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2 Unergative and unaccusative subjects and the auxiliary of the perfect

In case a verb takes only one argument, this argument is always realised as the subject in the sense that it exhibits agreement with the tensed verb:

Do Timmerljude fuddelden bie de Oarbaid an’t Täk.
the carpenters.PL botched.PL at the work on the roof
The carpenters botched up the work on the roof.
Hie strumpelde uur sien oaine Fäite.
he tripped.SG over his own feet
He tripped over his own feet.

The relation of a verb with its subject correlates to some extent with the meaning of the verb. A basic distinction is between unergative verbs (and unergative subjects), and unaccusative verbs (and unaccusative subjects). Unergative subjects prototypically bear the semantic role of active participant, as in the first example above; the event of botching up is presented as an activity involving a (relatively) active participant. Unaccusative subjects prototypically bear the semantic role of theme or more passive participant, as in the second example above; the event of stumbling is presented as a process involving a (relatively) passive participant.

The sections below present this subject in more detail.

[+]1. Introduction to unergative and unaccusative verbs

The distinction between unergative and unaccusative verbs is very relevant to the continental West Germanic languages, including the Frisian ones. They all use the verb to have to construct the perfect tense of unergative verbs, and they all use the verb to be to conjugate the perfect tense of unaccusative verbs. This can be illustrated by presenting the perfect tense of the two sentences above:

Do Timmerljude häbe bie de Oarbaid an ’t Täk fuddeld
the carpenters.PL have at the work on the roof botched
The carpenters have botched up the work on the roof.
Hie is uur sien oaine Fäite strumpeld.
he is over his own feet tripped
He has tripped over his own feet.

The unergative verb fuddelje ‘stagger, botch up’ is conjugated with to have in the perfect tense, whereas the unergative verb strumpelje ‘stumble, trip’ is conjugated with to be, like a passive verb.

[+]2. Unergativity, unaccusativity and reflexives

Now, it must also be noted that unergativity and unaccusativity are not always inherent lexical properties of verbs. There are verbs that can be used as activity verbs or as theme oriented verbs. Put differently, some verbs can be used either as unergatives or as unaccusatives. For example, the literal meaning of fuddelje is to stagger. In the following example it is used as an acitivity verb:

Ju Litje hät ‘n bitje truch dän Tuun fuddeld.
the little has a bit through the garden staggered
The little one staggered a bit through the garden.

Correspondingly, it forms the perfect tense with to have. But it can also be used as a verb which focuses not on the activity but on a change of location. The latter use is characteristically unaccusative, as in the following example:

Ju Litje is in dät Skäin oun fuddeld.
the little is in the barn in staggered
The little one staggered into the barn.

Gunge ‘to go’ and kume ‘to come’ are prototypically unaccusative verbs, but also verbs in which the argument is viewed as a theme rather than as an active participant. However, if an unaccusative verb is combined with the reflexive pronoun, it tends to behave as an unergative. Hence we find pairs like the following:

Ju is fon ‘n Ladere falen.
she is of a ladder fallen
She fell from a ladder.
Hie hät sik falen un hät sik dät Gezicht skoand.
he has REFL fallen and has REFL the face disfigured
He fell and hurt his face.
Häst du die beseerd?
have you you hurt
Did you hurt yourself?
Iek bän ap dät Ies waisloain, un mien Kniebelponne is beseerd.
I am on the ice to.fall and my kneecap is injured
I fell on the ice and my kneecap is injured.

It seems that some non-reflexive unaccusative verbs alternate with reflexive counterparts which are unergative. As we know that the reflexive marker is a borrowing from Low German, the same could be true for the reflexive use of the verb. Thus not just the reflexive marker was borrowed, but also specific argument frames, involving a change in the selection of the auxiliary of the perfect. We are just scratching the surface of this phenomenon, which merits further investigation.

Past participles of unaccusative verbs have the further property, like passive participles, that they can be used in the attributive construction to modify a following noun, whereas past participles of unergative verbs cannot be thus used.

[+]3. The verb to be: unergative or unaccusative

The aspectual verb weze ‘to be’ may itself be conjugated in the perfect tense either with weze ‘to be’ or with häbe ‘have’. The choice of auxiliary of the perfect is sensitive to the meaning and constructional use that is made of the verb. In the majority of cases, the perfect tense of weze ‘to be’ is constructed with to be. There is, however, a sprinkling of examples in which the perfect tense is constructed with to have. Consider first the example given below:

Dät skäl ‘n Ure wezen häbe.
it shall an hour been have
That will have been an hour.

