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Revista signos

versión On-line ISSN 0718-0934

Rev. signos vol.46 no.81 Valparaíso mar. 2013 

Revista Signos. Estudios de Lingüística
ISSN 0718-0934
© 2013 PUCV, Chile
46(81) 29-55


Construing experience in Spanish: Revisiting a Systemic Functional Description of Spanish Nuclear Transitivity

Construyendo la experiencia en español: Una nueva mirada a una descripción sistémico-funcional de la transitividad del español

Alexandra García
Macquarie University, Australia

Abstract: This paper examines the systemic functional description of Spanish Nuclear Transitivity as proposed by Lavid, Arús and Zamorano (2010) and proposes two modifications to their system network. The first is to reevaluate their concept of ‘causation’, which is limited to ‘lexical ergativity’ (He broke the window/The window broke). It is argued that causation can be realized with a range of structures that include analytical (He made the boy run) and synthetic (He chased the boy) versions. Furthermore, lexical ergativity is subdivided into ‘Instigation’ (He broke the window) and ‘Initiation’ (He rolled the ball). These options are considered more ‘delicate’ choices of the ‘effective voice’ subsystem. The second modification is the inclusion of the ER-participant (Actor, Carrier, Sayer, Behaver, Senser) explicitness system, which is exclusive to Spanish. This set of options allow the speaker to present crucial participants in Agent•Process•Medium and Medium•Process configurations obliquely. Although the different realizations of this system (‘se’ passives, periphrastic passives, impersonal ‘se’ and impersonal 3 person plural), have been widely discussed in the literature from both systemic and non-systemic perspectives, these had not been mapped into the system network of Spanish Transitivity.

Key Words: Causation, ergativity, er-participant, instigation, initiation.

Resumen: Este artículo examina la descripción sistémico funcional de la Transitividad Nuclear del español como la explican Lavid, Arús y Zamorano (2010) y propone dos modificaciones a su red sistémica. La primera es reevaluar su concepto de ‘causación’, el cual la limita a la ‘ergatividad léxica’ (El rompió la ventana/La ventana se rompió). El argumento presentado es que la causación puede ser realizada con una variedad de estructuras que incluyen la causación analítica (El hizo correr al muchacho) y la sintética (El persiguió al muchacho). Además, la ergatividad léxica se subdivide en ‘Instigación’ (El rompió la ventana) e Iniciación (El rodó la bola). Estas opciones se consideran como opciones más ‘delicadas’ del subsistema de ‘voz efectiva’. La segunda modificación es la inclusión del sistema de especificación del participante OR (Actor, Perceptor, Portador, Emisor), el cual es exclusivo del español. Este grupo de opciones permite al hablante presentar a participantes cruciales en configuraciones Agente•Proceso•Medio o Medio•Proceso de manera oblicua. Aunque las diferentes realizaciones de este sistema (pasivas reflejas, pasivas perifrásticas, ‘se’ impersonal, tercera persona plural impersonal) han sido discutidas ampliamente en la literatura tanto desde perspectivas sistémicas como no-sistémicas, estas no habían sido incluidas en la red sistémica de la Transitividad del español.

Palabras Clave: Causación, ergatividad, participante OR, instigación, iniciación.


The typological description of languages other than English from a Systemic Functional Perspective is an area of increasing development. The past decade has seen the appearance of works on languages as diverse as French (Caffarel, 2004, 2006), Vietnamese (Thai, 2004), and Pitjantjatjara (Rose, 2004) to name only a few. In Ibero-America, Halliday’s model has increasingly gained momentum yielding important works such as Ghio and Fernández’s (2005) SFL descriptive manual applied to the Spanish language. The use of SFL theory in Latin America has been mainly focused on educational practices (Natale, 2004; Moyano, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2007; Oteíza, 2006; Vian, Anglada, Moyano & Romero, 2009) from which some descriptive attempts have emerged (Moss, Mizuno, Ávila, Barletta, Carreño, Chamorro & Tapia, 2003). From a strictly typological perspective, developments are being made in the description of verbal processes within the framework of the ‘Systemic Across Languages’ (SAL) project led by Matthiessen, Bárbara and Teruya. Yet, the most important typological work to date is Lavid, Arús and Zamorano’s (2010) first monograph-long systemic functional description of Spanish, providing a detailed metafunctional profile of the grammar of this language (Quiroz, 2010). As argued in previous papers (Arús, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b; Lavid & Arús, 2004), in their treatment of the experiential metafunction, these authors step away from Halliday and Matthiessen’s (2004) description of nuclear transitivity by establishing ‘causation’ as a separate system from ‘Agency’, following Davidse’s (1991, 1992, 1996, 1999) ergative/transitive divide.

