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Active Romance, Was: Active

From:Vasiliy Chernov <bc_@...>
Date:Monday, January 24, 2000, 8:30
As promised.


1. It seems that there are many people on this list who know Latin better
than I do. One of my purposes was to visualize a *natural* way of evolution
from nominative to active (or at any rate to what I believe is active).
So suggestions are really welcome, especially on those points where
subtleties are involved.

2. This sketch is almost entirely devoted to the constructions used with
*verbs of physical manipulation*. One reason for this is that these verbs
played the key part in the evolution of transitivity in Active Romance.
The semantic development of some of such verbs ('grasp' -> 'acquire',
'keep' -> 'remember', and the like) lead to spreading their typical
constructions onto verbs of other groups.

Another reason is that transitive verbs denoting perception, emotions,
mental conditions, proprietary states, unintentional actions, various
modalities, etc. may be syntactically deviant. Even in the nominative
languages they are quite often used in constructions that can be interpreted
as non-nominative. To my knowledge, in ergative languages it is still more
common that such verbs are used with the subject in some case other than
the ergative. Therefore, their constructions are not critical for the
typological attribution of a language and at any rate need special

My presumption was that most of the 'normal' verbs of action may follow
the pattern of verbs of physical manipulation.

3. At least for the earlier steps of development outlined here, 'active
noun' mainly means 'a noun denoting a thing or being capable of independent
movement', and 'inactive noun' is applied to the rest of substantives.
Later the distribution of inanimate nouns between these two classes was
increasingly traditional and unmotivated.

4. As I did not explore the historical phonetics of Active Romance, I use
an orthography in which every word in each of its forms is written
exactly the same way as its Latin etymon. Meanwhile, many constructions
looking so cumbersome in such spelling may in fact be subject to significant

For example, the forms that I write down here as _positum habet_ and
_positus est_ may undergo regular shortening along the following lines:

Posit' habet (already in Latin) > [postab@] > [poþaw@] > [pohaw@] > [phaw]
Positust (already in Latin) > [post@h] > [poþ@] > [poh@] > [pho]

(Note that this development does not involve any processes specific for


Because of their semantics, the verbs of physical manipulation typically
had an active subject and an inactive object. This was the reason why the
passive form of such verbs with active nouns as the subject was felt
incorrect and began to be avoided, especially when the actual meaning was
medial or reflexive (i. e. when no specific agens was meant, or the agens
was indistinguishable from the patiens). In these cases the passive was
replaced with the construction _se ipsum_ ('oneself', pronounced _s'ipsum_
already in Latin) + active form of the verb.

In the examples below this is illustrated using the verb _ponere_ 'to put,
to set, to place', which played an important part in later development,
and _reversare_ 'to turn upside down, to overturn', in _praesens_ and

Saxum ponitur 'The stone gets placed'
Saxum reversatur 'The stone turns itself upside down'
Saxum positum est 'The stone was (=has been) placed (located)'
Saxum reversatum est 'The stone was/got turned upside down'


Puer se ipsum ponit 'The boy places himself'
Puer se ipsum reversat 'The boy turns himself upside down'
Puer se ipsum posuit 'The boy placed himself'
Puer se ipsum reversavit 'The boy turned himself upside down'

_Perfectum activi_ (_posuit_, _reversavit_) was later superceded by
periphrastic forms (_positum habet_, _reversatum habet_), partly because
_habere_ had all tenses, moods, and non-finite forms suitable for the
resultative meaning of perfect. Accordingly, the medial form used with
active nouns was altered:

Puer se ipsum positum habet 'The boy placed himself'
Puer se ipsum reversatum habet 'The boy turned himself upside down'

Later on, _passivum_ ceased to be used to convey passive proper, and
was preserved only in medial constructions with inactive nouns.


Active nouns as direct objects of the same group of verbs were also felt
somewhat incorrect. Periphrastic constructions with some inactive noun
(_latus_ 'side', _corpus_ 'body', _situs_ 'location', etc.) were
increasingly preferred to active nouns in such cases.

At a later stage, the word _figura_ which developed a set of rather
abstract meanings ('body', 'shape', 'posture', 'position', 'situation')
was nearly universally used for this purpose, e. g.:

Figuram pueri reversat '...turns the boy upside down'
Figuram pueri positam habet '...placed the boy'.

