August 05, 2006

Free verbs

In a comment at Language Hat's site, Eimear Ní Mhéalóid observes that "In Irish, the equivalent of the passive voice is referred to as an briathar saor, "the free verb", a far more appealing term I think." As Eimear goes on to suggest, the Irish "autonomous" or "free" verb is not quite equivalent to the English passive. Greene (quoted here) writes:

All tenses of the verb, however, have an impersonal form usually called in Irish grammars the autonomous, which often corresponds to an Irish passive, though its more exact equivalent can be found in French and German constructions with on and man respectively; briseadh an fhuinneog means ‘the window was broken (by somebody or something)’.

and I gather that both in terms of word order and in terms of case marking, the associated noun (here "the window") remains an object, with the subject being unexpressed. But independent of the analogy to Irish, the term "free verb" has a lot of potential. Almost all the common "free" terms have positive lexical associations, even when their referents are controversial: "free enterprise", "free jazz", "free love", "free market", "free software", "free speech", "freestyle", "free thinker", "free verse", "free will", "free world". The only (partial) exceptions that come to mind are "free loader", "free lunch", "free radical" and "free ride". And the trail to "free" renaming has been blazed by "liberty cabbage" and "freedom fries". The direct and vigorous free verb. Liberated from the accusative tyranny of the object. I like it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 5, 2006 08:48 AM