The causative-inchoative alternation

I’m not sure how interesting this is to other people because it seems like such a simple concept, but I find it inexpicably interesting and I ended up doing a baby thesis on it… It was something I’d never really thought about before until a lecturer mentioned it.

You know in English where you have the form of a verb that can be used both transitively and intransitively?

1. The vase broke.

2. John broke the vase. 

3. The ice melted.

4. The sun melted the ice.

In these examples, the intransitive form (1) is the inchoative, and the transitive form (2) is the causative (because y’know, you’ve added a ‘causer’) - hence ‘causative-inchoative alternation’.

Native speakers of a language intuitively know whether or not a verb can participate in this alternation (for example, (6 and 8 sound obscure to me as a native English speaker), but how would you explain this to a foreigner? Some linguists have suggested that verbs entailing a change of state can participate, but:

5. Kim assassinated the senator.

6. *The senator assassinated.

7. The soldiers destroyed the city.

8. *The city destroyed.

There’s no denying that there’s been a change of state here: the senator was alive, and now he’s dead. The city was all good, now it’s not. Definite change of state. So why doesn’t it work?

As it turns out, only a finite number of verbs can have a causative and inchoative participle. These verbs are summarised by Smith (1970) as those that denote an activity that can occur spontaneously, but also over which external control can be assumed (that is, the addition of a ‘causer’) - like the verbs ‘break’ and ‘melt’. ‘Assassinate’ and ‘destroy’ do not work because although it isn’t the ‘causer’ that undergoes the change of state, assassination and destruction cannot occur spontaneously - they can’t have an inchoative participle. Likewise the following verbs cannot participate, because they lack a causative variant:

9. The flowers bloomed.

10. *John bloomed the flowers.

11. His health deteriorated.

12. *He deteriorated his health.

This isn’t just an English thing, either. In some Romance languages (French, Spanish and Italian at least, but I don’t know enough to speak for all) it appears in the absence or presence of a reflexive pronoun, for example in Spanish:

13. El vaso se rompió. (Inchoative)

14. Kim rompió el vaso. (Causative)

There are four different types of expressing this alternation, these are only two. The situation becomes a bit more complex when you consider agglutinative languages like Persian and Basque, which use three -maybe four - of the four different types. However, I don’t know how interesting this post is to anyone, so I’ll leave it there for now :-) 


Depression: A mood, an emotional state defined as feeling unmotivated, sad and dreary.

Clinical Depression or Depression Disorder: A mental condition defined as chronic inexplicable depression most or all of the time.

Stop saying people are appropriating mental illnesses when they say they’re depressed just because you’re too lazy to say the condition’s full name.

Before we get to ergativity, unaccusitivity and other kinds of morphosyntactic funtimes...

Thanks so much to All Things Linguistic for setting up the Crowdsourced Linguistics project. We tend to prattle on about things we know, or find interesting, so it’s great to get an idea of what some people find bamboozling or tricky about language!

I offered to help explain the collected jargon of ergative, accusative, unaccusative and unergative. I still remember sitting in undergraduate classes and trying to get my head around ergativity, so for anyone trying to puzzle it out, I feel your pain.

Each Wikipedia page (linked above) explains the relevant phenomenon with as much detail as you’d find in an undergrad linguistics text book, but to make sense of it you have to start thinking about sentences like a linguist. For example, this is really a very elegant summary:


But only if you understand what the A, S and O stand for, and what that actually means for real language. I’ve given a short intro before (in this post), but I thought I’d write a post that goes right, right back to basics. Hopefully by time you’ve read this, the information on the various Wikipedia pages will be more accessible. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a long post by Superlinguo standards!

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people who present a disenfranchised group as unreasonable in order to invalidate their concerns ARE THE WORST KIND OF PEOPLE

People who are more focused on reverse-‘fucking anything at all’ instead of the actual discrimination ARE THE WORST KIND PEOPLE

People who are terrified of being tricked into doing something fucking considerate and human ARE THE WORST FUCKING PEOPLE

The Lambda Calculus is often used in semantics as a way of representing meaning in a manner more independent of the specific words used in a particular language. For example, “the cat chased the dog”, “the dog was chased by the cat”, and “le chat a chassé le chien” would all have the same representation because they have the same literal meaning, despite a few pragmatic differences, such as putting focus on the dog or being comprehensible only to speakers of French. 

This accessible introduction to the Lambda Calculus is aimed at philosophers, but since semantics and philosophy end up having certain areas of intersection, it’s also very useful for linguists. Excerpt: 

It might look frighteningly mathematical from a distance (it has a greek letter in it, after all!), so nobody outside of academic computer science tends to look at it, but it is unbelievably easy to understand. And if you understood it, you might end up with a much better intuition of computation. […]

Don’t be intimidated by the word “calculus”! It does not have any complicated formulae or operations. All it ever does is taking a line of letters (or symbols), and performing a little cut and paste operation on it. As you will see, the Lambda Calculus can compute everything that can be computed, just with a very simple cut and paste.