This paper suggests two modifications to the system network for Transitivity as proposed by Lavid et al. (2010). The first is remapping the different options for construing causation as more delicate choices in the system of Agency, including the feature ‘Instigation’ as introduced by Davidse (1992) and differentiated from ‘Initiation’ as proposed by Halliday (1968). The second is to include a typological difference of Spanish, which although discussed in this and previous works (Arús, 2006) has not been mapped into their system network. It is what will be called ‘the ER participant explicitness’ category, which allows speaker to choose whether to present central participants to the clause configuration explicitly or obliquely.

In the first section, the paper will introduce briefly the experiential metafunction and the mapping of its resources in the lexicogrammar organised in the Transitivity system as proposed by Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) in ‘An Introduction to Functional Grammar’ (IFG hereafter). This will be contrasted with Lavid et al.’s (2010) Transitivity network as presented in ‘A Systemic Functional Grammar of Spanish’ (SFS hereafter). In the second part of the paper, the sub-system of ER-participant explicitness is introduced as a differentiating characteristic of Spanish. Furthermore, examples from different registers are provided to illustrate how these resources are exploited by speakers/writers with different purposes.

1. Theoretical framework

It is a central tenet of the SFL model that language has ‘evolved in the service of certain functions’ (Halliday, 2003), and that this evolutionary process has left its mark on the organisation of language, so that its inner character is a function of what humans have needed to do with it. One of these functions of language provides speakers with the means to organise the complexity of human experience, both the world around and inside us. As Halliday and Matthiessen (2004: 170) argue:

“Our most powerful impression of experience is that it consists of a flow of events, or ‘goings-on’. This flow of events is chunked into a quanta of change by the grammar of the clause”.

The never-ending flux of events is selected from and organized through the lens of a community’s linguistic potential, a point which echo’s Whorf (1956: 213) view of the relation of language to our experience of the world:

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds”.

In the case of English and Spanish, being these two languages from the Indoeuropean family, similarities have been found in the way their grammars organize experience. The flux of events is chunked into configurations of processes, participants and circumstances, differentiating between events that take place in the outside world (i.e. The letter arrived; the children are playing in the garden) and those in the realm of our consciousness (i.e. I love you; she knows the lesson). It also helps us to establish relations between entities such as ‘x belongs to y’, ‘x is a kind of y’ or ‘x is located in y’. (see IFG, chapter 5). These different domains of experience i.e ‘doings’ and ‘happenings’, ‘sensing’ and ‘being’ are modelled in the system of Process Type, which includes material, mental and relational process as major types, along with verbal processes for clauses of ‘saying’. Each process type requires different configurations of participants ascribed to them. For instance, the obligatory participant in a material clause will be the ‘Actor’ or the one carrying out the action (‘the dog’ in ‘The dog is running’), which may be extended to another participant labelled as the ‘Goal’ (‘its tail’ in ‘the dog is chasing its tail’). The label ‘Actor’ is obviously inappropriate for participants in other types of clauses, i.e. in a relational clause such as ‘The king is dead’, (since the king is not doing anything). Instead ‘the king’ is given the label ‘Carrier’ of the ‘Attribute’ (dead). However, despite these similarities, as Quiroz (2010) argues, it is necessary to establish clearly the criteria for distinction of process types in Spanish.

As Halliday (2003: 195) argues, “the grammar is indeterminate in the sense that there are often two or more possible grammatical interpretations of an item, each of which relates it to a different set of other items, thus making a particular generalization of a paradigmatic kind”, and he exemplifies this point by reference to ‘transitive and ergative interpretations of English transitivity’. As well as differentiating among process types, the grammar also generalises across them by presenting events as self-engendered (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004) (i.e. ‘the vase fell’, where ‘vase’ is ‘Medium’) or brought about by an external source (i.e. ‘The child dropped the vase’), labelled as the Agent (‘the child’ in this case). These options are mapped in the system of Agency and together with the system of process type form the System of Nuclear Transitivity, illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. System of Nuclear Transitivity in Matthiessen (1995: 206).

Unlike the descriptive categories for the participants in different process types (Actor, Goal, Carrier, etc), the categories of ‘Medium’ and ‘Agent’ remain constant for all process types. Furthermore, while in the system of process type, the variable is one of ‘extension-and-impact’ (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), that is whether the action extends from the Actor to a potential Goal, in the system of Agency the variable is one of causation, featuring the presence or absence of an external agent. These complementary systems offer two different perspectives on the semiotic construal of human experience: the transitive and the ergative models. These are encapsulated in one system, that of ‘transitivity’, which includes both the ‘transitive’ and the ‘ergative’ models: ‘Ergativity’ is thus not the name of a system, but of a property of the system of transitivity’ (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004).

