Chapter 8: Transitive Verbs (Continued)

8.9 Passive, "Antipassive," Middle-Voice, and Pseudo-Passive

We have already seen that many transitive verbs also appear as intransitive verbs without undergoing any sort of stem change.

Ta jmak li na e. I will close the door.
Chmak li na e. The door will close.

The intransitive use here is called middle-voice, in order to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the semantic "patient" of the action (the person or the thing that undergoes the action) and that there is no active agent. Like other intransitive verbs, the middle-voice can occur with phrases with ta or 'o , which indicates instrument.

'Ali nae, imak ta 'ik'. The door closed from the wind.
'Ali nae, imak 'o li Xun e. The door was closed by John.

(With "was closed by John" we do not mean that John actively closed the door, but rather that in some way the door closed because of him: if, for example, he fell against the door or his body was blocking it.) Thus, there is no middle-voice usage of verbs that semantically need an agent. For example, the same transitive verb -mak can have the meaning "to be engaged."

'Ali Xun e, ismak xa yajnil. John is already engaged.
Buch'u ismak? Who is he engaged to?
Ismak stzeb li mol Petul e. He proposed to the daughter of old man Peter.

But one cannot say:

***Imak stzeb li mol Petul e.

Or, at least, this sentence doesn't mean "Old man Peter's daughter got engaged" but rather "Old man Peter's daughter is constipated." The middle-voice strictly lacks an agent.

Tzotzil has a true passive voice, with both a semantic and syntactic function. We have already seen the conversational need for a passive form. Here we will again consider a transitive sentence whose subject and object are both in the third person.

Ismil Xun li Petul e. Peter killed John.

In conversation, nouns are often omitted. As a result, a sentence like the following is possible:

Ismil li 'Antun e.

But what would this sentence mean? There are two possibilities: either "Antun killed him (someone specific)" or "He (another person) killed Antun." To clarify the situation, we need a passive form ("Who was killed?") or an "anti-passive" form ("Who did the killing?"). Tzotzil has both.

The passive form is a transformation of the transitive sentence. We will begin with a sentence of the following form:
Verb Object Subject
1 2 3

>From this sentence, we form the following sequence:

Verb + -e/-at ta/-u'un + Subject (Optional) Object
1 3 2

In other words, the verb unites with a passive suffix (-e or -at) and the agent of the original sentence combines with a phrase with ta or -u'un. The resulting sentence is, superficially, intransitive. The object of the transitive sentence is now the subject of the passive sentence; consequently, the object engenders the absolutive affix with the passive verb.

Ismil Xun li Petul e. Peter killed John.
Imile (yu'un Petul) li Xun e. John was killed (by Peter).

Lismaj jyakubel. A drunk hit me.
Limaje ta/yu'un jyakubel. I was hit by a drunk.

Achuk ta te' li ka' e. You tie the horse up to the tree.
Ichuke (avu'un) ta te' li ka' e. The horse was tied up to the tree (by you).

Chajk'el tana. I will see you later.
Chak'ele (ku'un) tana. You'll be seen (by me) later.

In the passive sentences, the constituent with -u'un (which denotes the agent) is optional.

Chi'ik'e ta chib 'ora tana. I will be carried at two.
Bu lak'oponat? Where will you be spoken to?
Imuk'ibtasat li na e. The house was enlarged.
Ik'ak'esat li chobtik e. Muk' ik'ak' stuk.

The cornfield was burned by someone. It didn't burn by itself.

In general, the difference between the two passive suffixes is due to dialectal differences, although the suffix -at is used more with multisyllabic and derived stems while the suffix -e is used with monosyllabic stems.

Passive ditransitive verbs are also formed. The process is the same, except that only the suffix -at is used after the dative suffix -be, which reduces to -b-.

Chayalbe bu chbat. He will tell you where he's going.
Cha'albat bu chbat. You will be told where he's going.

Mu k'usi liyak'be. He didn't give me anything.
Mu k'usi li'ak'bat. I wasn't given anything.

Ijmanbe lo'bol li Xun e. I bought fruits for John.
Imanbat lo'bol (ku'un) li Xun e. John was bought fruits (by me).

Dative and passive sentences are formed with all their verbal aspects and tenses. I will give examples of the forms in what follows.


Ta jmanbe 'ixim li jme' e. I will buy corn for my mother.
Chismanbe 'ixim. She will buy me corn.
Chmane li 'ixim e. The corn will be bought.
Chimanbat 'ixim. I will be bought corn.


Ijmanbe 'ixim li jme' e. I bought corn for my mother.
Lismanbe 'ixim. He bought me corn.
Imane li 'ixim e. The corn was bought (i.e., was sold).
Limanbat 'ixim. I was bought corn.


Mu xajmanbe 'ixim. I won't buy you corn. Mu xismanbe 'ixim. He won't buy me corn. Mu xmane li 'ixim e. The corn won't be bought. Mu xamanbat 'ixim. You won't be bought corn.

Note that the sentence

Chasmanbe 'ixim.

has two interpretations, according to the meaning of the dative. It can mean:

He is going to buy corn for you.


He is going to buy your corn. He is going to buy corn from you.


Jmanojbe 'ixim li jme' e. I have bought corn for my mother.
Smanojbon 'ixim. He has bought corn for me.
Manbil li 'ixim e. The corn was bought.
Manbilon 'ixim. The corn was bought for me. (In other words: I am in the state of having received corn that they bought me.)

