46 Mediopassive

• • • Review: Reflexive Pronoun, Feelings, Emotions, Strange Case Uses


We are now deep into strange waters of Croatian, and we're going to explore a controversial topic, the "passive" or "middle" construct, different people call it by different names (and it has more than one purpose). I'll use a compromise name; names are not that important! We'll start by emphasizing that English has passive adjectives, for instance:

"A bird is watched."
"A bird is watched by the cat."
"The watched bird has flown away."
"A song is heard." etc.

Croatian has passive adjectives, but there's another construct as well, twisting nouns and cases in a very unexpected way (for an English speaker, that is).

First, why would one use a passive at all? One reason is that you are not that interested in subjects, that subjects are irrelevant or unknown, or there are too many of them; maybe you want to say:

"The song was performed and heard in every village."

If you wouldn't use passives, you should have said:

"People performed the song, and people heard it in every village."

But it is actually saying something that you don't actually know, since maybe only men were performing the song? Or the traveling minstrels? So, a passive is required.

Croatian has a passive adjective izvođen "performed", but misses a passive adjective meaning "heard"; instead, Croatian performs the following trick:

First, pjësma "song" is made the subject of verbs, as if the song itself was performing and hearing. Second, to emphasize that pjësma is really an object (or, to "kill" the verb), a reflexive se is used:

Pjësma se izvodila. "The song was performed." (lit. "song performed itself.")

Recall that the auxillary verb je is mostly dropped when a se is used. Now we can translate the English sentence:

Pjësma se izvodila i slušala u svakom selu.

Two past participles can always be linked together with i "and". This is the best translation of the English sentence we can get!

However, this is not an exact translation, and not true passive; in Croatian construct you cannot say who was performing or hearing, there's no "by..." in Croatian in this case! English has,actually some very similar examples (so-called "anticausative verbs"):

"Boys broke the window."
"The window broke." (but you cannot say "The window broke by children.")
Prozor se razbio.

"The soup is cooking."
Juha se kuha.

"The book reads well. The trousers wash easily."

Again, subjects of these sentences are pjësma, juha, prozor and all of them are in the nominative! The literal translation is "song performed itself", "soup is cooking itself", etc. but it actually means "song was perfomed", "soup was cooked". Some more examples, showing how Croatian extends it to many verbs:

Vide se šavovi. "Stitches are showing."
Piše se ispit. "An exam is being written."

Some people don't call this feature "mediopassive", but it's actually the same feature as in Spanish (and elsewhere), and they do call it a "mediopassive", even the reflexive pronoun sounds familiar:

Spanish:El libro se vende. "The book sells."
French:Le livre se vend. "The book sells."
Croatian:Knjiga se prodaje. "(The) book sells."
German:Das Buch verkauft sich. "The book sells."

All meaning, literally, "(the) book sells itself." English uses just "sells" for both "The bookstore sells the book" and "The book sells". Some other languages do not. You see again, English has a quite different grammar from many other languages, really a pity, when trying to explain things.

If you know some Spanish or Italian, you'll realize that some phrases correspond really word-to-word, with same verb forms and same meaning:

Italian:Come si dice "cane" in inglese?
Spanish:¿Cómo se dice "perro" en ingles?
Croatian:Kako se kaže "pas" na engleskom?
all lit."How is it said "dog" on English?"

It's also obvious from Croatian and Spanish tables meaning "on sale", actually, "it's being sold"; the only difference is that Spanish se can appear at the first place in a sentence:

Other use is when something, what can be sometimes done by someone, but it happens on its own, for example things cool down, get spoiled, etc. (so-called middle, "on its own")

Juha se ohladila. "(The) soup has cooled."
Juha se zgrijala. "(The) soup has warmed."
Juha se pokvarila. "(The) soup has spoiled."

All this can be done regardless of tense:

Juha će se skuhati. "(The) soup will cook."
Juha se skuhala. "(The) soup has cooked."
Vidjeli su se šavovi. "Stitches were showing."

This a difference between je skuhana (passive adj.) and se skuhala (mediopass.). If you use a passive adjective, it implies that someone did it, there must be an agent. But if you use the mediopassive construct (that is, se) maybe it "just happened": somebody did it, but maybe not.

That's why this form is called mediopassive, it's stands for both middle (without somebody doing it) and passive (somebody did it). But you can never say who did it, so the "passive" is not really a true passive.

In fact, we might say that, for example, the form vraćam se is really a mediopassive: it's the subject who changes position, who moves to the old one (= returns), but it's caused by the subject itself, the same as the soup that cools "on its own". If one says Ana vraća knjigu it's the knjiga "book" that changes position, Ana is doing something, but she does not have to move at all. There's a very blurred line between reflexives and mediopassives, and they both use the se.