In SFL, it is contended that most languages will organise experience along these general lines, but will present variation as we move to the right in the system network mapping more delicate choices (Teich, 2003; Matthiessen, 2004). This does not exclude other potential forms of organisation such as the centrifugal/centripetal model suggested by Martin (2004) for Tagalog.

2. Lavid et al’s Transitivity network

Arús and Lavid have published extensively (Lavid & Arús, 2002, 2004; Arús, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b) on the Transitivity model as proposed by Davidse (1992). The difference between this and the Hallidayan model consists of the separation of “the system of Agency (concerned with the presence or absence of the feature Agent)” from the “system of Causation (concerned with the variable of instigation)” (Lavid & Arús, 2002: 75). Figure 2 presents the most general nuclear transitivity network for both English and Spanish in SFS.

Figure 2. The System of Nuclear Transitivity in SFS (88).

Their argument rests on the fact that not all verbs form ergative/non-ergative pairs using the same lexical item. They explain this phenomenon using the following reactances1.
(1a) The baby’s broken the DVD.
(1b) The DVD has broken.
(2a) The baby’s picking her nose again.
(2b) *The baby’s nose is picking.
Whereas the Agent in (1a), The baby is the external causer of the DVD breaking - hence (1b) - the same Agent in (2a) is not externally causing any action by, or happening on, her nose, which explains the agrammaticality of (2b)(SFS, 86).

According to this reasoning, in (3a), the baby “is not externally causing any action by, or happening on” the bug.

(3a) The baby killed the bug.

(3b) The bug died.

This position, I would argue, seems both too limited and too general. It is limited since it reduces causation to lexical ergativity, and too general because it does not differentiate between ergative/non-ergative pairs such as (1a) and (1b) with those with the variable ‘Initiation’, (i.e. The general marched the soldiers/ The soldiers marched), which will be discussed later on.

Adopting a trinocular perspective (Halliday, 1996) to analyse this issue may prove useful at this point. From above, or the semantics stratum, it is hard to argue that in (3a) the baby did not cause the death of the bug. From roundabout, or the lexicogrammar level, (1a), (2a) and (3a) show the same pattern Actor•Process•Goal from the transitive perspective, and Agent•Process•Medium, from the ergative perspective. As clarified in IFG, the difference between (1a) and (2a) or (2b) seems to be a matter of delicacy rather than opposition:

“Some linguists have in fact thought that English is only lexically ergative. But this is not a tenable position once we realize that lexis and grammar are not separate modules or components, but merely zones within a continuum: ‘lexical ergativity’ in English is an extension in delicacy of ‘grammatical ergativity’ within the experiential clause of the grammar; and the explanation for the evolution of ergative patterning in English is grammatical in the first instance is rather than lexical.” (IFG, 286).

Lavid et al.’s (2010) claim that Agency has nothing to do with the variable of external cause calls for revision when considered that causation can be realized with different process participant configurations as illustrated by Halliday (1968: 198):

What this paper suggests, in line with the Hallidayan model, is that the lexicogrammatical resources to express causation are varied and range from non-agentive structures, passing by middle voice clauses to Initiator•Process•Actor configurations, as in Halliday’s examples.

Likewise, Caffarel (2006) extends the system of Agency in French to include the variables of synthetic and analytic causation in effective clauses to account for the difference between ‘John marched the prisoners and John made the prisoners march’. Taking into account Halliday’s conception of lexical ergativity as a more delicate choice of grammatical ergativity, and Caffarel’s (2006) further division of causation, it is possible to map the ergative/non-ergative pairs identified by Davidse as a more delicate choice of the synthetic form of causation in effective clauses, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Remapping of lexical ergativity.

The first subsystem in the network as proposed in Figure 3, the choice between operative and receptive voice, accounts for the difference between ‘I threw the ball and the ball was thrown’. The second option, analysed from below, is realized by the verbal group in passive voice. In English, it consists of the auxiliary ‘be’ plus the main verb in past participle form. In Spanish, in addition to this form, the passive voice can be realized with what has been called the ‘reflex’ or ‘se’ passive (Cano, 1981; Alarcos, 1987, 1999; Seco, 1996; Arús, 2006; Real Academia de la Lengua Española, 2010), realized with the use of the ‘se’ clitic and the verbal group in agreement with nominal group realizing the Medium. (4b) and (4c) offer the two possible translations from the English (4a):

(4a) All the books were sold (by independent companies).

(4b) Todos los libros

fueron vendidos

(por compañías independientes)


[be-3PastPl + sold]

All the books

were sold

(by independent companies)

(4c) Se vendieron

todos los libros

*(por compañías independientes)


[‘se’ + sell-3PastPL]

se’ sold

all the books

*(by independent companies)

In Spanish, ‘se’ passives are more common than periphrastic passives (to be + past participle) (RAE, 2010). For example a Google search of (4b) eliminating deictic markers produced less than 400,000 hits, while (4c) yielded over 8 million results. Regarding causation, clauses with periphrastic passives such as (4b) easily accept the inclusion of the feature +Agent, but ‘se’ passives (4c) typically do not.