One can see that the stative passive forms use a special suffix: -bil. This suffix transforms a transitive verb into a word that bears a resemblance to the passive participle in English.

manbil, "purchased"
'ak'bil, "given"
k'oponbil, "spoken"
makbil, "closed"

Words with -bil are truly verbs. Furthermore, they are passive forms. In other words, they have a semantic pattient as their grammatical subject. They also suppose the idea of an agent, who caused or realized the action. Thus, there is a contrast between the following sentences:

Makbil li na e. The door was closed (and some unspecified person did it).
Makem li na e. The door closed (and it closed by itself, or by an inactive event, by something inactive).
Makal li na e. The door is closed (in this condition, without reference to the action that caused the state).

The sentence with -bil is passive. The sentence with -em uses the stative form of the intransitive verb (middle-voice) mak-. The last sentence uses the derived adjective makal "closed."

Also note that the suffix -bil is used to give stative aspect in the passive voice to transitive as well as ditransitive (dative) verbs.

Yak'oj tak'in li Xun e. John has donated money.
'Ak'bil li tak'in e. The money was donated.

yak'oj tak'in li Xun e
Verb Object Agent
Passive Suffix
li tak'in e

Kak'ojbe tak'in li Xun e. I have given money to John.
'Ak'bil tak'in li Xun e. John was given money.

kak'oj-be tak'in Xun (vo'on)
Verb Object Dative Agent
(Passive and Dative Suffix)
tak'in li Xun e

It is noteworthy that when a ditransitive sentences is passivized, the grammatical subject of the passive sentence corresponds to the dative constituent. (The object of the ditransitive verb, which should be a noun, appears to be incorporated into the verb, or remains syntactically inactive.)

Yak'ojbon cha'-kot kaxlan li Xun e. John gave me two chickens.
'Ak'bilon cha'-kot kaxlan (yu'un li Xun e). Two chickens were given to me (by John).
Chayak'be jtob pexu. He is going to give you twenty pesos.
Cha'ak'bat jtob pexu li vo'ot e. You were given twenty pesos.

In these passive sentences, the subject of the verb--the noun that engenders absolutive affixes--is the indirect object (dative noun) of the active sentence.

I already explained that the function of the passive is to resolve the ambiguity of transitive sentences whose subject and object are both in the third person. Note that a ditransitive sentence can show the same ambiguity (between agent and patient) as a transitive sentence. The word order is the following:

Iyak'be tak'in Xun li 'Antun e.
Verb Object Dative Subject

>From this sentence only the subject can be fronted.

'Ali Antun e, iyak'be tak'in li Xun e. As for Anthony, he gave money to John.

But when a constituent is omitted (when it is implicit in the discourse), the sentence that results is ambiguous.

Iyak'be tak'in li Xun e. John gave the money to him. Or: He (another person) gave the money to John.

Similarly, the question:

Buch'u iyak'be tak'in?

means either "Who did he give money?" or "Who gave him money?" A passive form of these sentence does not suffer from the same ambiguity.

Buch'u i'ak'bat tak'in? Who was given money?
I'akbat tak'in li Xun e. John was given the money.

The syntactic function of the passive is derived from word order in the transitive sentence: the object precedes the subject, and cannot be fronted freely. In that case, if it is necessary to speak of the object as the focus of the sentence, one must change the structure of the sentence to allow for the object to be fronted.

K'usi ispas li Xun e? What did John do?
'Ali Xun e, ismaj li Petul e. As for John, he hit Peter.
'Ali Antun e, che'e? And what about Antun?
'Ali 'Antun e, imaje 'uk. He was hit too.

In the last example, not using the passive form would produce a sentence with a different meaning.

'Ali Antun e, ismaj 'uk. As for Anthony, he hit him (Peter) too.

In other contexts, it is also necessary to focus attention on the subject of a transitive sentence. For example, in constructions that are called topic chains, only one noun plays the central part in a sequence of clauses, in which the noun can be either agent or object.

'Ali Xun e, imuy ta te' ismil li mut e.

John climbed up a tree and killed the bird.


Timi ch'abtej li Xun e, chich' 'ep tak'in. If John works, he will receive lots of money.


But if the topic of a chain functions as the object of some constituent clause, one must transform that clause so that the theme remains as the grammatical subject. Imagine a topic chain composed of the following sentences:

Ibat ta Jobel li Petul e. Peter went to San Cristóbal.
Ismaj Petul li Xun e. John hit Peter.

These sentence cannot be combined in the following way:

'Ali Petul e, ibat ta Jobel, ismaj li Xun e.

The last sentence means "Peter went to San Cristóbal and hit John." In contrast, one must passivize the transitive sentence, in order to produce a chain adequate for the Tzotzil structure.

'Ali Petul e, ibat ta Jobel, imaje yu'un li Xun e.

Peter went to San Cristóbal and was hit by John.

Also compare the following examples:

Timi ch'abtej li Petul e, chich' 'ep tak'in.

If Peter works, he is going to receive a lot of money.
Timi ch'abtej li Petul e, ch'ak'bat 'ep tak'in yu'un li Xun e. If Peter works, he is going to be given a lot of money by John.
Timi ch'abtej li Petul e, chak'be 'ep tak'in li Xun e. If Peter works, he is going to give a lot of money to John.

The neeed for these construction is less obvious when there are objects or subjects of the first or second person, because affixes together with the verb clarifies the meaning. Thus, for examples, the two following sentences are possible and equivalent.

Timi chikom ta na, chi'ak'bat 'utel yu'un jtot.
Timi chikom ta na, chiyak'be 'utel li jtot e.

If I remain in the house, my father will scold me.

Also compare the following sentences:

Timi chkom ta na li Xun e, chmaje ku'un.
Timi chkom ta na li Xun e, ta jmaj. If Johns stays home, I will hit him.

The theme of a such a topic chain can function as the agent of one clause and the patient of another.

'Ali Xun e, iyak'be vaj li 'antze, i'ak'bat lo'bol stuk. As for John, he gave tortillas to the woman and was given fruits.
Vo'ot e, amaj li 'unen e, lamaje atuk.

