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The Rise and Fall of Anticausative Constructions in Indo-European:
The context of Latin and Germanic*
Michela Cennamo, Thórhallur Eythórsson, Jóhanna Barðdal
University of Naples, University of Iceland, University of Bergen
The historical development of valence changes of verbs is generally an understudied
phenomenon, and changes in lability of argument structure of verbs over time is even
less studied. The aim of the present article is to contribute to a commencing
discussion of the evolutionary paths of anticausativization in general and P-lability in
particular. This is motivated by the fact that various genetically related languages, like
the ancient and early Indo-European languages, have developed partly the same and
partly different means for expressing anticausativization, including P-lability. At the
synchronic level, different constructions compete with each other, and various
semantic factors are here shown to influence the choice of constructions, like the
inherent meaning of the verbal root and the degree of control of the P-subject. At the
diachronic level, in contrast, the two languages we investigate, Latin and Old NorseIcelandic, display similarities in their development, suggesting that Latin represents
an earlier stage than Old Norse-Icelandic in a common development of
anticausativization where the Indo-European synthetic mediopassive is replaced with
a reflexive in the anticausative function. Our data suggest, moreover, that the demise
of the Indo-European synthetic mediopassive was caused by the rise and expansion of
the reflexive construction, and not the other way around. The detriment of the IndoEuropean mediopassive construction, moreover, co-occurred with the loss of voice
distinctions and the development of transitivity during the period from Latin to
In this article we investigate the encoding of the anticausative alternation in two early
IE languages, Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic, in particular the role played by the
interaction between the aspectual template of verbs, the verb’s inherent meaning, i.e.
the root, and the nature of the P-subject, e.g. with regard to animacy and control, in
determining the different morphosyntactic realizations of the anticausative alternation.
Focusing on Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic, we present a first preliminary
contribution to a comparative study of the formation, syntax and semantics of
anticausatives in Indo-European languages in a diachronic perspective.
We thank Leonid Kulikov, Andrew Koontz-Garboden, Romano Lazzeroni, an anonymous reviewer
and the audience at the workshop on lability in Thessaloniki in April 2009 for comments and
discussions. We are also indebted to Ilja A. Serzant for help with the Baltic, Slavic and the Ancient
Greek data in Section 4.1.5, and to Leonid Kulikov and Nikolaos Lavidas for welcoming this work into
their guest-edited volume. We dedicate this article to our late friend, Kjartan G. Ottosson, who passed
away in the prime of his life, and to whom anticausativization and valence reduction was not only an
endearing and passionate topic, but constituted his life work.
A comparison of Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic reveals similarities and
differences in the development of the anticausative alternation. In Early and Classical
Latin the ancient Indo-European synthetic mediopassive construction functions as a
general anticausative device, while this construction is already lost in the earliest
attestations of both North- and West-Germanic, found only sporadically in Gothic. In
both Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic a Reflexive Construction emerges, which
gradually takes over the anticausative domain of the old Indo-European synthetic
Mediopassive. In addition, there is also an Active Intransitive Construction, found in
both languages, systematically alternating with a corresponding Transitive
Construction. Moreover, Old Norse-Icelandic has a second Active Intransitive
Construction, namely with oblique subjects where the case marking of the object of
the Transitive has been maintained in the anticausative variant. Finally, Old NorseIcelandic has a fourth construction, characterized by the verbal suffix -na, which is
well attested in Germanic but not found in Latin.
In spite of these differences between Latin and Germanic, it seems, when
considering the interplay between the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassive and the
Reflexive, that Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic have followed a common evolutionary
path in the development of anticausativization. During the Early and the Classical
Latin period the Latin reflex of the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassive
Construction was found with all kinds of verbs. The Reflexive Construction, in
contrast, was much more limited, but gradually throughout the Latin period it expands
and invades the functional domains of the earlier synthetic Mediopassive, including
developing a passive reading. In Germanic, this development is more or less
completed, as the synthetic mediopassive form is only found in Gothic, and is there
confined to present tense, and is only attested with a passive reading, and not an
anticausative reading. The Reflexive turns out to be the most pervasive anticausative
device in Old Norse-Icelandic, suggesting that Old Norse-Icelandic represents a later
point on the evolutionary path of anticausativity than Latin. Furthermore, our data
suggest that the demise of the Indo-European Mediopassive was caused by the rise
and expansion of the Reflexive, and not vice versa. The detriment of the IndoEuropean mediopassive construction, moreover, co-occurred with the loss of voice
distinctions and the development of transitivity during the period from Latin to
The discussion is organized as follows: Section 2 presents the concepts of
anticausativity and lability, and their semantic constraints across languages. Sections
3 and 4, respectively, describe anticausativization in Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic,
the constructions used to realize anticausativization, their synchronic distribution and
their diachronic paths of evolution. Section 5 explores the relationship between
changes in the morphosyntactic realization of anticausatives and the more general
encoding of transitivity in the two languages. Section 6 explores whether the rise of
the Reflexive Construction in anticausative function causes the Indo-European
Mediopassive Construction to disappear or whether the demise of the Indo-European
Mediopassive opened up for the rise and expansion of the Reflexive Construction.
