Version of 2011-12-12

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Grzegorz Jagodziński

More on Syntactic Typology

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  1. The notion of a transitive verb
  2. Transitivitivity vs. agentivity
  3. Ditransitivity


Before we will be able to continue with syntactic typology, we must discuss the meaning of certain notions which are applied with a quite different manner in various sources.

Definition of transitivity

It is generally accepted in Polish grammar that a given verb is transitive if at least one of the following conditions is fulfilled:

Both conditions are fulfilled in many instances of transitive verbs in the same time, ex.:

It is easy to guess that there are two types of exceptions. First, there exist verbs which govern genitive or instrumental, in both positive and negative forms, but which have passive voice, ex.:

Such objects are considered direct even if they are not in accusative.

Second, there are (not very numerous) verbs (incl. the verb “to have”, “to be similar”, “to walk round”, “to walk across”) which govern accusative in the positive form and genitive in the negative form, but cannot be transformed into passive voice (because they denote a state and not an action, or because of formal difficulties in building the passive participle), ex.:

Such accusative / genitive objects are also considered direct frequently although they cannot be transformed into a subject.

Other verbs are considered intransitive, namely verbs with no objects, as well as verbs:

Objects of such verbs are termed indirect. Ex.:

Few verbs which require an object in accusative which denote the logical experiencing subject, like “to ache”, “to itch”, are often considered intransitive. In the negative form the object is allowed to (but need not) stay in accusative, therefore basically it does not fulfil one of the transitivity conditions:

Finally, another verb considerated as intransitive is the exceptional verb kosztować ‘to cost’ which accepts two objects in accusative. Neither of them has to be replaced with an object in genitive in the negative form (even if either may), and neither of them may change into the subject.

As the result, the object in genitive or instrumental (and maybe even in accusative) may be either direct or indirect, depending on whether it may be transformed into the subject of a sentence in the passive voice or not. In addition, an object which is expressed with accusative and which cannot be transformed into the subject is also named direct, if only accusative is replaced by genitive in the negative sentence. In the same time, the object in dative or in any case (including accusative) preceded by a preposition can only be indirect. In other words, verbs with an object (or with more objects) may also be intransitive.

So, transitive verbs are these which have the passive voice, and not these which have an object. There are few verbs which are considered transitive even if they cannot be passivized – but their impossibility to build the passive voice is believed to be a secondary, lexical fact (they have not the passive voice not because they cannot but because the passive voice is not used) or formal fact (they have not the passive voice because their morphology does not allow it).

In contrast to the above, the definition which is commonly used in English grammar says that a transitive verb is a verb that requires both a subject and one or more objects. A verb that requires two objects is called a ditransitive verb, e.g. Mary is buying Ann a dress, cf. below. One of its objects is called direct (here: a dress) while the other – indirect (Ann). In other words, the notion of indirect object is not applied to monotransitive verbs (those with one object).

If a given object needs a preposition, it is termed prepositional in English grammar (it is neither direct nor indirect then). Some monotransitive verbs may require a prepositional object, ex. Peter is listening to music. Ditransitive verbs may also accept a prepositional object instead of indirect, e.g. Mary is buying a dress for her daughter.

These definitions are suitable for the English grammar but it is highly debatable if they are universal, i.e. if they fit to facts observed in other languages. Namely, they describe the special situation in English and some other analytic languages, which is not present in languages with well developed inflexion. Everyone who tries to examine facts from other languages using the above terminology does wrong (unfortunately, also many linguists do so), and his view may be called Anglocentric (or English-biased).

English is an isolating language (and even if it has some affixes, they are unimportant for the topic discussed here) and as such, it uses prepositional phrases also in these instances when many languages use just case forms without adpositions (prepositions and postpositions). From the point of view of an English speaker, the importance of a prepositional phrase (in his language!) in the syntax seems to be lower than the importance of a bare word without a preposition. But from the point of view of a speaker of a case language, adpositions and cases are just two ways for expressing syntactic relations between words, and neither of them is more important. Especially, so called “core” cases, like accusative (for the direct object) or dative (for the indirect object) are not of higher importance than the others, which can be seen clearly in Polish. For instance instrumental, one of so called “peripheral” cases, may be the case of the direct object sometimes, and may be transformed into the nominative of the subject (in the passive voice). Its English rendering is the form without prepositions then (e.g. ona rządziła mną = she governed me). But in other instances, it may be the case of an adverbial, and then its English rendering has a preposition (e.g. Marek szedł ulicą = Mark was walking along the street).

Notice also that the intransitive sentence she ruled over me is close in meaning to transitive she governed me (as both have the same Polish rendering). So, the difference between the prepositional object of the verb rule and the direct object of the verb govern is clearly formal, i.e. it is caused only by syntactic requirements of the two verbs. As the result, the notion of prepositional object lacks any more serious importance even within English and should not be applied to analysing other languages (except these grammatically similar to English).

