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The depravity of the passive voice

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Concerning Sanskrit literature, William Dwight Whitney writes in the introduction to his classic Sanskrit Grammar:

Of linguistic history there is next to nothing in it at all; but only a history of style, and this for the most part showing a gradual depravation, an increase of artificiality and an intensification of certain more undesirable features of the language—such as the use of passive constructions and of participles instead of verbs, and the substitution of compounds for sentences.

Michael Coulson, in the introduction to his Sanskrit grammar (in the “Teach Yourself” series), calls Whitney a “great but startlingly arrogant American Sanskritist”, and responds to Whitney’s remarks as follows:

Why such a use of passives, participles and compounds should be undesirable, let alone depraved, is left rather vague, and while there have been considerable advances in linguistic science in the past fifty years there seems to have been nothing which helps to clarify or justify these strictures.  Indeed, Whitney’s words would not be worth resurrecting if strong echoes of them did not still survive in some quarters.

It is indeed somewhat curious that a grammarian, such as Whitney, would think it even possible to rank certain grammatical features of a language as being more or less desirable than others.  After all, upon what basis would one make such determinations?  Nevertheless, such distinctions occur in current English as well: we have had it drilled into our heads in school that the passive voice is an abomination and should be avoided at all costs.  See, for example, the highly popular style guide of Strunk and White.

It should be noted, by the way, that Whitney—who is writing in the late 1800’s—by suggesting in the above quotation that the passive voice is depraved, is (I presume and hope) not using the word deprave in its current sense of being morally corrupt, i.e.

2. spec. To make morally bad; to pervert, debase, or corrupt morally. (The current sense.) (OED)

but rather in the now no longer current sense of

1. To make bad; to pervert in character or quality; to deteriorate, impair, spoil, vitiate. Now rare, exc. as in 2. (OED)

which implies no moral judgement.  Furthermore, Whitney is surely correct in noting the tremendous increase of artificiality in medieval Sanskrit literature.  In this period the Sanskrit poets often seem to be engaged in some sort of intellectual exercise whereby they apply rhetorical devices such as alliteration, similes, puns, double-meanings, etc. in such complicated and abstruse ways as to render the poetry rather more tiresome than elegant.


Written by uncudh

May 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm