting adjectives in that they denote a property of the modified noun, namely that it has reached some endpoint of the eventuality denoted by the input verb of the past/passive participle. In this connection, it is interesting to note that passive participles are like set-denoting adjectives in that they do not take an agentive argument; in fact, it is one of the characteristic properties of passivization that the agent of the input verb is demoted to adjunct status. Let us for the sake of the argument assume the far from obvious position that past participles are likewise incapable of taking an agentive argument, and see what this may teach us about the function of the perfect/passive auxiliaries.

[+]  II.  The function of the past/passive auxiliaries

The standard hypothesis is that past and passive participle differ in their case-assigning abilities: past participles can assign accusative case to their internal theme argument, which therefore surfaces as a direct object, as in (136a); passive participles cannot assign accusative case to their internal theme argument, as a result of which the internal theme argument must surface as the subject, with the consequence that the original subject is demoted to adjunct, as in (136b); see Jaeggli (1986) and Roberts (1987) for a possible rationale of this difference in case-assignment.

Example 136
a. Jan heeft de auto/hemacc gekocht.
past participle
  Jan has  the car/him  bought
  'Jan/He has bought the car/it.'
b. De auto/Hijnom is (door Jan) gekocht.
passive participle
  the car/he  has.been  by Jan  bought
  'The car/it has been bought by Jan.'

This subsection will adopt the more controversial hypothesis put forward in Subsection I that perfect and passive auxiliaries constitute a single category; see Hoekstra (1984a) for a similar proposal. Our initial observation is that the perfect auxiliary zijn'to be' and the passive auxiliary worden'to be' are homophonous with the copulas zijn'to be' and worden'to become'. This could, of course, be completely accidental, but the more interesting assumption would be that it indicates that the auxiliaries zijn/worden have one or more crucial properties in common with the copulas zijn/worden. Let us therefore have a closer look at the function of the latter category.

Example 137
a. Marie is ziek.
  Marie is ill
b. Marie wordt ziek.
  Marie becomes  ill

It seems that copula zijn does not play any semantic role in the sense of traditional calculus logic: the adjective is predicated of the noun phrase Marie and this makes the well-formed proposition ziek(Marie). One reason for assuming that the copula must nevertheless be present is that it is needed in order to express present or past tense. In fact, it might be claimed that the same thing holds for zijn in the perfect-tense construction in (138); Subsection I has shown that the perfect auxiliary is not needed to express the perfective meaning aspect, but nevertheless it is needed to express present/past tense in order to locate the perfect eventuality within the present/past-tense interval.

Example 138
De bladeren zijn gevallen.
  the leaves  are  fallen
'The leaves have fallen.'

The copula worden in (137b) does not have any semantic function in the sense of calculus logic either, but it still does have a semantic contribution of its own in that it indicates that the logical subject of the adjective is involved in a polarity transition: Marie is undergoing a change from a state in which she is healthy (not ill) into a state in which she is ill. Interestingly, the passive auxiliary worden has a similar contribution to make; an example such as (139) likewise expresses that the book is undergoing a change from a state in which it is not read (by Marie) to a state in which it is.

Example 139
Het boek wordt (door Marie) gelezen.
  the book  is   by Marie  read
'The book is read by Marie.'

      Now that we have seen that auxiliaries zijn and worden do have properties in common with the copulas zijn and worden, let us consider the auxiliary hebben'to have'. When we compare the passive construction in (139) to the perfect-tense construction in (140), we observe two conspicuous differences between the two constructions: (i) whereas the internal argument of the main verb surfaces as the nominative subject of the clause in the passive construction, it is assigned accusative case in the perfect-tense construction; (ii) the external argument (agent) of the main verb cannot be expressed as a nominal argument in the passive construction, whereas it can in the perfect-tense construction.

Example 140
Jan heeft het boek gelezen.
  Jan has  the book  read
'Jan has read the book.'

If past and passive participles are indeed of the same type, these two differences must be attributed to the copular verb and the auxiliary. This seems possible if we assume that participles are not able to assign accusative case—this is, of course, a standard assumption for the passive participle, given that it is needed to account for the promotion of the direct object to subject, but not for the past participle. On this assumption the fact that the internal argument of the verb lezen can be assigned accusative case in the perfect-tense example in (140) should be accounted for by assuming that hebben is not only able to assign accusative case as a main verb, in examples such as (141), but also as an auxiliary.

Example 141
Jan heeft mijn auto/hem.
  Jan has  my car/him
'Jan has my car/it.'

That hebben can also assign accusative case in functions other than that of main verb can be independently supported by the (semi-)copular constructions in (142), which show that the nominative subject of the copular construction with zijn may appear as an accusative object in the semi-copular construction in (142b) with hebben. This follows directly if zijn and hebben differ in that only the latter is able to assign accusative case to the noun phrase het raam'the window', which functions as the subject of the set-denoting adjective open/dicht: with the copula zijn the noun phrase het raam must surface as the subject of the sentence in order to receive nominative case, whereas it may surface with accusative case with the semi-copula hebben.

Example 142
a. Het raami is [ti open/dicht].
  the window  is  open/closed
  'The window is open/closed.'
b. Jan heeft [het raam open/dicht].
  Jan has   the window  open/closed
  'Jan has the window open/closed.'

