Ergative verb

Ergative verb

In linguistics, an ergative verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.

In English

In English, most verbs can be used intransitively, but ordinarily this does not change the role of the subject; consider, for example, "He ate the soup" (transitive) and "He ate" (intransitive), where the only difference is that the latter does not specify what was eaten. By contrast, with an ergative verb the role of the subject changes; consider "He broke the window" (transitive) and "He broke" (intransitive), where "he" is the agent in the first sentence and the patient in the second. Indeed, "He broke the window" is more closely synonymous with "The window broke", where the direct object in the transitive version has become the subject in the intransitive version.

Ergative verbs can be divided into several categories:

* Verbs suggesting a change of state — "break", "burst", "melt", "tear"
* Verbs of cooking — "bake", "boil", "cook", "fry"
* Verbs of movement — "move", "shake", "sweep", "turn"
* Verbs involving vehicles — "drive", "fly", "reverse", "sail"

Some of these can be used intransitively in either sense: "I'm cooking the pasta" is fairly synonymous with both "The pasta is cooking" (as an ergative verb) and "I'm cooking" (not), though obviously it gives more information than either.

Unlike a verb in the passive voice or a nominalized verb(a.k.a. a gerund), which would allow the agent to be deleted but would also allow it to be included, the intransitive version of an ergative verb requires the agent to be deleted:

*"The window was broken" or "The window was broken by the burglar."
*" […] the breaking of the window […] " or " […] the breaking of the window by the burglar […] "
*"The window broke" but not *"The window broke by the burglar."

Indeed, the intransitive form of an ergative verb almost suggests that there is no agent. With some non-ergative verbs, this can be achieved using the reflexive voice:

*"He solved the problem."
*"The problem was solved" or "The problem was solved by him."
*"The problem solved itself" but not *"The problem solved itself by him."

In this case, however, the use of the reflexive voice strongly indicates the lack of an agent; where ?"John broke the window, or maybe Jack did — at any rate, the window broke" is understandable, if slightly unidiomatic, *"John solved the problem, or maybe Jack did — at any rate, the problem solved itself" is completely self-contradictory. Nonetheless, some grammarians would consider both "The window broke" and "The problem solved itself" to be examples of a distinct voice, the middle voice.

A particularly odd English ergative verb is "graduate": "he graduated school" and "school graduated him" mean the same thing, although the latter usage has passed out of vogue. With the latter usage, the verb is ergative, but with the former, the verb is nonergative.

In French

English is not the only language with ergative verbs; indeed, they are a feature of many languages. French is another language that has them:

*"Il tourne la tête." ("He turns his head.")
*"Sa tête tourne." ("His head turns.")

Some ergative verbs can also be used reflexively — that is, the approaches of both English "break" and English "solve" are available, depending on the situation:

*"Jouvre la porte." ("I open the door.")
*"La porte s'ouvre." ("The door opens itself", i.e. "The door opens.")
*"Le parc ouvre." ("The park opens.")

Further, verbs analogous to English "cook" have even more possibities, even allowing a causative construction to substitute for the transitive form of the verb:

*"Je cuis les pâtes." ("I cook the pasta.")
*"Je cuis." ("I cook", i.e. either "I cook [something] " or e.g. "It's so hot in here, I'm practically roasting.")
*"Je fais cuire les pâtes." ("lit.", "I make cook the pasta", i.e. "I make the pasta cook", i.e. "I cook the pasta.")
*"Les pâtes cuisent." ("The pasta cooks.")

In Dutch

In Dutch, ergative verbs are used in a way similar to English. For example:
*"Jan breekt zijn glas." ("John breaks his glass.")
*"Het glas breekt." ("The glass breaks.")

However, there are cases where the two languages deviate. For example, the verb "zinken" (to sink) can not be used transitively:
*"Het schip zonk." ("The ship sank.")
*"Not" *"De marine zonk het schip." (Unlike "The navy sank the ship.")

The significance of the ergative verb is that it enables a writer or speaker not only to suppress the identity of the outside agent responsible for the particular process, but also to represent the affected party as in some way causing the action by which it is affected. It can be used by journalists sympathetic to a particular causative agent and wishing to avoid assigning blame, as in "Eight factories have closed this year."

In Hebrew

Hebrew does have a few ergative verbs, due in part to calques from other languages; nonetheless, it has fewer ergative verbs than English, in part because it has a fairly productive causative construction and partly-distinct mediopassive constructions. For example, the verbs IPA| [ʃa'vaʁ] (active) and IPA| [niʃ'baʁ] (its mediopassive counterpart) both mean "to break", but the former is transitive (as in "He broke the window") and the latter is intransitive (as in "The window broke"). Similarly, the verbs IPA| [laa'voʁ] (active) and IPA| [ləha'viʁ] (its causative counterpart) both mean "to pass", but the former is intransitive (as in "He passed by Susan") and the latter is transitive (as in "He passed the salt to Susan")

ee also

* Ergative case
* Ergative-absolutive language
* Ergative-accusative language
* Unaccusative verb
* Unergative verb
* Accusative verb
* Ambitransitive verb

External links

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