To follow that, here are some notes on the Lambda Calculus as it relates to linguistics

The writing of a dictionary… is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the “true meanings” of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver… To regard the dictionary as an “authority,” therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither he nor anyone else possesses.
—  S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action

The effects of very early Alzheimer’s disease on the characteristics of writing by a renowned author

Iris Murdoch (I.M.) was among the most celebrated British writers of the post-war era. Her final novel, however, received a less than enthusiastic critical response on its publication in 1995. Not long afterwards, I.M. began to show signs of insidious cognitive decline, and received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, which was confirmed histologically after her death in 1999. Anecdotal evidence, as well as the natural history of the condition, would suggest that the changes of Alzheimer’s disease were already established in I.M. while she was writing her final work. The end product was unlikely, however, to have been influenced by the compensatory use of dictionaries or thesauri, let alone by later editorial interference. These facts present a unique opportunity to examine the effects of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease on spontaneous written output from an individual with exceptional expertise in this area. Techniques of automated textual analysis were used to obtain detailed comparisons among three of her novels: her first published work, a work written during the prime of her creative life and the final novel. Whilst there were few disparities at the levels of overall structure and syntax, measures of lexical diversity and the lexical characteristics of these three texts varied markedly and in a consistent fashion. This unique set of findings is discussed in the context of the debate as to whether syntax and semantics decline separately or in parallel in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Full Article

i find the use of the term “witchcraft” when people are discussing actual popular historical magical practices from the early modern or medieval periods of Europe to be vexing and confusing, because the way people use it tends to carry along an ahistorical set of assumptions that has more to do with early neopagan misunderstandings of history than anything else. namely, when people seek ‘witchcraft’ in these time periods they are usually seeking non-christian folk magical practices and beliefs. a big reason this is the case is because early neopagans like Gardner bought into poor scholarship that suggested that during the period of the witch trials there existed sects of surviving pagan practitioners who did magic, and that often these practitioners were the target of the trials. most people seeking historical witchcraft know this was never true, these witch cults did not exist, but the way they use the term witchcraft means they’re ironically basically looking for the mythical practices Gardner and others believed in. why this is especially vexing is that it causes people interested in ‘witchcraft’ to skip entirely over the large corpus of christian magical practices that are decently well documented and were practiced by people in almost every level of society from the bottom to the top. pro-tip you know who was the most prevalent professional magical practitioner in most medieval western European towns, almost certainly even surpassing wise women and other similar folk? the village priest

An example from Zits of how conversational inferences depend a lot on context, via Kai von Fintel’s blog. Another example is from Sperber & Wilson: 

He: Will you have some coffee?
She: Coffee would keep me awake.

Depending on whether one surmises that she would like to stay awake, one can infer either a positive or negative answer to whether she would like some coffee.

Depending on whether healthiness is considered a desired property of snacks, one can infer that someone would or would not want fruits and veggies. 


One of the neat things about identity labels is that you can not only choose which ones apply to you and which don’t, but you can also decide which of them are most important to you. You can toss out an entire category of identity labels if that category isn’t working for you or just isn’t very relevant to your life. You can prioritize one part of your identity over another.

Like, I consider my romantic orientation more important to my identity than my sexual orientation. I feel like being aromantic affects my life more than being asexual does. That doesn’t mean I expect other people to value their romantic orientations over their sexual orientations, or that I think my asexuality is unimportant. But it is my right to decide how I will structure my own sense of self.

It bothers me to see aromantic people automatically lumped in with alloromantic people who share their sexual orientation, or asexual people lumped in with allosexual people of the same romantic orientation. There is an implicit assumption in these cases that aromanticism or asexuality must always be the less salient part of a person’s identity. It’s as if aromantic or asexual people are being treated as just the “lite” versions of other orientations. And for people who are both aromantic and asexual…well, we’re usually just ignored.

A neat thing in the aromantic and asexual communities is that it is not only the gender of attraction that is considered, but also the manner and the circumstances of it. There’s the division between different kinds of attraction, sexual/romantic/platonic/sensual/aesthetic. The division doesn’t work for everyone, and you can throw out parts of it that don’t work for you, but the fact that it’s available gives people more options for deciding which of their emotions and relationships are important to how they identify.

And then labels like “demisexual” and “lithromantic” allow people to specify other factors involved in how they feel attraction, not just gender. You can combine these labels with gender, or discard gender as not important to how you identify. It’s interesting from a linguistics perspective because it’s dividing up semantic fields in a whole new way, and it shows people rethinking which factors they consider most relevant to their sexual identities - not just gender, but other considerations and quirks that were not treated as relevant before. I’m really curious to see how this develops as the terms become more commonly known.

let's say you're a white man who says "i hate white women"

why? now before i start, the answer is most likely because you’re a misogynist, but let’s break this down a bit further. 

are you saying you specifically hate women that are white? well congratulations ass hat, you’re white too, so why do you hate them? are you oppressed by whiteness? no, you in fact, benefit from it. so are you oppressed by their whiteness? no, you are not oppressed by any whiteness. are you feeling bad about the others they oppress? you oppress those others too. your white guilt gets them nowhere. so you definitely can’t say you hate white women because of their whiteness. what do you hate then? hmm. “is it women?” you got it buckaroo. reevaluate your prejudices, and try coming up with a different statement.

now how about white women who say i hate white men? i pose the same question. we’ve established that you’re very likely a hypocrite or a white apologist if you hate them for their whiteness, so what do you hate them for? because they’re men? probably. why? because they oppress you? bingo. and you have the right to hate men because they oppress you. you know how we can clean up this statement so it doesn’t seem like you’re detaching yourself from whiteness? “i hate men”.