As for you, you hit the child and you yourself were hit.

There are still more specialized passive forms. A middle-voice construction uses a verb stem (often a simple root), without any affixation, and a form of chi- "to say" in order to say "immediately, at once something happened...." The construction takes both transitive and intransitive verbs.

Bat xi ta 'ora. He went right away.
Solel 'och xi ta yav. He went into his place right away.
Tik' xi ta vorxa. It went into the bag.

tik', "to insert, put in"
Va' xichi ta 'ora. Immediately I stood up. (Laughlin 1975: 116)

*vA', positional root: "standing"
Tzak xi k'alal yut. They nabbed him immediately to stick him in (jail, that is).

With auxiliary verbs, there is a special passive form that uses the suffix -el. The forms with auxiliaries are somewhat semantically peculiar. Consider the following examples:

Kom smil kaxlan li Xun e.
'Ali Xun e, kom smil li kaxlan e. John remained to kill his chicken.

Ikom smilel (yu'un Xun) li kaxlan e. The chicken remained to be killed (by John).

In the last example it is clear that the chicken and John both stay, but only the subject is necessary in the construction. The agent can be implicit. Consider the following chains:

'Ali Xun e, muk' ijatav, ikom smil li kaxlan e. As for John, he didn't flee; he remained to kill the chicken.
'Ali kaxlan e, muk' ijatav, ikom smilel (yu'un li Xun e). As for the chicken, he didn't flee; it remained and was killed (by John).

In these examples, the sequence of clauses maintains only one noun as the central theme, and the syntactic form of each clause reflects it.

These passive forms are constructed in two ways. First, the grammatical subject can be marked in the verb (which requires the suffix -el) with "possessive" prefixes, or with absolutive suffixes. Second, the verb also receives the prefix s-.

Ikom smilel. He remained to be killed.
Ikom jmilel.
Ikom smilelon. I remained to be killed.
Ikom amilel.
Ikom smilelot. You remained to be killed.

To translate these forms adequately is fairly difficult. They correspond to indefinite forms in English.

I'ay smilelon. Someone went to kill me.

It is evident that the logical suffix of the auxiliary verbs in these constructions is the agent, and not the patient (the grammatical subject of the complex verb), although the agent does not explicitly appear in the sentence.

Ch'ech' yik'elot. Someone will pass by to pick you up.

This construction is a mechanism for emphasizing the verb's object (which becomes the grammatical subject of the passive sentence) while at the same time de-emphasizing the agent, which is represented indirectly. But in the last example it is obvious that the grammatical subject (second person, the person who will be picked up) cannot be the same person who will do the picking up. In other words: the logical subject of the verb ech'- is not identical to the grammatical subject (in this passive construction, the logical object) of the verb -ik'el. Consider the following sentence:

Ch'ech' avich' 'ik'el. Someone will pass by to pick you up.

The grammatical subject of the complex verb ch'ech' avich' is obviously second person: it corresponds to the person who will be picked up. But it should be equally obvious that this person cannot be the same person who is going to pass by.

Related to these observations is the fact that these forms are only possible when the agent of the underlying transitive sentence is in the third person (in other words, a noun).

Ba smajon li Xun e. John went to hit me.
Ba smajelon. Someone went to hit me.

If the agent of the action is explicit, and, more importantly, if it is a pronoun of the first or second person, this type of passive construction is not possible.

'Ali kaxlan e, muk' ijatav, ikom, ijmil. The chicken didn't escape; it stayed; I killed it.

A sentence such as:

Ikom smilel ku'un.

means "it remained to be killed on account of me, due to me--but I was not the one who killed it." In other words: "I arranged for someone to stay in order to be killed."

Some Zinacantecos use passive forms with auxiliaries of this type, which we will look at later in Section 9.5. These have the following form:


There are nominal uses of these verb forms with -el which preserve their passive meaning. With the expression laj- ta X--which means, "suffer from...," "be injured by...," or "end from..."--we have seen nouns that denote concrete things.

Ilaj ta vo'. He got soaked with water.
Ilaj ta machita. He got cut with the machete.
Chilaj ta ton. I'm going to get hit with a rock.

In these expressions, passive verbal nouns with -el also can occur with ta as their object.

Ilaj ta 'utel. He was scolded.
Lilaj ta majel. I suffer from a beating.
Timi chibate, chilaj ta milel. If I go, I will suffer from a beating.
Lajem ta ti'el li chij e. The sheep suffered from a bite.

In the following examples, verbal nouns with -el function as objects of the preposition ta.

Lek ta pasel li vaj e. Tortillas are easy to make.
Vokol ta 'ch'el li pox e. Liquor is hard to drink.

vokol, "hard"
Jal ta k'elel li k'in e. It's hard to see all of the party.

In the following examples, however, nouns with -el function as direct objects of transitive verbs.

Ijta majel, ja' iyak' majel li kajnil e. I received a thrashing; my wife gave it to me.
-ta, "to find"
Chich' k'elel li jchamel e. The sick one is going to receive a look.
Mu sk'an k'oponel li mol e. The old man doesn't want to be spoken to.

With -el, verbal nouns can be produced from ditransitive verbs. The resulting nouns retain the dative suffix -b- before the suffix -el.

Ikak'be tak'in li krem e. I gave the money to the boy.
I'ak'bat tak'in li krem e. The boy was given money (by people unspecified).
Ikom yak'bel tak'in li krem e. They (some unspecified people) remained in order to give money to the boy.
Tzk'an 'ak'bel tak'in li krem e. The boy wants his money returned. (In oher words: He still has not been given the money.)

There is another construction in which verbal nouns with -el function as the object of ta, with some verb or intransitive predicate. Here the grammatical subject of the sentence's main verb corresponds to the logical object of the underlying verb from which the noun is derived.

