Passive Exploration

Apparently the passive voice (“the ball was kicked by him” instead of “he kicked the ball”) is uncommon in Papuan languages (Menyan is Papuan.) Accordingly, the operating theory since our arrival in Menya has been that there is no passive voice here. But I’m a doubter. And I’ve been suspicious about one form in particular that has smelled a lot like passive to me.

Finally, yesterday I had a breakthrough with Wati. He used the suspicious form in a story and when I asked him exactly what it meant, he had a lot of trouble explaining it. That was a promising sign because Pidgin, our intermediate language, does not have the passive voice. I can’t say “the ball was kicked” in Pidgin; I have to say “someone kicked the ball” if I don’t want to designate a specific actor. So while Wati was struggling, I was optimistic. After a few minutes of discussion and trying the same form in other words/contexts, I was convinced I had discovered the elusive passive form.

Today I was out in the village sitting with about ten men talking and I decided to attempt confirmation. I set it up like this:

The grass at the airstrip has been too long for some time now. Imagine I went up to the airstrip today and saw that it was short. But I don’t know who cut it. Then the pilot calls to asks if the grass is long and I say, “no, the grass *was cut*.” (*passive form*)

All the men agreed that would be exactly right and would indicate that the grass was cut by someone, but would not indecate who did the cutting.

Jackpot.

Not to be too hasty, I tried an additional test:

Me: Imagine I come to you and say, “My arm *was cut*.”
Francis: No you would say “I cut my own arm.”
Me: No, I didn’t cut it. I don’t know who cut it. I just know it is bleeding.
Robert: You mean like you are in a public fight and every one is cutting and afterwards you see that you are bleeding but everyone has run off and you don’t know who cut you?
Me: Yes. Exactly that.
Francis: Then, just like you said: “My arm *was cut*”

My favorite parts of this exchange were:

#1 Francis assumes, in my own hypothetical scenario, I cut myself rather than thinking I got the words right and mean exactly what I said.

#2 A “public fight” where everyone is cutting each other is the first scenario Robert imagined to illustrate having been cut without knowing it.

The exciting thing is, one day soon, I’ll be able to say, “You were saved by grace.”

4 Comments
  1. Joey Espinosa

    Thinking about your last line. Why would that be passive voice? Wouldn’t God be the one doing it, and since we know that, He would be the one doing that action?

    Regardless, thank you for sharing this story. I love hearing about how you are figuring things out. It’s great to see how your mind works.

    • Joseph

      Yes Joey, God is the one saving. Nonetheless, the grammatical construction is in the passive voice. “You were saved,” “You were justified,” “You were sanctified” are all passive constructions and emphasize (in my opinion) the fact that we cannot accomplish those things. In languages where there is no passive construction, these phrases can certainly be translated in the active voice by adding the actor: “God saved you,” etc, but it’s nice to be able to communicate both ways and stick closer to the original language when possible.
      Additionally, there are times when the actor is more ambiguous, so it will be nice if we can retain that ambiguity in translating.

  2. Susan King

    I, who am not an emotional person, cried when I read your last statement….for the fact that you have discovered a missing piece that will be able to communicate the wonderful and free grace of God. …for their future understanding of this, and the fact that like them, I have been the recipient of His actions and grace.!!! Love you and your faithfulness, Susan.

  3. Kevin Jones

    What a great read. Thanks for sharing this Joseph. I love seeing how strategic you are in this and keep the ultimate goal and purpose for why you are there.

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