Finally, Section 7 provides a summary of the main content and the conclusions of this
The Anticausative Alternation and Lability
The term anticausativization refers to the intransitive use of a transitive verb where
the original inanimate object or the P-argument, the Undergoer, occurs as a subject.
Languages may vary in the morphological devices used to encode this pattern. They
may show no change in the verb form of the intransitive member of the alternation,
i.e. lability proper, as in English (1a), or they have a dedicated morpheme signaling
anticausative status. In Greek a non-active verbal morphology is used (1b) (Alexiadou
& Anagnostopolu 2004: 116–117), while Italian uses the reflexive morpheme si
obligatorily in such cases (Folli 2002, Schäfer 2008, Cennamo & Jezek 2009, among
Mark broke the vase.
I supa kegete
the soup burns.NACT
‘The soup is burning.’
Mario ruppe il vaso.
Mario broke the vase
‘Mario broke the vase’
The vase broke.
O Janis ekapse ti supa
the John burnt.ACT the soup
‘John burnt the soup.’
Il vaso si
the vase REFL broke
‘The vase broke.’
When there is formal identity between the transitive–intransitive use of a verbal form,
the structure is referred to as lability, P-lability in the case of identity between the
transitive and intransitive use of a verb, with the original object or the P argument of
the transitive pattern occurring as subject of the corresponding derived intransitive
pattern (cf. Dixon 1994: 6, Kulikov 2001: 887–888, 2003 and further references
therein). Therefore the English example (1a) exemplifies the labile strategy used for
anticausativization, while Italian, for instance, uses both P-lability and a dedicated
verbal form, in this case the reflexive morpheme (see further discussion in
Haspelmath 1987, Kulikov 2003, Schäfer 2008, Koontz-Garboden 2009).
Two general semantic constraints on anticausativization have been recognized in
the literature:
The spontaneous manifestation of an eventuality (Siewierska 1984: 77)
The absence of agent-oriented meaning components or other ‘highly
specific meaning components’ that debar the spontaneous interpretation of
the verbal process (Haspelmath 1987: 15, 1993: 94)
This means that only transitive causative verbs denoting events which may come
about spontaneously, without the intervention of an external willful animate causer,
may occur in the anticausative alternation (Siewierska 1984: 77, Haspelmath 1987:
15, Levin & Rappaport Hovav 1995: 102, Kulikov 2001, Lazzeroni 2004).
In addition, verbs participating in this pattern must denote a nonspecific change of
state (cf. Haspelmath 1987: 15, Koontz-Garboden 2009: 84 and references therein).
Haspelmath (1993: 39) points out that actions implying specific instruments or
methods are excluded, like for instance, bite, cut, dig, paint, etc. in English. In other
words, verbs that lexicalize a manner component seem to be excluded from the
anticausative alternation (Rappaport Hovav & Levin 2010).
This lack of specification of the manner of a change has also been related to the
possible restrictions on the subject of this type of change of state verbs. For instance,
the subject of a verb like break which denotes a causative accomplishment, consisting
of two subevents, a causing eventuality and a resulting change of state (Van Valin
2005) can be an agent (2a), an instrument (2b), a natural force (2c), a stative
eventuality (2d), as well as an event (2e) (cf., amongst others, Levin & Rappaport
Hovav 1995: 85 and the recent discussion and references in Koontz-Garboden 2009:
84–85, from whom the examples below are adapted):
Mary broke the window.
The hammer broke the window.
The hurricane broke the window.
The weight of the ball broke the window.
The blow broke the window.
