The anticausative and related categories in the Old Germanic languages

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The verbs of the fourth class of weak verbs in Gothic, the nan-class, have traditionally been labelled as inchoative, referring to the characteristic aspectual content of transition to a state. This semantically and formally defined class of verbs is rather well represented also in Old Nordic. In the West Germanic languages, on the other hand, these verbs are so poorly attested that it is doubtful that this class existed in Proto-Germanic in any more than an embryonic state. In more recent times, the valency-changing, essentially anticausative, property of these verbs has been stressed. The most basic explanation for the inchoative interpretation is then that change of state is such a wide-spread element of verbs in general. Extending insights by Hermodsson (1952), one may see the emergence of these verbs as one expression of a drift-like tendency in the history of the Germanic languages towards systematising the distinction between transitive verbs and intransitive verbs of the unaccusative (or anticausative) type. This may be seen as part of a typological transition from a verb system where aspect plays a fundamental role to one where valency is more highly valued. The emergence of the middle categories in Nordic and Old High German, constructed with the reflexive pronoun, may be seen as another effect of this tendency. The middle is overtly marked like the nan-verbs, but the form is more flexible than that of the former, which involved synchronically rather opaque ablaut alternations. Yet another effect of this drift-like tendency is the extension of the class of verbs with both a transitive and an intransitive-unaccusative version, but without a morphological distinction (“double-function” or labile verbs). This development is most pronounced in languages without the two overt expressions of this distinction (the anticausative middle and nan-verbs), such as English. In this paper, these three lines of development will be put into the context of other means of distinguishing transitives and intransitives, most importantly the so-called ja-causatives and “impersonal” constructions where the case of the object of the transitive verb is retained in the monovalent verb.


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