Diathesis (linguistics)

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The diathesis ( ancient Greek διάθεσις diáthesis , German 'position' , 'state', also direction of action ) is a category of the verb in linguistics . It is based on the concept of the semantic roles that a verb assigns to its supplements. Diatheses regulate whether and in what form these participant roles specified by the verb meaning appear in the sentence structure.

The diathesis thus starts from the meaning level ( semantics ) of the words and characterizes the mapping of these meaning relationships in the grammar. The grammatical forms of the verb, which indicate a diathesis, are called genus verbi ( Latin - German : "genus (type, gender) of verb"). A gender verbi can also be ambiguous in relation to the diatheses it expresses. Sometimes, however, the term genus verbi is also used in a broader sense, as synonymous with diathesis .

In the (Indo) European languages ​​(also in German ) the best known diathesis is that of the passive voice . In typologically different languages, other diatheses can dominate, e.g. B. the medium in Greek and Indo-Iranian or the antipassive in ergative languages .

Examples from German

Examples from German should clarify the relationships. First of all, let's look at the following seven example sentences, which more or less express the same thing:

  1. Jörg plants Anne bushes in the garden.
  2. Anne are planted in the garden by Jörg Sträucher.
  3. Jörg plants Anne's garden with bushes.
  4. The garden is planted with shrubs by Jörg Anne.
  5. Anne lets Jörg plant bushes in the garden.
  6. Anne lets Jörg plant shrubs in the garden.
  7. Anne lets Jörg plant shrubs in her garden.

The difference in content between the sentences is that in the first four it is not expressly stated that the planting action is based on Anne's suggestion and that in the fifth and sixth it is not expressly stated who the bushes will be planted in the garden. Both will often result from the context. To some extent the sentences are interchangeable; Which of these is used depends, among other things, on what was the topic before , what is already known about it and what is to be communicated.

The semantic (meaning-related) role that Anne, Jörg, the garden and the bushes play is the same in all sentences (not quite in Anne's double role as client and beneficiary). Nevertheless, the syntactic role , i.e. the grammatical means with which the connection of a noun (noun, name, pronoun) to the verb is established, for the same noun depends on the exact form of the verb and on the use of auxiliary verbs - in particular, each of the four nouns become the subject of the sentence. In the following table, each sentence is in a column (with the second sentence in a different word order) and the syntactic role for each word on the far left.

plants to be planted plant be planted plant let planted
subject Jörg Bushes Jörg the garden Anne Anne Anne
finite auxiliary verb become becomes leaves leaves leaves
finite main verb plants planted
Akk object at auxiliary verb Jörg Jörg
Dat object on the main verb Anne Anne Anne Anne themselves
Akk object on the main verb Bushes the garden Bushes the garden the garden
"From" on the auxiliary verb from Jörg from Jörg from Jörg
"With" on the main verb with bushes with bushes with bushes with bushes
"In" on the main verb in the garden in the garden in the garden
infinite main verb planted planted plants plant plant

The verb forms in the headline of the table are diatheses of the same verb “plant”. The ones that appear here are:

  • Active : the basic form of the verb, which often describes an active action, here "plant"
  • Passive : the form of the verb in which the object of the action becomes the subject, here "to be planted"
  • Applicative : the form of the verb in which a noun attached with a preposition becomes an object, here "planting"
  • Causative : the form of the verb in which the person commissioning an action becomes the subject, the old subject becomes an object, here "let plant"

As you can see from the last examples, these shapes can also be combined.

The diatheses - also in other languages ​​- are mainly formed in three ways:

  • through morphological change of the verb: in German the prefix “be-” for the applicative; Vowel changes for some causatives ("set" from "sit", "soak" from "drink", "staple" from "stick" etc.)
  • through the use of auxiliary verbs: in German, for example, “werden” for the passive and “Lassen” for the causative
  • through the use of reflexive constructions even where someone or something does not act in themselves (German examples below)

Especially with morphologically realized diatheses, the derived verb form often becomes independent and has different meanings: to lead is not the same as cause to drive (but when driving a vehicle it is), to blow up is not the same as to cause to jump (but the blasted rock gets cracks ), and falling , wasting , washing and suckling are only special cases of causing to fall , to cause to disappear , to cause to swim and to cause to suck . One might a country have on the one sitting (sedentary), and a way to celebrate , where you go , but how can you literally have an account own or a crime committed ? In such cases, the mechanism of formation of the diathesis is still recognizable, but the semantic connection has been partially or completely lost.