We follow the Role and Reference Grammar classification of predicates, which
adopts the Vendler/Dowty Aktionsart taxonomy comprising states, achievements,
accomplishments, and activities. Each class has a corresponding causative
counterpart. Thus, intransitive accomplishment and achievement verbs like break and
shatter, denoting, respectively, a non-punctual and punctual, i.e., instantaneous, telic
change of state, have corresponding transitive causative forms. These verbs differ
from active accomplishments, the accomplishment use of activity verbs such as eat,
drink, write, run, owing to the different relationship between their two subevents,
involving causality in the case of causative accomplishments and achievements, and
simultaneity in the case of active accomplishments (Van Valin 2005: 32–50).
Therefore, with nonspecific change of state verbs such as break the participant in
the causing subevent is thematically underspecified, i.e., it need not be an agent,
bearing instead the role of Effector (Van Valin & Wilkins 1996, Koontz-Garboden
2009: 85). This property differentiates verbs like break from other change of state
verbs like murder, kill, assassinate, which in spite of being characterizable as
causative accomplishments, do not allow the anticausative alternation in various
languages, including English. This morphosyntactic behavior, in fact, appears to
reflect both the relational and the inherent nature of the participants of the event, with
the subject of these non-alternating change of state verbs always bearing the thematic
role of Agent (Koontz-Garboden 2009: 87), and the object being necessarily human
(cf. Cennamo 1995: 91–92 for Italian).
Recently, it has been suggested that the possibility of some verbs to participate in
the anticausative alternation also stems from the semantic components lexicalized in
the inherent meaning of the verbal root, rather than from the aspectual characteristics
of the verb or predicate only, i.e. from the event structure template (Levin &
Rappaport Hovav 2005). Verbs which lexicalize a manner component rather than a
final, result or target state, i.e. verbs which denote a reversible state (Parson 1990), in
fact, do not participate in the anticausative alternation, as illustrated in (3–4) for
English (from Hale & Keyser 1997: 53, here cited from Levin & Rappaport Hovav
2005: 73):
We splashed mud on the wall.
Mud splashed on the wall.
We smeared mud on the wall.
*Mud smeared on the wall.
The non-alternating verb smear shares the event structure template with the nonalternating verb splash, since both are causative accomplishments. However, smear
lexicalizes the means or manner in which the change of state comes about, rather than
the result state, unlike splash, whose core meaning refers to the result state only
(Levin & Rappaport Hovav 2005: 73, cf. also the discussion in Hale & Keyser 1997:
Current research on anticausativization and P-lability has been focused on the
contribution of the idiosyncratic aspects, i.e. the root, and the structural components,
i.e. the event structure template, of the verb meaning in determining the nature of the
anticausative alternation. It has, however, been pointed out by Cennamo (2005) and
Cennamo & Jezek (2009) that, although most typically anticausative constructions
denote the spontaneous manifestation of a situation, as in (5a) below, anticausative
constructions may also be found in contexts where such an interpretation is not
available. This is evident with activity verbs (5b) and states (5c) in, for instance, Latin
and Italian, and has also been documented crosslinguistically (Letuchiy 2009):
vulnus clauditur
wound closes.R
‘The wound heals’
bellum continuatur/continuat
continues.R /continues
‘The war is still on’
una comunità omogenea
a community homogeneous REFL bases
anche su una mediocrità di fondo
also on a mediocrity of background
‘A homogeneous community is based also on some sort of mediocrity’
Therefore, the widely accepted constraint of spontaneous manifestation of an
eventuality, without the willful intervention of an external causer, only applies to the
uses of the anticausative alternation with verbs denoting telic change of state, and
marginally with verbs denoting change of location in some languages. In other words,
these constraints only apply to verbs which lexicalize a final state, result or target
state, i.e. causative achievements and accomplishments, which are well known as
instantiating the core of the anticausative category in several languages (Cennamo &
Jezek 2009; see also Koontz-Garboden 2009 for a criticism of the alleged suppression
of the causer in the anticausative alternation).
In our discussion in the following sections we address the issue of which factors
determine the different morphosyntactic realization of the anticausative alternation in
the diachrony of Latin (Section 3) and Old Norse-Icelandic (Section 4). In particular,
we investigate the different contribution of the structural and idiosyncratic aspects of
verb meaning in determining the distribution of the various strategies in the two
languages investigated, both synchronically and diachronically. We focus our
discussion on intransitive patterns derived from originally transitive ones, where the
original transitive inanimate object occurs as an intransitive subject, this being
optionally registered through different verb morphology or the case marking of the
derived subject.