The synthetic/analytic features show how causation can be realized either experientially (orbitally) or logically (serially) (Matthiessen, 1995; Caffarel, Martin & Matthiessen, 2004; Caffarel, 2006). In (5a) the clause is organised around a Process•Medium nucleus that is extended through the incorporation of the feature Agent.

(5a) The boy


the dog




(5b) The boy


the dog






(5c) The brother


the boy


the dog

Agent 1


Agent 2



(5d) The mother


the brother


the boy


the dog

Agent 1


Agent 2


Agent 3



In (5b), (5c), and (5d), causation is realized with increasingly longer verbal group complexes introducing each a new Agent participant. Caffarel (2006) explains how in French, analytic causatives can take up to two Agents. In Spanish, analytic causation has been studied from within the SFL perspective (Lavid & Arús, 2002) and other traditions of linguistic enquiry (Curnow, 1993; Soares da Silva, 2004; García-Miguel, 2007; Maldonado, 2007); however examples involving chains of causation such as (6) seem to be absent from the literature.

(6) Mamá

dejó que



al bebé


la pelota


let that



to the baby


the ball

Agent 1


Agent 2


Agent 3



Mum let Pedro make the baby roll the ball

Synthetic causation, on the other hand, would include all effective clauses where the Process is not realized by a causative verbal group complex (i.e. make/let/ This is subcategorised depending on the possibility of the clause to form an ergative/non-ergative pair, that is to say, to be paired with a middle clause where the process is presented as self-engendered.

(7) Tyree caught the ball with both hands.

(8a) John fed the baby.

(8b) The baby ate.

(9a) John broke the glass.

(9b) The glass broke.

It is not possible to pair (7) with a middle voice version, but both (8a) and (8b) and (9a) and (9b) form ergative/non-ergative pairs. We will classify (8a) as grammatically (non-lexical) ergative, and (9a) as a lexically ergative clause.

However, as will be discussed below, not all lexical ergatives are created equal, following the initial claim that the ergative/transitive divide as proposed in SFS is too general. A further distinction between instigation (Davidse’s term) and initiation (Halliday’s term) is suggested.

The instigation/initiation divide is illustrated by the contrast between pairs such as (9a) and (9b), and (10a) and (10b).

(10a) John rolled the ball.

(10b) The ball rolled.

Davidse (1992), on whose work Lavid et al. (2010) base their argument, considers that in examples such as (9a) and (10a) ‘the glass’ and ‘the ball’ are not ‘inert’ participants but ‘co-participate in the process’. By ‘co-participation’, she means that there is an input of energy from the Medium (the glass or the ball). She argues that “we can say both What John did to the door was open it and What the door did was open” (Davidse, 1992: 118).

However, the probe question ‘What did the glass do?’ does not seem to work with (9b), unless with particular speaker purposes such as to achieve a humorous effect as seen below:

“So, what did the glass do this time?” Catherine asked standing just inside his door. She had seen the glass fall to its demise. Grissom gave a half smile at Catherine’s casual attitude. “I don’t know. The police think it was suicide, but I’ll have to investigate.” He paused listening to her chuckle.

Taken from ‘Shattered Glass’ by Mac 1

On the contrary, ‘What did the ball do?’ – ‘It rolled’ is perfectly acceptable. This shows the grammatical difference between the realization of doings and happenings, which could be established as a more delicate choice of material processes intersecting with the middle voice, as in Halliday’s (1968) initial Transitivity networks.

In Spanish, as in French and Italian (Kemmer, 1993; Caffarel, 2006) this difference is even more marked and can be identified when analysing the clause from below, in the realization of the verbal group. (9c) and (10c) offer the translation of (9b) and (10b) respectively.

(9c) El vaso se rompió.

(10c) La bola rodó.

Notice how (9c) requires the use of the clitic ‘se’ which implies the supervention of the act of breaking, that is to say, a ‘happening to’ rather than a ‘doing of’ the glass. Arús (2006) considers this particular use of ‘se’ as ‘semantically empty’, since it does not realize a participant in the clause. However, notice the difference in meaning in (11) and (12), taken from the CREA Spanish Corpus.