Ilaj li Xun e. John was hurt.
Imaje li Xun e. John was hit. (Or: They hit John.)
Ilaj ta majel li Xun e. John was hurt by the blows.


Tzotz li vob e. Music is difficult.
Chtij li vobe. Music is playing.

tij, "to play (middle-voice or transitive)"
Tzotz ta tijel li vob e. >Music is difficult to play.

A different structure appears to underly these complex sentences whose main verbs are transitive and whose objects are verbal nouns with -el.

Chamalaat li mol e. The old man is awaited.

-mala, "to wait"

Ali mole, tzk'an malael. As for the old man, he wants to be waited for.


The last sentence, as well as the following, appears to come from a single underlying structure:

Tzk'an ti chmalaat li mol e. It's wanted that the old man is awaited.

In this form, it is apparent that the object of the verb tzk'an is an entire sentence, introduced by the particle ti.

Verbal nouns with -el also receive "possessive" prefixes. Just as nouns with -el have a passive meaning, their grammatical "possessors" correspond to the logical object (or the indirect object, if the verb carries the dative suffix -b-).

Ilaj jmaj li 'ixim e. I finished beating the corn.
Ilaj smajel li 'ixim e. The beating of the corn finished.

(In this example one can see the connection between the use of a deverbal form with -el as a passive form of the verb with an auxiliary and its use as a verbal noun.). For example, compare the following forms:

Ilaj smajel li Xun e. John's beating is finished.
Ilaj ta majel li Xun e. John died from a beating.

The verbal noun with possessive prefixes occurs with an object (in other words, with a grammatical possessor) in the third person.

Mu jna' smajel 'ixim.
Mu jna' jmaj 'ixim. I don't know how to beat the corn.
Mi xana' stijel 'arpa?
Mi xana' xatij 'arpa? Do you know how to play the ['arpa]?

The underlying form of the last sentence appears to be the following:


This structure is transformed into the following:


There are no possessed forms of these verbal nouns with -el that also incorporate the dative suffix -b-. One can say, for example,

Mu xana' xavak'be tak'in lakrem e. You don't know how to give money to your son.

But the following sentence does not exist:

***Mu xana' yak'bel tak'in lakrem e.

Similarly, there does not seem to be deverbal nouns with -el whose possessors are in the first or second person (although very similar forms occur with auxiliary verbs).

Lek yo'on li maestro e; mu sna' smajel 'unen. The teacher has a good heart; he doesn't know how to hit children.
Lek yo'on li mol e, mu sna' xasmaj. The old man is good; he doesn't know how to hit you.

However, it is not possible to say the following:

***Mu sna' amajel. You don't know your hitting.

There is also a structural and semantic contrast between the following sentences:

Vokol ta milel li chitom e. Pigs are difficult to kill.
Vokol smilel li chitom e. Killing pigs is difficult.
Vokol chmile li chitom e. Pigs are killed only with difficulty.

As a final example of deverbal nouns with -el, I will give the following examples:

Ijta majel li vo'on e. I found myself being hit.
Ijta ta majel li tz'i' e. I managed to hit the dog.
Mi avich' k'oponel? Did they talk to you? (Literally: Did you receive speech?)
Muk' lista ta k'oponel. They never found me.

The use of deverbal nouns in -el is well developed in Tzotzil. The constructions with these forms show a "quasi-passive" quality. In other words, they are active forms (in that they contain active transitive verbs) but their grammatical subjects are the logical objects of the deverbal nouns.

Sentence of the form

Ijta ta majel.

are not passive but rather examples of a construction with "double verb."

Ijta li tz'i' e. I found the dog.
Ijmaj li tz'i' e. I hit the dog.
Ijta ta majel li tz'i' e. I managed to hit the dog.


Compare the following sentences:

Ikak' ta meltzanel li kora e. I left my watch to be fixed.
Ikak' li kora e. I left my watch.
Ismeltzan li kora e. Someone fixed my watch.

In these examples, the two verbs (the main verb and the nominalized verb) have the same object: kora, "my watch," or tz'i' "dog." By combining the two clauses, the construction with the deverbal noun expresses a causal connection between the two events.

A passive sentence can clarify the meaning of an ambiguous transitive sentence by identifying the patient of the action.

Buch'u ismil li Xun e? Who killed John? Or: Who did John kill?
Buch'u imile (yu'un li Xun e)? Who was killed by John?

When the subject and the object are both in the third person, a sentence in Tzotzil can also be transformed into an "anti-passive." (The term "anti-passive" was first introduced by Michael Silverstein (????).) A passive sentence is intransitive and has as its surface subject the object of its transitive counterpart. The so-called "anti-passive" is also an intransitive verb, but it does not contain an object as its main constituent and it has the same agent as its transitive counterpart. (I repeat that the anti-passive form is only possible in Tzotzil when both the subject and the object are in the third person (in other words, when they are both nouns). Only in such circumstances will the transitive sentence be ambiguous.) A few examples will make these precepts clear.


Ismil Xun li Petul e. Peter killed John.


Imile (yu'un Petul) li Xun e. John was killed (by Peter).

Syntactic Anti-Passive

Petul imilon (li Xun e). It was Peter who killed (John).

Lexical Anti-Passive

Imilvan li Petul e. Peter did the killing.

Another anti-passive form is derived from a transitive stem and the suffix -van. The result of this derivation is an intransitive stem with the general meaning and use of the syntactic anti-passive.

Chimilvan. I am going to kill (someone).
Ichukvan li Xun e. John locked (someone) up.

If a transitive stem -X combines with the suffix -van, it forms an intransitive stem, X-van-, which means "X to people (or to animals)." Thus, verbs derived with -van are not general antipassives; because the ommitted object must pertain to people, the meaning of the verb is limited.