Unlike Polish, English likes the passive voice very much, and the passive transformation is possible in practically all instances of objects without prepositions, both direct and indirect ones, as well as in some instances of prepositional objects. It is highly exceptional from the general typological point of view. Polish, like many other Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages (ex. Georgian, Kazakh), cannot form the passive voice from many verbs with objects which are able to undergo the passive transformation in English.

In Polish there exist numerous verbs which require an object in genitive, dative or instrumental, without a preposition, which cannot form the passive voice. These verbs are considered intransitive even if their English counterparts are (quite often) transitive. Some examples:

[Another possible translation of the last example is The girls are looking at the boys with a prepositional object.]

Sometimes (more rarely) things go the way round, ex. Piotr słucha muzyki (Peter-NOM listens music-GEN) is transitive in Polish (passive: Muzyka jest słuchana przez Piotra) but intransitive in English (Peter is listening to music). So, transitivity / intransitivity is based on stipulated syntactic features of a given lexeme rather than on its meaning. And a sentence that is transitive in one language may be intransitive in another language.

English is becoming richer and richer in transitive verbs all the time. The Old English verbs helpan and folgian were intransitive and governed dative, but today the verbs help and follow are transitive: Mary helped Peter, Mary followed Peter. In Polish their counterparts are intransitive all the time, the same as folgen, helfen in German. Such constructions as run a train, fly a kite, stand a glass, walk the street, walk the earth are also exceptional among other languages. The same can be said about verbs with cognate objects which are formally transitive in English (laugh a bitter laugh, live a long life, die a violent death etc.) and clearly intransitive in other languages. In Polish such attributes are expressed with adverbs, and only seldom with instrumental, and are considered adverbials of manner, not objects.

Which is even more strange and unique among languages of the world, many English sentences can be transformed into passive even if a prepositional object is used, ex.

Here is a set of several pairs of Polish verbs with similar meaning, the former being intransitive and the latter being transitive:

As one can see, numerous examples testify that transitivity should not be defined on the basis of meaning but rather of syntactic features of the given verb in the given language. The counterpart of the English laugh at is in Polish both the intransitive śmiać się z kogoś and the transitive wyśmiewać kogoś (the difference between them is subtle, mainly in style). A similar difference is in German, where besides the intransitive über etwas lachen there exists the transitive etwas auslachen. The counterpart of the Polish intransitive pomagać komuś is the German, also intransitive, jemandem helfen, but the English transitive help someone and similarly the Old Greek ōpheleĩn tiná (used with accusative). Polish also known a transitive verb with this meaning: wspomagać kogoś.

It happens that the passive voice in English is used when Polish uses the reflexive voice: This landscape delights Jane – Jane is delighted with this landscape; in Polish usually: Ten krajobraz zachwyca Jankę – Janka zachwyca się tym krajobrazem (even if the passive Janka jest zachwycona tym krajobrazem is also possible, with aspectual difference). Similarly, the counterparts of is enjoyed, is alarmed, is irritated are reflexive cieszy się, niepokoi się, złości się. Taking all these facts into consideration, we must state that the English grammar is not a good reference point for describing other languages.

Transitivity vs. agentivity

Some authors who write about language typology, and especially about so called contensive typology, do not use the terms “transitive” and “intransitive” with reference to other languages than nominative-accusative. It is so because of the definition which says that “transitive” means “able to form the passive voice”, and the passive voice is specific only for languages of this type. In ergative-absolutive languages, verbs requiring the agent in ergative and the direct object in absolutive are termed agentive while the others are termed factitive, instead of transitive and intransitive respectively. This view is also motivated by the fact that many renderings of transitive verbs are factitive, not agentive.

Thus, some renderings of transitive sentences (Nom-Acc-TrV) in accusative languages are agentive and look like Erg-Abs-AgV in ergative languages, while other Nom-Acc-TrV sentences have factitive renderings rather (Abs-CAS-FactV, where TrV, AgV, FactV are verbs of different types, CAS can mean dative, locative, or even ergative in particular languages; namely, ergative for the indirect object is used in Kabardian). A well known example is the verb “to beat” in many Caucasian ergative languages: John is beating Paul is expressed in them as John-ABS Paul-DAT|ERG beat (which means as if John is beating to Paul – similar sentences, with special verbs, are also known in Polish), instead of the expected **John-ERG Paul-ABS beat (which means Paul is being beaten by John).

For similar reason, neither transitive / intransitive nor agentive / factitive are used in active languages. Instead, verbs which require the subject in “ergative” (better: the active case) are termed active, while verbs which require the subject in absolutive are termed static. Active verbs may corresponds to both transitive and intransitive verbs in nominative-accusative languages.

All this is shown in the following table:

  1 2 3 4
accusative transitive intransitive
ergative agentive factitive
active active static

This chart clearly shows the non-universal character of the transitive-intransitive division.