(11) Se



una granada

a un compañero”,





a grenade

to a fellow soldier”,

I thought

“A grenade exploded on one of my fellow soldiers”, I thought

(12) cuando

una granada


entre los tenderetes


a 72


a grenade


among the stalls



when a grenade exploded among the stalls killing 72

While ‘se’ in (11) implies the explosion was an accident, in (12) the grenade carried out its intended function. Di Tullio (2003) refers to this use of the ‘se’ clitic as ergative or ‘anticausative’, which denotes change ‘without the intervention of an agent’, making (13) ungrammatical. Its absence in (14) denotes, rather than a spontaneous happening, a function of ‘the door’

(13) La puerta se abrió *deliberadamente.The door opened *deliberately.

(14) La puerta abre hacia adentro.The door opens inwards.

Going back to the original examples illustrating the contrast between instigation (9a) and initiation (10a), another reactance demonstrating the difference between the two can be found in (9d) and (10d):

(9a) John broke the glass.

(9d) John broke.

(10a) John rolled the ball.

(10d) John rolled.

By eliminating the Medium in (9a) and (10a), we can observe that the role of the Agent (John) changes drastically. In (9d) John remains Agent with an unstated goal, but in (10d), John becomes Medium. That is to say, in (9d) it is understood that John broke something, but in (10d) John did the rolling himself (down a hill probably). Thus (9d) is likely to be followed by the question ‘What did John break?’, but (10d) by ‘Where or Why did John roll?’ This reactance is what establishes the difference between Actor (‘the ball’ in (10a) and ‘John’ in (9a) and Initiator (John in 10a)) (Halliday, 1967).

For Davidse (1992) in both (9d) and (10d) ‘John’ is interpreted as Medium, but that would constitute a different meaning of breaking from (4a). If it were so, in ‘John broke’, the meaning of break would not be ‘to come apart or split into pieces’ but ‘to fail in health, strength, vitality, resolve or control’ (Merriam Webster dictionary).

This detracts from Davidse’s (1992: 109) argument that:

“It is precisely because the lexeme remains the same that a clause such as The glass broke is perceived as a Medium•.Process constellation proportionate with an Instigator•.Process•.Medium structure such as The cat broke the glass, rather than as an Actor.(intransitive) •.Process constellation.”

(3a) ‘The baby killed the bug’ is perceived proportionate with (3b) ‘The bug died’ despite the lexeme ‘die’ being different to ‘kill’. And (10a) cannot be perceived as proportionate to (10d) even when the lexeme is the same. (15a) and (15b) show an example from Spanish:<

(15a) Me rasca la nariz.2 My nose itches.

(15b) Me rasco la nariz. I scratch my nose.

Whereas in Spanish (in many Latin American varieties) the same lexeme is used, these do not form an ergative pair. (15b) does not necessarily imply (15a) (you can scratch your nose without it itching and viceversa). The use of different lexemes in English (‘itch’ vs ‘scratch’) illustrates the difference.

In addition to this, the concept of co-participation of the Medium in lexically ergative pairs favors the interpretation of an Agent causing the Medium to do something rather than an Agent doing something to the Medium. Thus, (9a) is interpreted as ‘John causing the glass to break’, rather than ‘John doing something to the glass’. However this interpretation is largely dependent on context, more specifically on the implied or stated Agent’s volition, as seen in (16a) to (18a):

(16a) The accident broke her neck and back and severed her spinal cord. From ‘Ivory Watts’ at (17a) My 2 year old tripped just as Gracie ran in front of him. He feel [sic] right on Gracie......he broke her neck.From ‘Horrible Accident’ at As he dragged Clara’s body into the bedroom, Suzy started barking at him, so he broke her neck with the butt end of the gun.From ‘Charles Starkweather & Caril Fugate’ by Marilyn Bardsley retrieved from

It could be argued that in (16a) and (17a), both interpretations are acceptable and the action could be rephrased without the Agent without much difference in experiential meaning, as in (16b) and (17b), unlike (18b), which lends itself to the interpretation that the barking is the direct cause of the neck breaking without any input from the male participant in question, a complete departure from the original meaning. That is, the use of the middle voice in this case is not simply vague, but plainly misleading.

(16b) In the accident, her neck and back broke....

(17b) ...He feel[sic] right on Gracie...Her neck broke.

(18b) ...Suzy started barking at him, so her neck broke.*

The following example from Spanish illustrates the same contrast.

(19a) Tres campesinos desaparecieron. Three peasants disappeared.

(19b) La guerrilla desapareció a tres campesinos. The guerrilla disappeared three peasants.

While the disappearance in (19a) can be interpreted as an act of hiding or running away by the peasants, in (19b) the peasants are clearly ‘done-to’, killed and disposed of by incineration, dismemberment and further burial in mass graveyards, or else; this hardly constitutes their co-participation in the process.

Another argument from Davidse (1992) to establish the ergative/transitive divide is the different levels of grammatical independence of the Medium•Process complex in lexically ergative and non-lexically ergative clauses. The first is the possibility of circumstances to modify only the Medium•Process complex rather than the whole Agent•.Process•Medium, as in (20), (21a) and (22b). The labels marked with an asterisk are those provided in SFS.