Impersonal Mediopassive: "what's going on"

However, a former object made subject is not that important; without it, one gets an impersonal mediopassive construct, and as with all impersonals in Croatian, missing (and unpronouncable) subject is in the neuter gender, and the verb and adjectives (including the past participle) agree with it:

Ljudi puše. "People are smoking."
Puši se. Impersonal, "there's smoking", but not really translatable!
Pušilo se. "There was smoking." (the past participle must be in the neuter gender!)

In English, impersonal sentences would such as "one says...", or "you should..." when not talking to anyone particularly.

One can summarize various options of transitive verbs in a neat table. "Agreement" means that the past participle and the verb (if any) has the form of gender and number according to the subject of the sentence:

cook unknown / irrelevantcook known (Ivan m)
/ irrelevant
Kuhalo se.
p.p. in sg.n, no agreement
"There was cooking."
Ivan je kuhao.
agreement with Ivan nom.sg.m
"Ivan was cooking."
(juha f)
Juha se kuhala.
agreement with juha nom.sg.f
"The soup was cooking."
Ivan je kuhao juhu.
agreement with Ivan nom.sg.m
"Ivan was cooking a soup."

In the above table, the left, shaded column are "mediopassive constructions", but otherwise the table is really symmetrical. In all mediopassive constructions, there's always se, never sebe: it is a "filler", as in the "permanently reflexive verbs" smijem se, bojim se, nadam se.

Intransitive (= no object) verbs have less options:

sleeper unknown / irrelevantsleeper known (Ivan m)
Spavalo se u krevetu.
p.p. in sg.n, no agreement
"There was sleeping in (the) bed."
Ivan je spavao u krevetu.
agreement with Ivan nom.sg.m
"Ivan was sleeping in (the) bed."

However, some verbs can make forms without a se; this is really exceptional, object stays in the accusative. This is not a mediopassive, just a normal ("active") impersonal.

And we must not forget "there is" construct vs. ima "has":

about general situationabout what Ivan m has
/ irrelevant
Ivan ima.
agreement with Ivan nom.sg.m
"Ivan has (things)."
(juha f)
Bilo je juhe.
p.p. in sg.n, no agreement
"There was (some) soup." (existence)

Imalo se juhe.
p.p. in sg.n, no agreement
"'They' had (some) soup." (possesion)
Ivan je imao juhe.
agreement with Ivan nom.sg.m
"Ivan had (some) soup."

Of course, there are verbs that are always impersonal, like kiši "it rains", etc. And there are active impersonal constructs like hladno je "it's cold" and so on.

Impersonal Mediopassive + dative: feel like

There's one more use: a dative used with se-impersonal (quite unexpectedly, I admit) most often means that one "feels like" doing something:

Pije se. (impersonal; roughly, "there's drinking.")
Pije mu se. "He feels like drinking."
Pilo mu se. "He felt like drinking." (pilo = nom.sg.n = impersonal)
Pije se voda. (mediopassive) "Water is drunk"
Pila se voda. (mediopassive) "Water was drunk" (observe: pila = nom.sg.f == voda nom.sg.f)
Pila mu se voda. "He felt like drinking water."
Ide se na posao. (impersonal) "There's going to work."
Ne ide mu se na posao. "He feels like not going to work."
Spava mi se. "I feel like sleeping." = "I'm sleepy."
Spavalo mi se. "I felt like sleeping." = "I was sleepy." (observe: spavalo = nom.sg.n = impersonal)

So, you finally know how to say in Croatian "I'm sleepy." This is very similar to other impersonal and similar "strange constructs" for emotions and experiences. This does not imply a "wish", but rather an involuntary "need", urge, something that "comes on its own".

For an illustration, there's a pop song that uses such expression:

Nosi mi se bijëla boja
Te je boje radost moja
Tvoje lice, duša, tijëlo
Sve je bijëlo, bijëlo

"I feel like wearing white color
That is the color of my joy
Your face, soul, body
All is white, white"

Some expressions:

Nosi mi se — impers., lit. "It's carried to me." = "I feel like wearing"
radost moja — poetic inversion of adjective position
te boje — lit. "of that color", a phrase in gen.


Put these sentences in the mediopassive:

Ana je čitala knjigu. "Ana was reading the book."
Mačka je jela meso. "The cat was eating meat."
Ivan je napisao i poslao pismo. "Ivan has written and sent the letter."

Next, put these sentences in the impersonal form (except for the last sentence), and then into the need-to-form ("Ana felt like reading the book").


Giulio said...

To be precise: the Italian word for "English" is "inglese" and not "englese"

Daniel N. said...

Uh, grazie! Hvala!

Post a Comment