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Voice and Valence in Q'anjob'al


Grammatical voice is the thematic relationship between a verb and its arguments; for example, a transitive active verb has an agent subject and a patient object, while a passive verb has a patient subject. As an ergative language with frequent use of passive voice and a relatively rare antipassive, the Mayan language Q’anjob’al offers evidence against the typological claim that ergative languages tend to use antipassive more productively than passive. In addition to passive and antipassive, Q’anjob’al argument structure can be affected by agent focus and incorporating morphology. While these operations typically do not involve a change in the number of participants, unlike passive and antipassive, they do alter the syntactic realization of the participants and act as discourse strategies to highlight or background entities. I propose that the non-canonical alignment of the transitive agent with absolutive agreement seen in antipassive and incorporating constructions is highly marked, accounting for their relative rarity.

Passive voice is used in Q'anjob'al when the semantic patient outranks the agent in proximity, a dimension encompassing animacy, definiteness, and discourse prominance. Assigning a structurally superior argument position to a less prominant argument than the internal argument in a transitive sentence is also marked, resulting in the preference for passive structures in such cases.

Incorporation, in which a transitive verb and its object combine to form an intransitive verb, is another option in Q'anjob'al to background the patient, an alternative to antipassive and agent focus. Q'anjob'al incorporation appears to involve a piece of structure larger than the nominal head often assumed to be involved in incorporation, as modification of the incorporated nominal by adjectives and conjunction is possible. Like antipassive, incorporation aligns the transitive agent with absolutive agreement and is relatively rare; however, incorporation differs from antipassive in that it never changes the meaning of the verb root, has no lexical restrictions, and usually does not occur with the omission of an argument.

Agent focus, a construction attested in many Mayan languages in which the verb takes special morphology when the subject of a transitive clause is focused, is an alternative strategy when the patient is more proximate than the agent. Though Q'anjob'al agent focus has sometimes been described as a type of antipassive, it differs from antipassive in that there is no case shift and no reduction in valence. The syntax of agent focus is best represented as a biclausal structure with a null copula in the matrix clause.

Passive and agent focus are less marked in Q'anjob'al, and therefore occur more frequently, than antipassive and incorporation because of the following features they share: preservation of the structural position of the internal argument, canonical alignment of the patient argument with absolutive case, no restrictions on the transitive verbs on which they may appear, and no unpredictable changes in meaning.

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