Even with diatheses that are formed with auxiliary verbs or reflexive pronouns, the exact meaning is not always the same with the same syntactic construction. Compare, for example:

  • to have the secretary write (order) a letter
  • to allow travelers to pass the border
  • leave the hitchhiker standing on the side of the road (keep leaving)


  • he washes himself (the object is the doer himself)
  • they meet (each other)
  • the group meets (the members meet each other)
  • the rain barrel fills up (but doesn't add anything)
  • he is ashamed (only used reflexively)

For these reasons, it is necessary to distinguish the diathesis itself, i.e. the distribution of roles of the actors, those treated, beneficiaries, victims, clients, etc., from its morphological or syntactic realization. The latter is then called the gender verbi (literally: the gender of the verb), especially in the case of morphological realization.

In a language, a gender verbi can be completely productive ; H. can be applied to all verbs and always realize the expected diathesis, or only partially, i.e. only cover some verbs or generate a broader spectrum of possible diatheses. The passive voice in particular is completely productive in many languages ​​for transitive verbs - in German also for intransitive verbs . The more productive a gender verbi is in a language, the more likely it is to be viewed as just another form of the underlying verb, i.e. not listed separately from the base form in dictionaries. The morphologically formed causatives and applicatives in German, on the other hand, are understood as independent verbs that have their own dictionary entries.

Diathesis and valence alternation

Diathesis is a special case of valence alternation or valence operation . While only agents and patients play a role in diathesis, there are generally other roles (players) in valence operations. In the first example (active) there is a two- valence frame , in the passivated example there is only one obligatory actant , Paul's prepositional phrase can also be omitted without the sentence becoming ungrammatic (the car is being washed). Passivation is therefore a means of reducing valence.

Further diatheses

In a broader sense, there are also other diatheses besides active and passive:

An action or a change of state happens to the sentence subject without an external agent, often expressed reflexively in German: “The rope is breaking”, “I'm angry”. In ancient Greek , media diathesis was grammatically categorized as a medium .
The sentence subject is the object of its own action: "I wash myself", see also reflexive verb (verbs that only allow this aspect).
The members of a plural subject perform actions on each other: "Love one another", "Don't push yourself like that!"
Diathesis in which the patient's argument (object) cannot be expressed or can only be expressed obliquely , e.g. B. in Dyirbal .
Diathesis similar to the passive voice, but with the difference that the agent argument cannot be expressed.

Diatheses in different languages

Basic Indo-European language

The basic Indo-European language has the original diathesis contrast Active: Medium ; from the meanings of the original medium go in the following conversations in different ways z. B. intransitivity, reflexivity, expression of interest, reciprocity, gerundivity and especially the passive voice. Even in Latin, practically all the original meanings are contained in the formal passive ( abdor I am hidden - I am hiding - I am hiding - (only Pl., E.g. abduntur ) they hide each other - I let myself be hidden - I am hidden).

Gender verbi

If the diathesis is realized morphologically - for example through inflected verb endings like in Latin ( Petra a Maria move tur ) or through periphrastic constructions like in German ("I will be beaten for this article ") - one speaks of the grammatical gender verbi. As a grammatical verb category, the gender verbi is initially the morphological-syntactic implementation of a diathesis. In some languages ​​a gender verbi can be the expression of exactly one diathesis, which means that the terms are often considered to be synonymous. However, it may be possible that processes of language change change the meaning of a verb and that it is formally e.g. B. Has passive morphology, although the meaning is clearly active. This is called landfill . As a result , no correlation between morphological marking and the semantics of the diathesis can be identified. For this reason, a distinction is sometimes made between the terms diathesis and genus verbi, the latter then formally aiming at belonging to a class of inflection.