In this example, the auxiliary of the perfect is not tensed but infinitival. It seems that to have is relatively more often used as the auxiliary of the perfect to weze if the auxiliary of the perfect has the form of the infinitive. This is also the case in West Frisian. It should also be noted that this example involves a logical deduction or probability. This is a characteristic environment for using infinitival häbe ‘have’ as the auxiliary of the perfect for wezen ‘been’, as it further evidenced by the following examples:

It skäl ‘n Holtbau wezen häbe un so loange steen häbe, bit ...
it must a wooden.building been have and so long stood have until
It must have been a wooden construction and (it must) so long have stood there, until ...
Twoduzend Jier toräch kon die Foan al twäin Meter hooch wezen häbe.
two.thousend year ago can the moor already two meter high been have
Two thousend year ago, the moor could already have been two meter high.

In fact, all three infinitival examples feature to have rather than to be as the auxiliary of the perfect. Furthermore, a search for wezen weze ‘been be’ yielded no hits in Fort’s dictionary. See on this Hoekstra & Wolf (2004). They argue that this sequence is generally avoided because the similarity of the two words is too big, and natural language tends to avoids sequences of two adjacent words which are highly similar in form and meaning.

However, it is conversely not the case that tensed forms of häbe ‘to have’ are completely excluded from functioning as auxiliary of the perfect to wezen ‘been’. This is illustrated by the following example:

Iek häbe hier tou Woud wezen.
I have her to word been
I had a conversation with her.

The use of to have as the auxiliary of the perfect here is probably motivated by the fact that the meaning of the verb and the role of the subject is perceived as being quite active, that is, as involving volition and agentivity.

[+]4. Modal verbs and the auxiliary of the perfect

Modal verbs are conjugated in the perfect tense with the auxiliary häbe ‘to have’. Some examples are given below:

Iek hied et nit dwo moast.
I had it not do must
I shouldn’t have done it.
Hie hied et wäil dwo wäild.
he had it indeed do wanted
He was willing to do it.
Dut Lound hied al loange plouged wäide skuuld.
this land had already long ploughed become should
This land should have been plowed long ago.
So ’n Dummichaid hät hie sik nit ounluke skuuld.
such a stupidity has he REFL not responsible.feel should
He shouldn't have felt responsible for such stupidity.
Dät hied hie nit dwo doarst.
that had he not do dared
He had’t dared to do it.

It can be appreciated that the verb clusters are head final: the main verb comes first in the verb cluster, followed by its selecting (governing) verb, and so on.

[+]5. Counterfactuals and the auxiliary of the perfect

The past tense of häbe ‘to have’ and weze ‘to be’ can be used as a counterfactual, in examples like the following:

Wan iek mäd mie säärm tou Räide geen waas, dan hied iek him tou ’t Huus uutsmieten.
if I with me self to advice gone was then had I him to the house out.thrown
If I had followed my own advice, I would have thrown him out of the house.
Et hied man ‘n bitje skield, un iek waas umefalen.
it had but a bit missed and I was round.fallen
I was that close to falling down.

The verb is not marked for counterfactuality or subjunctivity. It just has the form of the simple past. Incidentally, the last sentence is also an illustration of a construction which is termed in Dutch balansschikking ‘balanced coordination’: it involves two main clauses of which the second sketches a hypothetical consequence which is correlated with a very small hypothetical degree difference (compared to the actual degree) expressed in the first main clause. In Dutch and West Frisian, the second main clause is introduced by the disjunctive complementiser rather than by the conjunctive complementiser. This is occasionally found in West Frisian as well.

[+]6. Verbs with two arguments and the auxiliary of the perfect

Verbs with two Noun Phrase (NP) arguments may either be unaccusative or unergative, that is, they may be conjugated in the perfect tense either with häbe ‘to have’ (unergative) or with weze ‘to be’ (unaccusative). Unaccusative verbs tend to have an argument frame in which the theme argument is realised as the subject, and the experiencer as the indirect object. This holds especially true of the verb fale ‘fall’. It may even combine with an adposition to describe a mental state:

Die Aden is mie wät toufalen.
the harvest is me what to.fallen
The harvest was more than I expected.

However, Saterland Frisian fale ‘to fall’ is much less productive than its West Frisian or Dutch equivalent in combining with adpositions to describe mental states. Mental states can also be described with reflexive unergative verbs, as in the following example:

Wät hät hie sik deeruur äärgerd!
what has he REFL R.about annoyed
How annoyed he was at that!

Unergative verbs tend to express the theme within VP, either as the direct object or as a PP. Thus the theme subject is expressed as the subject with unaccusative verbs, and as an object with unergative verbs. There are small differences between West Germanic language with respect to the question whether a given verb is unaccusative or unergative. For example, German beginnen is conjugated with to have, whereas Dutch beginnen is conjugated with to be. It would be interesting to conduct a systematic investigation of Saterland Frisian with respect to this phenomenon.

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