Grammar And Context 2013


Maria Vilkuna

On the so-called so-called Finnish Passive

Maria Vilkuna
Institute for the Languages of Finland

The title of this presentation echoes the formulation by Shore (1986,1988) of a long-standing controversy concerning the existence of Passive in Finnish, i.e. whether constructions such as (1) and (2) should be called Passive.

(1)       Tartossa               järjestetään              konferenssi.

             Tartu:ine              organize:pass          conference


(2)       Konferenssi       on                 aikaisemmin    järjestetty                        kolme  kertaa.

            conference         be:3sg          earlier                organize:pass:partic    three    times


The phenomenon in question, both as a morphological category and as a clausal construction, has been systematically called Passive in the Finnish grammatical tradition, while this practice has been objected to by linguists with other theoretical backgrounds, for example Shore (op. cit.) and more recently, Blevins (2003), who makes a principled distinction between passive and impersonal constructions and places the Finnish construction among the latter. On the other hand, e.g., Manninen and Nelson (2004) in a generative framework argue for its status a Passive, and it also appears to fulfill the typological criteria of passivehood presented by Siewierska (2005) and Kulikov (2011). Along similar lines, the Comprehensive Finnish Grammar ( opts for the name Impersonal (literally, “unipersonal”) Passive.

My presentation will discuss the nature and solvability of the Finnish Passive question, a matter that obviously depends on assumptions about language-independent grammatical categories such as Passive and Impersonal. Rather than aiming at a definitive answer, however, I will focus on the extremely wide range of uses of the Finnish Passive inflection. The question could also rephrased as whether there is “a” Passive in Finnish. Investigating uses of the construction in different types of data both from dialectal and Standard Finnish, I will evaluate the suggestion that it should be seen as a continuum between two prototypes (Shore 1986, 1988) and consider where the line should be drawn between two passive constructions, the simple passive and the be passive (cf. Helasvuo 2006). I will also relate the question to what has recently been said Estonian linguists regarding the passive and impersonal in Estonian (e.g. Torn-Leesik 2009, Torn-Leesik & Vihmann 2010).



Blevins, James P. 2003. Passives and impersonals. Journal of Linguistics 39. 473–520.

Helasvuo, Marja-Liisa. 2006. Passive – personal or impersonal? A Finnish perspective. In Marja-Liisa Helasvuo & Lyle Campbell (eds.), Grammar from the human perspective, 234–255. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Kulikov, Leonid. 2011. Voice typology. In Jae Jung Song (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, 368–398. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 2005.  Passive constructions. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online,

Shore, Susanna. 1988. On the so-called Finnish passive. Word 39. 151–176.

Shore, Susanna. 1986. Onko suomessa passiivia? [Is there a Passive in Finnish?] Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Torn-Leesik, Reeli. 2009. The voice system of Estonian. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 62. 72–90.

Torn-Leesik, Reeli & Vihman, Virve-Anneli.  2010. The Uses of Impersonals in Spoken Estonian. SKY Journal of Linguistics 23. 301–343.