-mil, "kill"
milvan-, "to murder, kill (people)"

-chuk, "to tie up"
chukvan-, "to jail, to tie up (people)"

-chon, "sell"
chonvan-, "to bewitch people, to sell people's souls"

-jim, "to turn"
jimvan-, "to make people dizzy"

Transitive verbs whose objects are not human generally do not have forms with the suffix -van. Sentences containing antipassive verbs with -van are also very useful for resolving the potential ambiguity of transitive sentences.

Iyut li Xun e. John scolded him. Or: Someone scolded John.
Much'u i'utvan? Who did he scold?
Mi ja' i'utvan li Xun e, mi ja' iyich' 'utel?

Was it John who did the scolding or was it John who was scolded?
Ja' i'utvan li Xun e; ja' i'utat li skrem e.

It was John who did the scolding; his son was scolded.

There are also -van verbs based on transitive verbs whose ordinary meaning does not involve human objects. The meaning of the derived verb depends upon special customs or beliefs.

Solel i'ich'van tajmek li 'abtel e. The work (a religious duty) just finished (someone's) resources.
-'ich', "to receive"

(A religious cargo requires extraordinary expenses for a Zinacanteco.)

Ch'uch'van ta mukul li krem 'une. The boy promised in secret (to give his sister's hand in marriage).
-'uch', "to drink, to take"

The verb 'uch'van- means "to promise one's hand in marriage (to someone)" by accepting and drinking a gift of liquor--literally: "to drink to someone."

So far we have seen various kind of verbs (or sentences):

1. Intransitive (Neutral: Subject = Patient)

Icham li mut e. The bird died.
Ik'ot li 'ikatzil e. The load arrived.

2. Intransitive (Active: Subject = Agent)

I'abtej li Xun e. John worked.
Chanav (= ta + x + xanav) li ka' e. The horse walks.

3. Transitive

Ijmaj li 'ixim e. I husked the corn.
Chisk'opon li Xun e. John spoke to me.

4. Middle-voice (Subject = Patient, no Agent)

Imak li na e. The door closed.
Ivok' li nen e. The window broke.

nen, "glass"

vok', "to break, to bust"

5. Dative

Liyalbe k'usi sbi. He gave me his name. Chakak'be vo'. I will give you water.

The different passive, antipassive, etc. constructions come from transitive sentences by means of various processes of derivation and transformation. Below we will analyze transitive constructions (with objects and agentive subjects) based on intransitive sentences.

Imeltzaj li karo e. The car was fixed.
Ijmeltzan li karo e. I fixed the car.

meltzaj- "to be fixed"

-meltzan, "to fix"
Imeltzaj ku'un li karo e. I managed to fix the car.

Chacham. You are going to die.
Chasmil li Xun e. John is going to kill you.
Chacham yu'un li Xun e. John is capable of killing you.

Mu xlaj li 'ul e. The atole will not run out.
Mu xalajes li 'ul e. You aren't going to finish off the atole.
Mu xlaj avu'un li 'ul e. You can't finish the atole.

A verb that is neutral or in middle-voice, combined with an agent represented by -u'un plus a "possessive" prefix, denotes possibility or capacity. The logical object remains as the grammatical subject of the verb (which is superficially intransitive). The entire construction is related to other causative constructions. The agent can be questioned or fronted.

Mi chk'ot yu'un Maruch li si'e? Toj 'ol.

Is Mary capable of carrying the firewood? It's pretty heavy.
Buch'u chk'ot yu'un li si' e? Who is capable of carrying the firewood?
'Ali Maruch e, chk'ot yu'un li si' e. Mary, she can carry the firewood.

Transitive verbs that carry causative suffixes (for example, the suffix -es) lose them in this construction with -u'un.

Mu xa bu jmuk'ibtas li jna e. I am not going to add on to my house.
Mu xa xmuk'ib ku'un li jna e. I can't add on to my house.

Mi ch'ach'ubtas skaro? Is he going to fix up his car?
Mi ch'ach'ub yu'un li skaro e? Is he capable of fixing up his car?

Isva'an na li jva'anejna. The mason built his house.
'Ali na e, iva'i yu'un li jva'anejna e. The mason managed to build his house.
j-va'an-ej-na, "mason (house-builder)"

Many expressions use this construction.

Mu xkuch ku'un li 'abtel e. I can't bear the work. (Literally: I can't carry the work.)
Mi xu' avu'un xanbal? Can you walk? Can you endure the trip?
yu'-, "be able to, to be held"

This construction is not used with verbs of the second type--that is, with (active) intransitive verbs. These verbs do not have a causative form, because the subject of an active verb is the agent and not (or not only) the patient of the action. On the other hand, in this "potential" construction with -u'un, the grammatical subject of the verb (which is superficially intransitive) should be the logical patient of the action. Thus, the first sentence of the second pair is permissible, but the second is not:

Mu x'ok' ku'un li 'ama e. I can't make the flute sound.
***Mu x'ok' ku'un li 'unen e. I can't make the child cry.
ok'- "to cry, to make noise"

This construction does not communicate only possibility or capacity; it also permits a difference of perspective. A transitive sentence, such as the following, presents the agent as active and responsible for his action.

Mu jman li chenek' e. I don't want to buy beans.

On the other hand, a sentence with the construction in -u'un represents the subject as if, in some sense, it were not active and responsible--or at least effective--in the situation denoted.

Toj toyol li chenek' e; mu xman ku'un. Beans are very expensive; I can't buy them.