(20) The boy


sand castles

for an hour







(21a) The boy



for an hour







(22a) The general


the soldiers

for an hour







In both (20) and (21a) the circumstance ‘for an hour’ is fully co-extensive with the Actor•Process•Goal constellation. It is not possible that the boy was not involved in the building of the castles or the breaking of the bottles at any point. Furthermore, circumstances of duration do not seem to be compatible with the middle voice version of the Instigator•Process•Affected structures, as in (21b) and (24).

(21b) Bottles broke for an hour.*

(22b) The soldiers marched for an hour.

(23) The ball rolled for an hour.

(24) Doors opened for an hour.*

A google search of (24) resulted in only 10 hits, six of which were discarded because of punctuation. In three of the remaining ones, ‘opened’ does not act as process but as attribute (i.e. we left the garage door opened for an hour), and in the other ‘for’ does not indicate duration but purpose (“for an hour of high caliber sports entertainment”).

So far it has been argued that rather than a black and white categorization determined by lexical ergativity, causation can be realized with diverse participant-process structures that can be arranged in a cline ranging from the operative receptive (the boy was bitten) to the analytic causative (the smell made the dog bite the boy). It is also contended that even within lexical ergatives, there are significant differences yielding the features of instigation and initiation. These differences can be accounted for in the system network by expanding the sub-system of Agency in delicacy, as shown in Figure 3.

This expansion might be valid for both English and Spanish. However, there will be differences in the way the options combine in each language. As has been indicated previously in SFS and Lavid and Arús (2002), in Spanish, lexical ergativity is more common with mental processes (where the Phenomenon in the please-type processes is labeled ‘Inducer’), which in English is often realized as a relational process plus an attribute, as seen in (25a) and (25b).

(25a) La noticia




The news



very much







The news makes me very happy/ The news gladden me

Retrieved from

(25b) Me



por la noticia



very much

because of the news



Circumstance: degree

Circumstance: cause


I am very happy because of the news/ I rejoice in the news

Retrieved from

Having discussed the similarities in the system network for both languages, we move on to expand it by including the sub-system of ER-role participant explicitness, which is exclusive to Spanish.

3. ER- role participant explicitness

In SFL, a clause is considered a figure representing a quantum of change, an abstraction of human experience into meaning (Halliday & Matthiessen, 1999). Its main constituents are:

1. a process unfolding through time
2. the participants involved in the process
3. circumstances associated with the process (IFG, 175)

These constituents are listed in order of nuclearity, with the process at the core of the configuration. The second layer, the participants, relates directly to the process either because they originate it or are affected or benefited by it. Together these two elements form the experiential centre of the clause. Circumstances expand this centre by locating it in time or space, or expressing cause, purpose, manner, etc.

In English, every clause needs at least one participant element, which is labeled the Medium, or the participant ‘through which the process is actualized’ (IFG), (i.e. ‘the glass’ in (9b)). Effective clauses usually involve two participants, the Medium, and the Agent, which externally causes the process (i.e. ‘John’ in (9a)). English offers the possibility of presenting an effective clause without the Agent in receptive voice for different reasons. The Agent might have been presented previously in the text, or its presence is considered irrelevant for the context of situation (as in procedural texts such as experiments). It might also be unknown to the speaker or s/he might not want to make it explicit to avoid responsibility as in (26), a typical sentence in letters of dismissal.

(26) It has been decided that your services are no longer required.

Notice that in this example, not only is the Agent missing in the projected clause, but the Medium is omitted in the projecting clause as well. Projecting clauses (mental and verbal) and meteorological ones are probably the only clauses where the Medium can be absent in English.

Spanish, on the other hand, offers speakers more resources to present participants obliquely, which will be mapped in the system network as ER-participant explicitness. The ER-participant role is an umbrella term introduced by Hasan (1985) that covers the Actor, Senser (or Phenomenon in ‘please’ type clauses), Sayer, Carrier and Token participants. The purpose of the introduction of this term is to answer the question ‘Who does what to whom?’ regardless of the different types of ‘doing’ under analysis. It recognises the commonalities among ‘doers’ in material processes such as ‘running’ or ‘eating’, verbal processes such as ‘saying’ or ‘telling’, and mental processes such as ‘thinking’ or ‘deciding’. It also includes the ‘doer’ participant in processes of ‘happening’, ‘being’, ‘existing’ and ‘behaving’. Yet, it is different from Agent and Medium since these do not correlate in all process types. For instance, while the Actor conflates with Agent in material effective clauses (He ate the apple), Sayer conflates with Medium in verbal clauses (He said ‘hello’). Table 1 illustrates the ER-participant (underlined) with each of the different process types and how they correlate with the participant roles from both the ergative and transitive perspectives.

