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3.2.3.Causative alternation (causative-inchoative alternation)

This section discusses the so-called causative alternation. Example (305) provides a typical example of the causative alternation with the verb breken'to break'. The core property of this alternation is that the object of the transitive construction in (305a) corresponds to the subject of the monadic construction in (305b). The verb in the monadic construction is unaccusative, as is clear from the fact that it takes the auxiliary zijn'to be' in the perfect tense.

Example 305
a. Jan breekt de vaasacc.
  Jan breaks  the vase
b. De vaasnom breekt.
  the vase  breaks
b'. De vaas is/*heeft gebroken.
  the vase  is/has  broken

The alternation is semantically characterized by the fact that the transitive verb is causative in nature: it expresses that its subject causes the change of state denoted by the unaccusative verb. This is also reflected in that the transitive construction entails the unaccusative construction: the truth of the assertion that Jan breaks the vase entails that the vase breaks. The inverse does not hold.
      The alternation in (305) is sometimes also referred to as the causative-inchoative alternation given that the unaccusative verb is often taken to denote the beginning of some process. Example (306) shows, however, that the monadic verb can also be an accomplishment.

Example 306
a. Jan verbrandde het boek.
  Jan burned  the book
b. Het boek verbrandde.
  the book  burned
b'. Het boek is verbrand.
  the book  has  burned

In fact, the examples in (307) and (308) show that the unaccusative verbs partaking in the alternation need not necessarily be telic, that is, denote an accomplishment or an achievement; they can also be atelic, that is, denote an activity, as in (307), or a state, as in (308). The only thing that seems to be relevant is that the subject of the transitive construction can be seen as the originator of the state of affairs denoted by the unaccusative verb; see Section 1.2.3, sub II, for a discussion of this notion.

Example 307
a. Marie kookt de aardappels.
  Marie boils  the potatoes
b. De aardappels koken.
  the potatoes  boil
b'. De aardappels hebben gekookt.
  the potatoes  have  boiled
Example 308
a. Jan hangt het schilderij aan de muur.
  Jan hangs  the painting  on the wall
b. Het schilderij hangt aan de muur.
  the painting  hangs  on the wall
b'. Het schilderij heeft aan de muur gehangen.
  the painting  has  on the wall  hung

Observe that we have called the monadic verbs in the (b)-examples in (307) and (308) unaccusative despite the fact that they take the auxiliary hebben in the perfect tense; the reason is that selection of zijn is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for assuming unaccusativity, but is also sensitive to the aspectual properties of the verb; see Section 2.1.2, sub III, for the claim that an unaccusative verb must be telic in order to be able to select zijn and Section 2.2.3, sub IIB/Section 2.2.3, sub IIC, for evidence that the verbs in question are in fact unaccusatives.
      It may also be useful in this connection to point out that a transitive verb like drogen'to dry' can be construed as either an atelic or a telic state of affairs. This is clear from adverb selection; cf. Section 1.2.3, sub I. The acceptability of the adverb urenlang'for hours' in the (a)-examples in (309) shows that drogen can be construed as atelic and that the corresponding unaccusative construction likewise refers to an atelic state of affairs. The acceptability of the adverbial phrase binnen een uur'within an hour' in the (b)-examples shows that transitive drogen can also be used as an achievement, which is reflected in that the corresponding unaccusative construction can also be used to denote a telic state of affairs. Note that the (non-)telicity of the unaccusative verb determines whether the perfect auxiliary surfaces as hebben or zijn.

Example 309
a. Peter heeft de was urenlang gedroogd.
  Peter has  the laundry  for hours  dried
  'Peter has dried the laundry for hours.'
a'. De was heeft urenlang gedroogd.
  the laundry  has  for hours  dried
  'The laundry has dried for hours.'
b. Peter heeft de was binnen een uur gedroogd.
  Peter has  the laundry  within an hour  dried
  'Peter has dried the laundry within an hour.'
b'. De was was binnen een uur gedroogd.
  the laundry  was within an hour  dried
  'The laundry had dried within an hour.'

      The examples in (310) and (311) show that the causative alternation is also possible with verbs taking an adjectival or prepositional complementive; the complementive can also be a verbal particle.

Example 310
a. Els sloeg de deuracc dicht.
  Els slammed  the door  shut
  'Els slammed the door.'
b. De deur sloeg dicht.
  the door  slammed  shut
b'. De deur is dicht geslagen.
  the door  has  shut  slammed
Example 311
a. Jan reed de auto in de sloot/weg.
  Jan drove  the car  into the ditch/away
  'Jan drove the car into the ditch/away.'
b. De auto reed in de sloot/weg.
  the car  drove  into the ditch/away
  'The car drove into the ditch/away.'
b'. De auto is in de sloot/weg gereden.
  the car  has  into the ditch/away  driven

Examples like (310) and (311) therefore show that the subject in the corresponding unaccusative construction need not be an internal argument of the verb itself, but can also be introduced in the structure as the subject of a complementive. This means that the causative alternation resembles regular passive and regular middle constructions in that it is the accusative object (and not necessarily the internal theme argument) of the transitive verb that surfaces as the subject of the corresponding construction. Given that neither causative alternation nor middle formation is reflected by the verb form, it may be difficult to distinguish the two constructions. We will not address this issue here, but refer the reader to Section, sub II, for a discussion of some differences between the two constructions.
      Example (312) provides a small sample of verbs entering the causative alternation.