Similarly, inactive nouns were avoided as subjects of the verbs in
question. The medial construction with the noun followed by _causa_ was
used instead, e. g.:

_Saxi causa ponitur_ or  _Saxi causa se ipsum ponit_
'The stone puts...' (lit. 'because of the stone, ... gets placed')

This usage was supported by _causa_ appearing in some other constructions
more typical of active nouns, e. g. _pro ... causam_ 'for the sake of...'
as the equivalent of _dativus commodi_ being gradually superceded by _pro_.


Typical of the Latin dialect ancestral to Active Romance was a phenomenon
well attested in Late Latin: _positus_ (the past participle of _ponere_)
used as the present participle of _esse_ ('to be').

A further development of this feature resulted in using _positus est_
(formally, perf. pass. of _ponere_) as an emphatic equivalent of _est_
('is'), the present tense of the copula.

As _ponere_ belonged in the group of verbs of physical manipulation,
_positus est_ was replaced with _se ipsum positum habet_ when the subject
was active.

At first this construction (and derived forms) was used in contexts where
the copula carried strong phrasal stress. However, later on it became usual
in other contexts, since it resisted the phonetic erosion better than the
forms of _esse_.

Finally, _positus est (sum, sunt, erat, etc.)_ and _se ipsum positum habet
(habebat, etc.)_ became the only possible forms of copula in the nominal

Saxum positum est 'The stone is...'
Puer se ipsum positum habet 'The boy is...'


Having adopted _positum esse_ in the sense 'to be', the language acquired a
whole set of ready semantic derivates represented by the other forms of

Indeed, if _positus est_ means 'is', then _ponitur_ is its inceptive
('begins to be' = 'becomes'); _ponit_, its causative ('causes to be' =
'makes'); and _positum habet_, its causative resultative ('has caused to
be' = 'has made'). This made _ponere_ an extremely suitable verb in various
auxiliary functions, i. e. in building new periphrastic forms of verbal

One of such forms had at first the medial resultative meaning:

Saxum reversatum positum est
'The stone has been turned upside down (and remains in this position)'

Its derivates (at first differing from the older forms in some shade of
meaning like witnessed vs. reported process) could convey other aspects,
voices, and tenses:

Puer saxum reversatum ponit
'The boy turns the stone upside down' (transitive imperfective)

Saxum reversatum ponitur
'The stone gets (= is being) turned upside down' (medial imperfective)

Puer saxum reversatum positum habet
'The boy has turned the stone upside down (and it remains in this
position)' (transitive resultative)

_Ponere_ in such constructions inherited all its syntactic qualities
typical of the verbs of physical manipulation.

The resultative forms then underwent the well known semantic evolution
'resultative -> perfect -> perfective (past)'.

The new forms had one important advantage: all of them were built based
on the same stem (participium perfecti passivi), making the whole
paradigm of all verbs totally uniform. In Modern Active Romance, regular
verbs have preserved only the new forms of conjugation.


The opposition of the nominative and the accusative was lost at a
relatively early stage because of the phonetic erosion and analogical

Word order remains free.

In constructions with verbs of physical manipulation (as well as with most
of the other verbs of action), the distinction of syntactic roles in Active
Romance is wholly based on the active principle. Below are presented the
examples of transitive and intransitive constructions with active and
inactive participants (only in present and in past perfective).

Intransitive constructions

Inactive subject:
Saxum reversatum ponitur
'The stone turns itself upside down'
Saxum reversatum positum est
'The stone was/got turned upside down'

Active subject:
Puer(um) se ipsum reversatum ponit
'The boy turns himself upside down'
Puer(um) se ipsum reversatum positum habet
'The boy turned himself upside down'

Transitive constructions

Active agens, inactive patiens:
Puer(um) saxum reversatum ponit
'The boy turns the stone upside down'
Puer(um) saxum reversatum positum habet
'The boy turned the stone upside down'

Both agens and patiens inactive:
Rotae causa saxum reversatum ponitur
'The wheel turns the stone upside down'
Rotae causa saxum reversatum positum est
'The wheel turned the stone upside down'

Both agens and patiens active:
Puer(um) figura(m) catti reversatam ponit
'The boy turns the cat upside down'
Puer(um) figura(m) catti reversatam positam habet
'The boy turned the cat upside down'

Inactive agens, active patiens:
Rotae causa figura(m) catti reversata ponitur
'The wheel turns the cat upside down'
Rotae causa figura(m) catti reversata posita est
'The wheel turned the cat upside down'

Congrats to those who have patiently read this to the end,