Passive Unfortunate

The LA Review of Books’ China Channel recently featured an essay on the passive voice in Mandarin (HT LanguageLog). Entitled “Passive Aggressive,” it explains a particular Mandarin construction of the passive voice that emphasizes that something happened that has a negative connotation. Example:

Gōngkè bèi gǒu chī diào le
功課 被 狗 吃掉 了
Homework bèi dog eat up le

The homework was eaten up by the dog.

The essay also notes that this “adversative passive” can be found in other Asian languages as well, including many (Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian) that are 100% unrelated to Chinese (or to one another, for that matter). Adversative passive is an example of what linguists call an areal feature, or a linguistic feature that is shared across multiple languages regardless of their relationship with one another.

But is Mandarin’s adversative passive bèi construction actually a parallel to the others? I am skeptical that the parallel is so clear.

In Indonesian and Vietnamese, there are clear grammatical distinctions between a non-adversative passive and the adversative passive. These are things which a student learns in the first year of study. In Vietnamese:

The active voice can be changed to passive voice by adding the following words: “được” if the verb describing the action implies beneficial effects for the agent and “bị” if the verb describing the action implies negative effects. The words “được” and “bị” must stand in front of the main verb.

Trà được trồng ở Nhật Bản.
Tea is grown in Japan.

Anh ta bị chóng mặt.
He is feeling dizzy.

And in Indonesian:

Transitive sentences can be transformed into passive sentences by:

1, making the object of the active sentence become the subject of the passive sentence;
2. replacing the prefix me- with di-
3. making the subject of the active sentence become the agent…

The prefix ter- is also used to express the passive voice but the prefix ter- implies that the action is accidentally done.

As the above link notes, it’s entirely possible in Indonesian to have parallel passive constructions, one of which implies just passive voice, the other what I like to call the “passive unfortunate.”*

Rumahnya dibakar tadi malam [= the house was burned down last night]
Rumahnya terbakar tadi malam [= the house was unfortunately/accidentally burned down last night]

For Mandarin to be a real parallel, we would need there to be a construction of the passive voice that does not imply adversativeness or unfortunateness. Does such a construction exist? This online resource provides examples of passive voice constructions that do not use bèi, but none is presented in the same way as the clear được/bị** or di-/ter- distinctions. If such a parallel does not exist, then the adversativeness of bèi is a pragmatic feature of the passive voice in Mandarin rather than a grammatical one, as in Indonesian ter- and Vietnamese bị.


* Many an Indonesian poem and song lyric features the phrase terjatuh cinta [ = fell in love with involuntarily]. Indonesian also has an oddly rich grammar for expressing unfortunate things: terjatuh cinta, kejatuhan cinta, kena jatuh cinta
** I wonder if it’s incidental that the Chinese adversative passive particle bèi is so similar to the Vietnamese adversative particle bị.