Example 312
Verbs participating in the causative alternation: afbreken'to break off', bakken'to bake', bewegen'to move', braden'to fry', branden'to burn', buigen'to bend', doven'to extinguish', drogen'to dry', fruiten'to fry', (rond)draaien'to turn (around)', genezen'to heal', ( in)scheuren'to tear (in)', koken'to cook', kreukelen'to crinkle', omdraaien'to turn around', ontwapenen'to disarm', opknappen'to recover/patch up', oplossen'to solve', opvrolijken'to cheer up', rollen'to roll', ( weg) rijden'to drive/ride (away)', ( dicht) slaan'to slam (shut)', sluiten'to close', smelten'to melt', splitsen'to split', stomen'to steam', stuiteren'to bounce', uitrekken'to stretch', veranderen'to change', verbranden'to burn', verbeteren'to improve', verdampen'to evaporate', verdrinken'to drown', verdubbelen'to double', verslijten'to wear out', versmallen'to narrow-to become narrower', versnellen'to speed up', vertragen'to slow down', verzachten'to soften', verzwakken'to weaken', vouwen'to fold'

The verbs in (312) are all unaccusative, but we find a similar alternation with the verb leren'to learn/teach' in (313). If non-causative leren'to learn' in (313b) is an undative verb, as was suggested in Section 1.2.4, sub IIB, this case suggests that the causative alternation is the result of adding an external argument to an otherwise unaccusative or undative verb.

Example 313
a. Marie leert Jan de fijne kneepjes van het vak.
  Marie teaches  Jan the fine tricks  of the trade
  'Marie is teaching Jan the tricks of the trade.'
b. Jan leert de fijne kneepjes van het vak.
  Jan learns  the fine tricks  of the trade
  'Jan is learning the tricks of the trade.'

      The causative alternation is generally not reflected by means of a change in the morphological shape of the verb. There is, however, a small set of causative verbs where the unaccusative and causative transitive do differ in morphological form; examples are the locational verbs zetten'to put' and zitten'to sit', and leggen'to put' and liggen'to lie' in (314a&b). A non-locational pair is given in (314c).

Example 314
a. Jan legt het boekacc op de plank.
  Jan  puts  the book  on the shelf
  'Jan is putting the book on the shelf.'
a'. Het boeknom ligt op de plank.
  the book  lies  on the shelf
  'The book is lying on the shelf.'
b. Jan zet hemacc *(in de stoel).
  Jan puts  him     in the chair
  'Jan is placing him in the chair.'
b'. Hijnom zit *(in de stoel).
  he  sits     in the chair
  'Heʼs sitting in the chair.'
c. Marie velt de boomacc.
  Marie fells the tree
  'Mary is felling the tree.'
c'. De boomnom valt.
  the tree  falls
  'The tree is falling.'

These forms are not related by some synchronic morphological process, as is clear from the fact that the relation involves the otherwise unproductive process of vowel change (Ablaut); the causative forms in the primeless examples take an /ɛ/, whereas the corresponding unaccusative forms in the primed examples take an /I/ or an /ɑ/. That the morphological relation is not productive is also suggested by the fact that the causative verb zetten has yet another non-causative variant, the locational verb staan'to stand' in (315b), which is not morphologically related to it.

Example 315
a. Jan zet het boekacc op de plank.
  Jan puts  the book  onto the shelf
b. Het boeknom staat/*zit op de plank.
  the book  stands/sits  on the shelf

Furthermore, it seems that the type of causativization expressed by vowel change differs from the type of causativization discussed earlier: whereas the non-causative versions of the verbs in (312) are all unaccusatives, the (a)-examples in (316) show that the non-causative form can be intransitive in the Ablaut case. In this respect, the Ablaut case rather resembles the syntactic laten causative in the (b)-examples.

Example 316
a. Marie drenkt het vee.
  Marie  waters  the cattle
  'Marie is watering the cattle.'
a'. Het vee drinkt.
  the cattle  drinks
  'The cattle is drinking.'
b. Peter laat mijacc lachen.
  Peter let  me  laugh
  'Peter makes me laugh.'
b'. Ik lach.
  'Iʼm laughing.'

We can further note that in many cases in which English allows a causative alternation Dutch must appeal to the laten causative. The examples in (317), for instance, show that Dutch does not have Levin's (1993:31) class of induced action alternations; the intended assertion can only be expressed by means of a complex laten-construction.

Example 317
a. Het paard sprong over het hek.
  the horse  jumped  over the fence
b. * Jan sprong het paard over het hek.
  Jan jumped  the horse  over the fence
  Intended reading: 'Jan jumped the horse over the fence.'
c. Jan liet het paard over het hek springen.
  Jan made  the horse  over the fence  jump
  'Jan made the horse jump over the fence.'

      To conclude, we want to show that Dutch also has the causative alternation in (318), in which the transitive verb in (318a) can be seen as the causative counterpart of the inherently reflexive verb in (318b).

Example 318
a. Jan verspreidde het gerucht.
  Jan spread  the rumor
b. Het gerucht verspreidde *(zich).
  the rumor  spread    refl

Section 2.5.2, sub II, discusses some differences between the alternation that the verbs in (312) enter into and the one exemplified in (318). It is suggested there that the two types of alternation differ in that the former is a process of causativization, which derives causative transitive verbs from unaccusative verbs, whereas the latter is a process of anti-causativization, which derives inherently reflexive inchoative verbs from causative transitive verbs.

  • Levin, Beth1993English verb classes and alternationsChicago/LondonUniversity of Chicago Press