Table 1. ER- participant role.

ER participant

Process Type

Transitive Role

Ergative role

John ate the apple




Lucy thought she was OK




Obama says “Let’s go”




The weather is gorgeous




The baby is sleeping




There is still hope




While in English, to present the ER-participant implicitly, the most common realization is the passive voice, Spanish offers speakers, in addition to this one, a wider array of options. These are the impersonal ‘se’, the ‘se’ passives (or reflex passives), periphrastic passives, and impersonal 3 person plural. Examples (27) to (30) illustrate the structure of these different realizations, which have been thoroughly described in the literature (Cano, 1981; Alarcos, 1987, 1999; Seco, 1996; Molina, 1997; Gómez, 1998; Mendikoetxea, 1999, 2002; Sánchez, 2002; Arús, 2006; RAE, 2010).

(27) Impersonal ‘se



español y catalán

Impersonal marker


Spanish and Catalan


Process: Verbal


Spanish and Catalan spoken

(28) ‘se’ Passive




Passive marker




Process: material


Keys made

(29) Periphrastic passive

La ley

fue firmada

el 21 de diciembre de 2000

The law

be-3SPast sign-Past Participle

on December 21, 2000


Process: material

Circ: Time

The law was signed on December 21, 2000

(30) Impersonal 3 person plural






Process: material

(They) promoted me/ I was promoted

It is important to clarify that ellipsed participants traditionally identified as ‘Subject’ (Quiroz, 2008) and realized at group rank in the verbal desinence are not taxonomized as implicit, since these are retrievable from the co-text. Instead, the implicit ER-participants refer to impersonal, generic or unidentified entities. This contrast is exemplified in (31) to (35) taken from García Márquez’s acclaimed Cien años de Soledad.

(31) En marzo volvieron los gitanos. Esta vez Ø llevaban un catalejo ...In March the gypsies returned. This time they were carrying a telescope ...

(32) Fue también José Arcadio Buendía quien decidió por esos años que en las calles del pueblo se sembraran almendros en vez de acacias.It was also José Arcadio Buendía who decided during those years to plant the streets of the town with almond trees instead of acacias.

(33) ...los objetos perdidos desde hacía mucho tiempo aparecían por donde más se les había buscado... objects that had been lost for a long time appeared where they had been searched for most

(34) Mientras le cortaban el ombligo, movía la cabeza de un lado a otro...As they were cutting the umbilical cord, he moved his head from side to side...

(35) Ante la imposibilidad de conseguir intermediarios, convencida de que su hijo sería fusilado al amanecer,...Facing the impossibility of finding anyone to intervene, convinced that her son would be shot at dawn.

From Cien años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez

Whereas in (31), it is clear that the Actor of the process of bringing is ‘the gypsies’, retrievable from the previous sentence, in examples (32) to (35) the ER-participants remain unspecified. As Alarcón (1999: 208) points out “the experience being communicated is reduced to manifesting an activity and that affected by it”. Hence the role of the Agent in these cases is completely backgrounded.

(28) and (32) are examples of the ‘se’ or reflex passive discussed in section 3. The verb desinence in 3 person plural agrees with the grammatical ‘Subject’ of the clause, ‘keys’ and ‘almond trees’ respectively. In (32) The translator opted for the also impersonal, non-finite form ‘to plant’. (29) and (35) present the non-agentive receptive voice realized with the passive verbal group, or periphrastic passive, as explained in example (4b). In (27) and (33), ‘se’ functions as an impersonal marker. In both cases the verb endings (‘habla and ‘había) are singular, while the Verbiage ‘spanish and catalan’ in the (27), and the Goal of the process ‘search for’, the lost objects in (33), are plural.

In (30) and (34), the verbal desinence 3 person plural does not refer to any specific participants. In (30) the promotion may have been decided by one or more people. In (34), it is very likely that it was only one person doing the cutting of the umbilical cord. Thus, the plural desinence is not a phoric reference to the Agent, whether this is a plural entity or not, as seen in (36) and (37).

(36) Salvan a periodista de ser asesinado. Save-3Pl journalist from being murdered.Journalist saved from being murdered. El policía Carlos Pérez le salvó la vida a el periodista Pablo Cortinas... The police officer Carlos Pérez saved the life of journalist Pablo Cortinas...

Retrieved from (16/05/2007).

(37) Rescatan a bebé de escombros tras el terremoto en Turquía.Rescue-3Pl baby from the rubble after earthquake in Turkey.Baby rescued from the rubble after earthquake in Turkey. Miembros de los equipos de rescate trasladan a Azra, un bebé de 14 días... Members of the rescue teams transport Azra, a 14-day old baby...

Retrieved from (25/10/2011).

