Impersonal is Personal: Finnish perspectives


Marja-Liisa Helasvuo
Department of Finnish and General Linguistics
University of Turku
20014 Turun yliopisto

Maria Vilkuna
Research Institute for the Languages of Finland
Sornaisten rantatie 25
00500 Helsinki
Email: maria


Our paper discusses the notion ‘impersonal’ in the light of Finnish and current functionally oriented research on Finnish grammar. The constructions discussed exhibit one or several of the properties associated with impersonals. Many of them involve a human participant. Investigation of actual language use shows that the human participant is often interpreted as a speech act participant. Thus, paradoxically, impersonal constructions are closely intertwined with the expression of person in Finnish. At least the following properties seem to be involved in various treatments of impersonal constructions: (i) lack of grammatical person opposition; (ii) lack of an Agent or other primary argument in the argument structure; (iii) non-subject-like (oblique) coding of primary argument; and (iv) identity of primary argument is left open. There seems to be no one single property that impersonal constructions share. This underlines the fact that the notion of ‘impersonal’ is not a coherent concept but rather a set of features. Thus, impersonality may be a useful conceptual tool for cross-linguistic comparison because it directs the analysts’ attention to phenomena that may share some properties, but it does not seem to be a necessary notion in the description of individual languages.