Here, the grammatical structure suggests that due to a characteristic of the beans, I can't buy them. (Compare the English expression, "These beans won't sell.") Also, it is possible to completely transform the ordinary transitivity of a verb like -man "to buy." When used transitively, this verb has the person who purchases something as its subject, and the thing purchased as its object. When used with the -u'un construction, the agent is represented (by means of a phrase with-u'un) as an indirect participant in the purchase of something. But it is possible to transform the verb -man into a middle-voice stem, where the grammatical subject (a position ordinarily reserved for the logical patient of the verb) is the person who makes the purchase and the agent (introduced by the particle 'o) corresponds to what is purchased.

'Ali chenek' e, toj toyol; mu ximanotik 'o. Beans are very expensive; we can't buy them. (Literally: We don't buy ourselves with them.)

(The suffix -otik is the absolutive form of the first person plural inclusive. The form ch-i-man-otik is superficially intransitive; the prefix -i- plus the suffix -otik means that the grammatical subject of the expression is the pronoun vo'otik "all of us." See Section 9.1.) The last example represents a complete inversion of the ordinary situation, to achieve a change of perspective, focusing on the characteristics of the beans and the resulting incapacity imposed on the people who want to buy beans.

8.10 The "Favored" Tzotzil Construction

We have seen that Tzotzil makes good use of grammatical possession. Possessive prefixes can indicate a wide variety of relations between the "possessed" noun and the "possessor," but the syntactic form remains the same.

Possessive Prefix + Noun Possessor
1 2

We can review a few uses of this possessive construction:

1) Ordinary Possession:

sna li Xun e John's house
jka' my horse

2) Inalienable Possession

ak'ob your hand sjol li na e the "head" of the house (in other words: the roof)

3) Benefactive Posession

yalak'il chobtik the chickens that eat the corn yichil li kalto the chile that is in the broth

'ich, "chile"

4) "Attributive" Posession

yach'il jpixol the newness of my hat
yepal vinik the group of men

5) Verbal Possession

ayulel your arrival
slikel li k'op e the beginning of the dispute
smajel li 'ixim e the husking of the corn
smanbel pox li 'unen e the purchase of medicine for the child

In each example, the relationship between possessor and possessed is different.

Tzotzil appears to prefer sentences and constructions which permit a possessed noun to be followed by its grammatical possessor, and also exploit the relationship between the two. Such a pattern or "preference" is called an objective in other linguistic realms, in other words, a pattern that a language's grammar tries to follow. This pattern is made obvious in what I call the "favored" construction of Tzotzil.

Ta xkik' li tzeb e. I am going to marry the girl.

-ik', "to take, to carry (people), to call"
Ta xkik'be stzeb li mol Xun e. I am going to marry the daughter of Big John.
Chakik'be latzeb e. I am going to marry your daughter.

Ta jman li 'ixim e. I am going to buy corn.
Ta jmanbe yixim li krem e. I am going to buy the boy's corn.
Chajmanbe avixim. I am going to buy your corn (that is, for or from you.)

These dative sentences, with the suffix -be, treat possessors of the direct object as indirect objects (as dative constituents). Note that the word order is correct from two points of view: the structure of dative sentences and the structure of possessive phrases.

Chkak'be 'ixim li mol Xun e
1 2 3
Verb Object Dative
I will give corn to Big John.


The English translation of this type of sentence does not adequately convey the complete meaning in Tzotzil.

Ta jsa'be yav li karo e. I am going to find a place for my car.
Lisk'anbe jtak'in. He wanted me my money.

The grammar suggests that what happens to my possessions also happens to me.

I have called this construction "the favored construction" because Tzotziles seem to use dative sentences of this type every time that the object of a transitive verb is possesed, and also when the indirect object (dative) cannot be interpreted as the possessor of a direct object. Thus, it is preferable to say:

Lixch'aybe jtak'in li Xun e. John lost me my money.

and not simply:

Ixch'ay jtak'in li Xun e. John lost my money.

Also it is common for people to say:

Ijmanbe yixim li Xun e. I bought John his corn.

rather than:

Ijmanbe 'ixim li Xun e. I bought John corn.

A sentence such as Ijmanbe yixim means something like: "I bought him corn so that it would be his." Or better said: "I bought him his corn." In any case, Zinacantecos show a notable preference for the indirect object to be the posessor of the direct object in dative sentences.

If the direct object of a transitive verb is a complex possessed noun, in other words, a sequence of possessors, then the last possessor is available as the dative constituent.

st'ul li krem e the boy's rabbit
st'ul akrem (li vo'ot e) your boy's rabbit
Ta jmil li t'ul e. I am going to kill the rabbit. Ta jmilbe st'ul li krem e. I am going to kill the boy's rabbit.

Ta jmilbe st'ul lakrem e.
Chajmilbe st'ul lakrem e. I am going to kill your boy's rabbit.

(It is possible, but uncommon, for someone to say:

Ta jmil st'ul lakrem e. I am going to kill your boy's rabbit.

These examples suggest a structure of the following form:


'Ali Xun e, ismil st'ul li jkrem e. John killed my son's rabbit.

One of these possessors is elevated to the position of indirect object, generating the dative suffix -be and an absolutive affix on the verb. Thus, the favored construction comes from the following form:


or from the form:


Note that these sentences contrast with another sentence that is truly ditransitive, with a legitimate indirect object. Thus, it is possible to say:

'Ali Xun e, iyak'be jtob pexu li jkrem e. John gave twenty pesos to my son.

But it is not possible to say:

***'Ali Xun e, liyak'be jtob pexu li jkrem e. The sentence above has the following form:


Since there is already a dative constituent in this structure, it is not possible to elevate the posessor to the dative position.

The "favored" construction manages to maintain the possessed noun in its correct order (Noun + Possessor). At the same time, this construction fills all the constituents of the sentenence, dividing the possessed noun and the possessor between two different functions. In a sentence like the following:

Ismilbe st'ul li krem e. He killed the boy's rabbit.

the phrase st'ul li kreme has the form of a possessed noun, which means "the boy's rabbit." But st'ul is the direct object of the verb, and li kreme is the superficial indirect object.