The examples in (142) also show another important property of the non-main verb hebben, namely that it may introduce an additional nominal argument like Jan. This property of hebben enables us to accounts for the second difference between the passive and perfect-tense construction; if passive and past participles are indeed of the same type, the past participle cannot be held responsible for the presence of the subject Jan in (140), which must therefore be attributed to the auxiliary hebben.
      If we continue this line of reasoning, the fact that the auxiliary worden'to become' triggers passivization in (139) can be attributed to its unaccusative status (which is clear from the fact that it takes the auxiliary zijn in the perfect tense): since neither the passive participle nor the auxiliary worden is able to assign accusative case to the internal (theme) argument of lezen, the latter must appear as the nominative subject of the clause.
      The use of the perfect auxiliary hebben in perfect-tense constructions with intransitive verbs like lachen'to laugh' cannot be motivated by appealing to the need of assigning accusative case because intransitive verbs do not take an internal argument that needs this case. Nevertheless, hebben may be needed in (143a) to (re-)introduce the agent of the main verb; the auxiliary worden can be used in the impersonal passive in (143b) because it is neither needed to assign accusative case nor to (re-)introduce the agent of the verb lachen.

Example 143
a. Jan heeft gelachen.
  Jan has  laughed
b. Er wordt gelachen.
  there  is  laughed

      This account of auxiliary selection in the passive/perfect-tense constructions in (139), (140) and (143) may also explain the fact that the perfect auxiliary zijn is often used in perfect-tense constructions with unaccusative verbs like vallen'to fall', as shown in (138); since the internal arguments of such verbs already surface as the nominative subject in simple present/past-tense constructions, it is not necessary to use the verb hebben in the corresponding perfect-tense constructions; there is no need to assign accusative case or to introduce an additional agentive argument, and, consequently, the use of the unaccusative verb zijn suffices for the expression of present/past tense.
      Above we argued from a synchronic point of view that the difference between perfect-tense and passive constructions is not due to the participles but to the auxiliaries used in these constructions. We will reinforce this point by discussing some diachronic and dialectal evidence that supports this proposal. In his reconstruction of the development of the various types of participles, Duinhoven (1985) argues that diachronically participles have a non-verbal base: the suffixes -end and -t/-d/-en that derive present and past/passive participles originated as postpositions that express, respectively, simultaneousness and completeness. At some point, the internal structure of these adpositional phrases became obscure, as a result of which they were reinterpreted as adjectival. At yet another stage, the use of the adjectival past participles in predicative position led to a verbal interpretation. More precisely, the semi-copular construction in (144a), which expresses that Jan has a letter in a completed (written) state, was reinterpreted as in (144b), as a result of which a dynamic meaning aspect was added to the construction. Duinhoven claims that once this reinterpretation had taken place for dyadic verbs, the clausal structure was also applied to monadic verbs, which gave rise to the current productive perfect-tense construction.

Example 144
a. Jan heeftcopular [SC de brief geschrevenA] ⇒
  Jan has  the letter  written
b. Jan heeftauxiliary de brief geschrevenV
  Jan has  the letter  written
  'Jan has the letter written.'

Duinhoven's reconstruction is entirely compatible with the proposal above. First, it accounts for the fact that past and passive participles have the adjectival properties that they are not able to assign accusative case and that they do not take an external (agentive) argument. Second, if we assume that the case-assigning and thematic properties of the verb hebben and the participle geschreven are taken to be the same in the two constructions in (144), the reinterpretation involves just one single feature, namely the categorial status of the participle: the participle in (144a) is adjectival and denotes a stative property whereas the participle in (144b) is verbal and denotes a (completed) dynamic eventuality. In non-standard varieties of Dutch that have a productive semi-copular construction, the ambiguity in (144) still arises. This was illustrated in Section A9.3.1, sub IA2, by means of example (145); whereas this example only has a perfect-tense interpretation in Standard Dutch, it is ambiguous between a perfect-tense and semi-copular reading in such non-standard varieties. We refer the reader to this section for more discussion.

Example 145
Hij heeft de fiets gestolen.
  he  has  the bicycle  stolen
Past perfect construction: 'He has stolen the bike.'
Semi-copular construction: 'His bike was stolen.'
[+]  III.  Conclusion

The previous subsections argued that past and passive participles constitute a single category, and that it is the choice of the auxiliary that determines whether we are dealing with a passive or a perfect-tense construction. Such an analysis presupposes that the properties normally attributed to passive participles also hold for past participles: participles have the adjectival properties (i) that they are not able to assign accusative case and (ii) do not take an external (agentive) argument. That participles have these adjectival properties should not be surprising as past and passive participles diachronically derive from adjectives. It should be noted, however, that past and passive participles do not have the categorial status of adjectives given that they exhibit different syntactic behavior (e.g. with respect to verb clustering).
      The perfect auxiliary hebben is used in perfect-tense constructions of transitive verbs since it can assign accusative case to the internal argument of the participle and/or (re-)introduce the agentive argument of its input verb. Since the passive auxiliary worden does not have these properties, the internal argument (if present) of the participle will be promoted to subject. The auxiliary zijn is often used as a perfect auxiliary with unaccusative verbs because there is no need in such cases to assign accusative case or to (re-)introduce an argument of the input verb.

  • Duinhoven, A.M1985De deelwoorden vroeger en nuVoortgang697-138
  • Duinhoven, A.M1985De deelwoorden vroeger en nuVoortgang697-138
  • Hoekstra, Teun1984Transitivity. Grammatical relations in government-binding theoryDordrecht/CinnaminsonForis Publications
  • Jaegli, Osvaldo1986PassiveLinguistic Inquiry17587-622
  • Roberts, Ian1987The representation of implicit and dethematized subjectsDordrechtForis Publications