In English, the impersonal ‘they’ selected by the translator in (34) is typical of informal registers (Yule, 1982; Kitagawa & Lehrer, 1990), while in Spanish it is a common selection in news headlines.

In examples (32) to (35), the implicit participant is the Agent. Examples (36) and (37), popular expressions with tens of thousands of google hits each, show how the Medium can also be presented implicitly.

(36) En Barranquilla se baila así.In Barranquilla, ‘se’ dance-3Sing like this.In Barranquilla, people dance like this.

(37) No se gana, pero se goza.No ‘se’ earn-3Sing, but ‘se’ enjoy-3SingYou don’t earn (much money), but you enjoy yourself.

Notice that these implicit options are available not only for material clauses, but for mental (37), relational (38), and verbal (39) clauses as well.

(38) No querer a los hombres, cuando se es mujer, es una patología.
Not loving men, when ‘se’ is woman, is a pathology.Not loving men, when you are a woman, is a pathology. Retrieved from

(39) Dicen por ahí que él te hace feliz.Say-3Pl around that he makes you happyThey say around that he makes you happy Rumour has it that he makes you happy. Taken from popular song ‘Dicen por ahí’ by Pablo Montero.

As has been explained, the ER-role participant explicitness is an important typological feature of Spanish Transitivity that cuts across the subsystems of process types and voice. Thus, its inclusion in the system network is considered necessary for a more accurate description of the language, as proposed in Figure 4.

Figure 4. System of Spanish Agency.


This paper has proposed a restructuring of the system network for Spanish Nuclear Transitivity as presented in SFS. Firstly, it has called for a reconceptualization of the concept of Causation that limits it to lexical ergativity, as in the ergative/non-ergative pair John broke the window/The window broke. If analytical causation is acknowledged (Lavid & Arús, 2002), then logically, other types of causation must be accounted for. Hence, it is argued that causation can realized using a variety of structures.

(40) Analytical. John made the baby cry.

(41) Synthetic: non-ergative. John kicked the ball (the ball kicked*/threw*)

(42) Synthetic: ergative: grammatical (non-lexical) John chased the ball (The ball rolled)

(43) Synthetic: ergative: lexical: instigation. John opened the door (The door opened)

(44) Synthetic: ergative: lexical: initiation. John walked the dog. (The dog walked)

As (43) and (44) show, lexical ergativity can be further classified by differentiating between instigation and Initiation. Whereas in instigation, the analysis from the transitive perspective yields an Actor•Process•Goal configuration, in initiation, the configuration is Initiator•Process•Actor. That is to say, while ‘the dog’ in (44) is realizing a ‘doing’, ‘the door’ in (43) is merely affected by a ‘happening’.

The second modification suggested is the inclusion of the subsystem of ER participant explicitness which allows speakers to background nuclear participants in the configuration of the clause, which constitutes a crucial typological difference with English. In English, only the Agent can be omitted from the clause as indicated by the selection of the non-agentive receptive voice, or presented obliquely as with the use of the impersonal pronoun ‘they’. Meanwhile, in Spanish, both Agent and Medium can be backgrounded with the use of ‘se’ and periphrastic passives, the impersonal ‘se’, and the third person plural.

What this paper suggests is that English and Spanish (along with probably many other Indo-European languages such as French) bear similarities in the options the transitivity system offers to express causation, yet they portray significant differences in the options to present participants obliquely. For this paper, the discussion has been limited to the experiential aspect of the clause. However, this feature is likely to have repercussions for the interpersonal and textual meanings as well, a topic that requires further research.

While the remapping of the system of voice to account for the different causation variables and the inclusion of the ER-explicitness system may enrich the typological description of Spanish transitivity, the model still has room for improvement. For instance, a description of process types with clear distinctions based on reactances is yet to be developed.

Looking beyond description and into practical applications, a context-based exploration of the deployment of the implicit participant options may yield an approximation to the connection of language, culture and thought. A Whorfian perspective into our ‘fashions of speaking’ may provide some insight into the major issues that affect Spanish-speaking community.


1. A reactance is a Whorfian term (1945) that refers to ‘special type of sentence’ that evidences a covert category, as opposed to an ‘overt category’ which has a formal mark (i.e. plural nouns are marked with the suffixes –s, -es or a small group of variants). Covert categories, on the other hand, need to be ‘uncovered’ by changes in sentence structure as in the examples from SFS.

2. ‘Rascar’ is equivalent to ‘Picar’ meaning ‘to experience itching in the body’ in many areas of the Caribbean including Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. The Spanish Royal Academy dictionary does not include this meaning of ‘rascar’ as a verb, but it does for its nominalization ‘rasquiña’.


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Recibido: 15-XII-2011 / Aceptado: 16-VIII-2012

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