This becomes clear u. a. in the modern Greek language , in which the genera verbi have largely broken away from the semantic diathesis (see the example below ).

Active and passive in German and Latin

In all cases it is about changing the relationship between the verb and its fellow players. So the meaning of a verb e.g. B. an acting teammate and an object on which the action is performed: The verb "move" requires a mover and a moving direct object . Typically, the acting person is the subject of the sentence. To compare with a language in which the diathesis is part of the inflection , here is an example (the subject is italic, the object is bold, the verb is underlined ):

German Latin
Mary moves the stone. Maria lapidem movet .

In this case the asset is available. The passive voice is formed by changing the verb morphologically:

German Latin
The stone is moved . Lapis movetur .

Now the agent is no longer the grammatical subject, but the object of the action has become the grammatical subject. The acting person takes a back seat, the object becomes the subject of the sentence. The number of necessary arguments of a verb is called its valence . The passive voice reduces the valence of the verb because the content subject is no longer necessary, but optional. It can be added again:

German Latin
The stone is of Maria moved . Lapis a Maria movetur .

In the reflexive, subject and object are identical:

German Latin
The stone moves . Lapis movetur .

This indicates in this case that it is no longer possible to clearly distinguish whether the stone is the subject or the object of the process. In the case of reflexive forms of verbs (such as washing oneself ) it can also mean that a person performs an action on himself:

Peter washes himself.

Gender verbi and diathesis in modern Greek

In ancient and modern Greek , as well as less often in Latin , there is a group of verbs whose grammatical gender verbi does not match the diathesis expressed by the verb. In the case that a grammatically passive verb has an active diathesis, one speaks of deposit . Accordingly, grammatical means can no longer be used to form semantic passive from these dumps, since the passive form is “already occupied”; in this case a speaker has to resort to lexical means.

These verbs are particularly common in modern Greek, whose current passive paradigm developed from the ancient Greek medium. For "normal" verbs - if they develop both genera verbi - the same applies as in German that the grammatical active always expresses the active diathesis. Your grammatical passive, however, is not always to be assigned to the passive diathesis, but often to the reflexive or reciprocal. A typical example of this relatively large group of verbs is βρίσκω (vrísko) “I find”, whose passive βρίσκομαι (vrískome) mostly does not mean “I am found”, but reflexively “I am”.

  • The grammatical passive of a "normal verb" has reflexive diathesis:
Ο άντρας πλένεται. "The man washes himself." (But if the subject is not a living being, the passive diathesis is adopted: "The car is washed.")
Το αγόρι κρύβεται. "The boy is hiding." (The meaning "The boy is hidden" must be expressed with lexical means)
  • The grammatical passive of a "normal verb" has reciprocal diathesis:
Μη σπρώχνεστε! "Don't push yourself!"
  • Some depositions (verbs that only exist in the grammatical passive) have a purely active diathesis:
Έρχομαι, Κοιμάμαι, Στέκομαι: "I'm coming." "I'm sleeping." "I'm standing."
  • Many other deposits predominantly, but not exclusively, express the reflexive diathesis:
θυμάμαι, αρνούμαι, αισθάνομαι: "I remember." "I refuse." "I feel."

See also


  • Hans Ruge: Grammar of Modern Greek (phonology, form theory, syntax) . Cologne 2001.
  • Thomas Tinnefeld: The passive voice as a terminological problem. Analyzes and suggestions with a special focus on French grammarography. In: Albert Barrera-Vidal, Manfred Raupach, Ekkehard Zöfgen: (Ed.): Grammatica vivat. Concepts, descriptions and analyzes on the subject of 'foreign language grammar' . In memoriam Hartmut Kleineidam. Narr, Tübingen 1992 (Tübingen Contributions to Linguistics (TBL); 365) pp. 187-199
  • Magnus Frisch: Why “Passive” when (it) also works “Active”? Comparative linguistic reflections on the genus verbi in Latin and German. In: The ancient language teaching. 52, No. 1, 2009, ISSN  0002-6670 , pp. 22-33.