The use of the verb -ak' "to give" with an object together with an entire sentence illustrates a similar process.

'Ali Xun e, liyak'be kil li ch'ivit e. John showed me the market. (Literally: John gave me that I see the market.)

This sentence appears to have the following logical structure:

John gave: I saw the market.

with two constituent sentences:

'Ali Xune, iyak': ikil li ch'ivit e (vo'on)

This is shown diagramatically below:


>From this structure the subject of the subordinate sentence (vo'on, "I") is elevated to the position of dative constituent in the superordinate sentence, resulting in the marking of the dative suffix -be and the absolutive prefix -i- on the verb.


A similar analysis explains sentences like the following:

Chakalbe ava'i. I am going to tell you (so that you understand).

The ditransitive forms of these sentences are other symptoms of Tzotzil's syntactic objective. They are instances of the "favored" construction, forms that are preferred, though not obligatory.

Chkal ava'i.

Chakalbe ava'i. I am going to say it to you.

Chkak' avil.
Chakak'be avil. I am going to show it to you.

There are also sentences with quasi-subjunctive objects that show the same pattern.

Chajmanbe bek'et ati'. I am going to buy you meat so you can eat it.
Manbon junuk kilo jti' che'e. Buy me a kilo for me to eat.

In these examples there are two constituents: a sentence of the form

Ta jman bek'et. I will buy meat.

and another sentence, which modifies the noun bek'et "meat," of the form:

Chati' li bek'et e. You eat the meat..

Thus, we have:

Ta jman bek'et (so that) chati' bek'et.

which produces the form:

Ta jman bek'et (---) (ch)ati' (---).

omitting the second bek'et. In diagram form, this sentence would be represented as follows:


The subordinate sentence contracts, omitting the object bek'et since it is identical to the object of the superordinate sentence. Thus, the following form is obtained:


In this situation it is possible to form the "favored" construction by elevating the subject of the subordinate sentence to dative position in the superordinate sentence.


If the object of a transitive verb is a "possession" of the verb's subject, a transitive sentence that adjust to the ordinary structure manages to accomplish the "objective" of the linguistic structure. It maintains the possessed noun and the possessor in the correct order.

Ismaj sbankil li Xun e. John his his (own) brother.
Ijchon jna (li vo'on e). I sold my (own) house.
Tzk'opon sbol li krem e. The boy is talking to his brother-in-law.

sbankil li Xun e John's brother
jna (vo'on) my house
sbol li krem e the boy's brother-in-law

However, if the agent of the verb is possessed by the object of the same verb, the ordinary structure of the sentence contradicts the structure of (that is, the word order in) the possessed phrase. For example, in order to say "John killed his wife," we can use the regular word order.

yajnil li Xun e John's wife
Ismil yajnil li Xun e. John killed his wife.

But, in order to say "John's wife killed him," we cannot use a sentence of the following form:

***Ismil Xun li yajnil e.

This sentence is, at the very least, confusing: it appears to confuse the relation between John and his wife. Also, it obscure who does the killing and who is killed.[3]

After reorganizing this sentence to maintain the correct order for the possessed noun in relation to its possessor, it is necessary to use a passive form.
yajnil li Xun e John's wife
Imile yu'un yajnil li Xun e. John was killed by his (own) wife. (Or: Someone was killed by John's wife.)

Also, in order to say "John's wife killed John's son" we have to fix the word order in order to establish the possessive relation, as well as the the relation between agent and patient.

Imilbat skrem li Xun e. John's son was killed.
'Ali Xun e, imilbat skrem yu'un yamiko. John was killed by his friend.

Here we find the "favored" construction in a passive form. The fronting of li Xun e and the ordinary presumption of grammatical structure suggest the interpretation that John is the "possessor" of the dead son as well as the friend who is the killer.

The "anti-passive" with the suffix -on is also used in constructions of this type. Remember that the transitive sentence is the perfect vehicle for a proposition like the following:

Ismil yajnil li Xun e. John killed his wife.[4]

In this sentence, the object is the "possession" of the subject. To express the converse situation requires a change of the verb in order to specify an action done by the one possessed to the possessor.

Imile yu'un yajnil li Xun e. John was killed by his wife.

The following sentences (all anti-passive) have the same meaning: a. Imilon yajnil li Xun e. John's wife killed him. b. Yajnil imilon li Xun e. It was his wife that killed John. c. 'Ali Xun e, imilon yajnil. John's wife killed him.

In these sentences it is the verb's form (i.e., antipassive with -on) and not word order that determines meaning. The possessive prefix combined with -ajnil shows that it is being treated as a possessed noun: yajnil li Xun e. And it is this noun that acts as subject of the anti-passive verb. (Note that example (c) is a variation upon sentence (a), the only difference being that it has the last constituent fronted.) Sentence (b) is the anti-passive form with the subject in initial position, without a pause, and with an object after the verb. These are complexities I still do not understand very well.

8.11 Pseudo-Verbs

We already know about the word -chi'uk "with" in sentences like the following:

Libat ta Jobel jchi'uk kamiko. I went to San Cristóbal with my friend.
Much'u cha'abtej achi'uk? Who are you going to work with?

One can see that the word -chi'uk (which is obviously related to the verb -chi'un "to accompany") has a grammatical possessor. It also appears to have an "object" (the person or thing that accompanies the possessor of -chi'uk). This is why -chi'uk, which does not combine with verbal prefixes of tense and aspect, nevertheless has certain verbal characteristics, which can be seen in the following sentences:

Ja' jchi'uk li Xun e. I am with John.
Ja' jchi'ukot. I am with you.
Ja' achi'ukon tal. You were with me (when you came).

