Obsolete technologies and middle verbs

A pair of Zits strips, from yesterday and today:


The theme is the looming obsolescence of technologies and their supporting infrastructures and social practices, in this case the system of mail delivery (cue Thomas Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49), with all its parts and accompaniments: postage stamps, envelopes and postcards, mail boxes, mail transport and delivery systems, posthorns and their tunes, delivery personnel in uniforms, mail slots, post offices, conventions for the form of letters, and more. If you’re young and well wired these days, this all could be as mysterious and exotic as analog clocks.

Jeremy is wary of the whole business.

And yes, Pynchon is relevant.

On the novella, from Wikipedia:

The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1965. The shortest of Pynchon’s novels, it is about a woman, Oedipa Maas, possibly unearthing the centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero (or Tristero). The former actually existed and was the first firm to distribute postal mail; the latter is Pynchon’s invention.

Tristero’s muted post horn symbol:


And the Thurn und Taxis coat of arms, which is pretty much irrelevant to this posting, but I enjoy it:


A gay digression, with food. At one point in the novella, Oedipa is herded, along with a bunch of tourists, into a bar called The Greek Way, which is of course a gay bar (with Greek a reference to anal intercourse). I was so hoping to find an actual The Greek Way, but alas no. But there is at least a recipe:

(#5) A recipe for your beefy Greek lifestyle

Beef stifado (various spellings adapted from the Greek name, plus others for the Italian counterpart) is a hearty peasant beef stew, featuring lots of whole onions. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

How do you know it sent?  Then there’s the linguistic point in the fourth panel of #2: send used as a middle verb (here in the PST) — speaking very loosely, active in syntax but passive in semantics (the envelope is sent).

From Wikipedia on middle voice:

Some languages (such as Albanian, Bengali, Fula, Tamil, Sanskrit, Icelandic, Swedish, Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek) have a middle voice, which is a set of inflections or constructions which is to some extent different from both the active and passive voices. The middle voice is said to be in the middle between the active and the passive voices because the subject often cannot be categorized as either agent or patient but may have elements of both. For example, it may express what would be an intransitive verb in English. In The casserole cooked in the oven, cooked is syntactically active but semantically passive [in the sense that it denotes an affected participant in the cooking situation].

On middle verbs in English: English has no morphological middle voice, nor a morphological passive voice for that matter (instead, there are passive constructions, most using the PSP form of a verb, as in the agentive passive Jamie was mobbed by adoring fans). The middle verb argument structure has an intransitive verb with its subject understood as referring to the affected (aka patient) participant in an action (subjects prototypically refer to agents, but various sorts of patient subjects are possible); either no agent participant is specified (because it is generic or because no specific agent can or need be identified) or the subject refers to the agent as well as the patient.

So, three main types in English:

generic agent: Her new book reads easily ‘Her new book is easy to read’

unidentified agent: This cake cooks quickly.

reflexive: Harry shaved ‘Harry shaved himself’ (with object omission)

All are intransitive verbs, with nothing marking them as passive, morphologically or syntactically, despite their interpretation.

(Some discussion of middle constructions by Ben Zimmer on Language Log on 1/31/16, with a link to an earlier posting by Mark Liberman.)

On general points about the alignment of syntactic functions (like subject and direct object) with participant roles in situations (like agent and patient), from my 6/16/11 posting “Participant roles of subjects”:

in the real world, agents are sometimes expressed by non-subjects (as in the by-phrases of agentive passives) and subjects very often denote non-agent participants in some situation

One Response to “Obsolete technologies and middle verbs”

  1. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    One thing I’ve always wondered (well, not ALWAYS always…) is why intransitive VPs are often described as being in the active voice, as opposed to being neither active nor [passive – AMZ]. E.g., the excerpt from Wikipedia calls middle voice VPs syntactically [active – AMZ]. Is it because a middle-voice VP doesn’t follow the pattern be/get+PSP? Or what?
    AMZ: English doesn’t have a morphological passive voice, but it does have a small family of syntactic constructions that have the semantics of passive voice in languages that have a morphological voice. That is, be/get + PSP is what works most like passive voice in English. Middle verbs in English do not have this syntax; they have, instead, ordinary (active) syntax.

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