The word -chi'uk combines with "agent" and "patient" and also with a directional verb. It is also possible to add the dative suffix -be to -chi'uk, with the expected meaning.

Ja' jchi'ukbe sbol li Xun e. I was with John's brother-in-law.
Ja' jchi'uk-b-ot lakreme. I am with your son.

The word -chi'uk in the sense of "with" is similar to a transitive verb that does not take verbal affixes of tense or aspect. -Chi'uk is also used (as a type of preposition) to indicate the object or logical agent of an intransitive verb. In this usage, -chi'uk does not accept absolutive affixes, only possessive prefixes.

Vo'ot ta xi' 'o li 'unen e.
Ta xi' xchi'uk vo'ot li 'unen e. The boy is afraid of you.

Chaxi' ta bolom li vo'ot e.
Chaxi' achi'uk bolom li vo'ot e. You were scared of the tiger.

Chinupun jchi'uk stzeb li mol Xun e. I am going to get married to the son of old man John.
nupun- "to get married" (intransitive)

Issa' k'op xchi'uk li slak'-na e. He looked for dispute with his neighbor.
-lak'-na, "neighbor"

The last example illustrates the use of -chi'uk to introduce a nominal constituent (which is not an indirect or dative object) to a sentence that already has a grammatical object.

The relational noun -u'un also has verbal characteristics. Laughlin (1975:71) gives the following example:

Ilok' ku'unbe komel yot. I managed to make his tortillas.

Here the construction with -u'un, which expresses posibility, combines with a directional verb (komel, "remaining") and with the dative suffix -be. One can also say:

Imeltzaj yu'unbot ana li j'alvanil. The mason managed to make your house.

In these examples, we can see datives sentences that have been transformed into the middle-voice form by means of -u'un. But the dative suffix is retained, although it is impossible for them to combine with the verb, which is intransitive.

Ijlok'esbe yot. I took (in other words: made) his tortillas.
Ilok' ku'un li yot e. I managed to make his tortillas.

[Original missing something here.] With the favored construction, this sentence acquires the following form:

Ilok' ku'unbe yot.

The other example has a similar origin:

'Ali j'alvanil e, ismeltzan lana e. The mason made your house.
Lasmeltzanbe lana e. (favored transitive construction) He made you your house.
'A lana e, imeltzaj yu'un j'alvanil. (middle-voice form) The mason managed to make your house.
Imeltzaj yu'unbot lana e.
The same relation holds between the two following sentences:

Chakuchbon kikatz. You carry my load.
Chkuch avu'unbon kikatz. You can carry my load.

The suffix -bil creates from a transitive verb (with or without the dative suffix -be) the "stative" passive form:

Sk'elojon sjunul k'ak'al. They have watched me all day.
K'elbilon sjunul k'ak'al. I have been watch at all day.
Smajojbon jkrem. They have hit my child.
Majbilon jkrem. My child has been hit.

The suffix -bil also appears with other words that are not transitive verbs. An example, somewhat rare, is the intransitive verb xi'- "to be afraid." We have already seen how an instrument or agent is expressed with this verb.

Lixi' ta vo'. I was frightened by the water.
Mu xixi' 'o li vo'ot e. I'm not frightened by you.

But the verb also has a very specialized transitive use with the suffix -be, which can be seen in the following examples:

K'u yu'un chixi'? Mu k'usi chajxi'be. Why would I be afraid? You don't have anything I should be afraid of?
Ijatav li jmakbe 'une; ja' laxi'be lamachita e. The cuttthroat fled, because your machete scared him.

(Here the form chaxi'be can be analyzed as ch-a-x-xi'-be.)

Mi chaxi'bon li jpistola li'e? Are you afraid of this pistol here?

There is also the form xi'bil "frighening," an anomalous form with an intransitive verb.

Xi'bilon tajmek. Solel xi'em ku'un skotol krixchano. I am frightening. Everyone is afraid of me.

We will end this complex section with a pseudo-verbal expression that utilizes the word 'o'on-il "heart" as the basis for a variety of idiomatic expressions.

Lek yo'on.
Jun yo'on. He is happy.
Bik'it yo'on. He is think-skinned. (Or: He is cowardly.)
K'un yo'on. He is cowardly.
Tzotz yo'on. He is stoic.
Ilaj yo'on. He forgave. (Literally: His heart finished.)

Ich'ay yo'on. He is distracted.

There is also the expression k'ak'al 'o'on-il "anger, envy" (literally: "heat of the heart"). The compound functions as a complex possessed noun, with possessive prefixes.

Iyak' sk'ak'al ko'on. It angered me. (Literally: It gave me a hot heart.)
Ta stz'ik sk'ak'al yo'on. He endured his anger.

The first element of the combine also combines with absolutive suffixes in order to form stative sentences.
Sk'ak'alon avo'on tajmek, pero k'usi jmul? You are very angry with me (literally: I am the heat of your heart), but what fault of mine is that?
Yu'nan sk'ak'alot yo'on, ja' mu xask'opon.

Perhaps he is angry with you, because he isn't talking to you.

But there appears to be a verbal form with the suffix -bil, which means "to be envied, to be the object of anger."

K'ak'al-'o'onbilon tajmek, muk' much'u chisk'opon. People are angry with me, because no one will talk to me.
K'ak'al-'o'onbil ti jk'ulej e. He is envied because he is rich.

It seems likely to me that this form with -bil derives from a verb -k'ak'al-'o'onin (-in being the usitative suffix) with the hypothetical meaning such as: "to consider to be the cause of anger, to be angry because of, to envy." One also says:

K'ak'al-'o'oninbilon, kapanbilon. They envy me; they are angry withme.
kap-, "to be angry"
-kapan, "to anger"


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