Anticausatives in Latin
The following three constructions are employed to denote anticausativization in Latin,
each exemplified in (6) below:
The Mediopassive Construction with the r-form
The Reflexive Construction, i.e. the reflexive se together with a verb in the
active voice
The Active Intransitive Construction, i.e. P-lability
aperitur foris
opens.R door.NOM
‘The door opens/is opened’
se aperuit
door.NOM REFL opened
‘The door opened’
door.NOM opens
‘The door opened’ (Plaut. Persa 300)
Active Intransitive
The original mediopassive function of the verbal suffix -r is a long-standing matter of
contention in Indo-European (cf. Kurzovà 1993: 157–171 and references therein).
Functionally it covers the domains of middles, anticausatives, passives, and
impersonals or subjectless clauses. In the synchronic grammar of Latin it has
primarily a passive function (Flobert 1975, Baldi 1977). It may be regarded as a
marker of the ‘non-active voice’, marking different points along a continuum of
detransitivization, instantiated by patterns which depart from the prototypical
transitive encoding of a situation whereby a highly agentive subject acts upon a
patient participant, which in turn results in a change in the patient participant
(Cennamo 1998: 78–81).
Returning to the three anticausative constructions in Latin exemplified in (6)
above, they are usually regarded as interchangeable in the literature, and differences
in their distribution are viewed as reflecting different time spans in the history of
Latin (Feltenius 1977, inter alia). The Mediopassive is the most commonly used
anticausative construction in Early Latin, whilst the Active Intransitive Construction
increases at later stages, alongside the Reflexive Construction, to the detriment of the
Mediopassive Construction. This goes hand in hand with the gradual demise of the
r-form, which in turn reflects the more general recasting of the voice system
(Cennamo 1998, 2006, 2008). Contrary to current views, we argue that the
distribution of the three strategies reflect aspectual and thematic differences,
interacting, in turn, with changes in the encoding of voice and argument structure in
the transition to Romance (Cennamo 1998, 2000b, 2006).
Synchronic Aspects
A careful analysis of the morphological devices for marking anticausatives in Latin
reveals that the use of the three constructions, the Mediopassive r-form, the Reflexive
Construction and the Active Intransitive Construction, is not entirely equivalent, but
reflects the interplay between the aspectual template of predicates, the meaning
components lexicalized in the verb, i.e. in the root, as well as inherent and relational
properties of the subject, like animacy and degree of control. We will now discuss
each of these constructions in turn.
3.1.1 The Mediopassive Construction
The Mediopassive Construction with the r-form is found at all stages in the history of
Latin with all verb classes which allow the anticausative alternation. These are
causative achievements (7a), causative accomplishments (7b), gradual completion
verbs (7), as well as activities (7d):
frangitur aestus
breaks.R tide
‘When the rolling tide breaks’
tempora mutantur
‘Time changes’
memoria minuitur
memory decreases.R
‘Memory is impaired’
saxa volutantur
stones roll.R
‘Stones are rolled’/Stones roll’
At times there is ambiguity between an anticausative and a passive interpretation, as
in (7d), only resolved by the context.
3.1.2 The Reflexive Construction
The Reflexive Construction in Early and Classical Latin is mainly found with
causative accomplishments and achievements, like e.g., scindere ‘crack’ and rumpere
lutamenta scindunt se (Cat. Agr. 128)
plaster.PL crack
‘Plaster cracks’
commutat sese sempre cum calore (Cat. Agr. 157,1)
cabbage.NOM changes REFL always with heat.ABL
‘Cabbage constantly changes its nature with heat’
The reflexive is not attested with verbs of variable or reduced telicity, such as gradual
completion verbs, as in (9). Examples of this type are not attested in Latin until the 1st
century and onwards.
*memoria se minuit
memory REFL decreases
Intended meaning: ‘Memory decreases’
In Early and Classical Latin the reflexive is not attested in anticausative function with
activities, like volutare ‘roll’ (10), for which only the r-form and the Active
Intransitive Construction are found in anticausative function (see also Cennamo 1998,
2000b and discussion in 3.2 below):
*saxa se volutant
stones REFL roll
Intended meaning: ‘Stones roll’
A provisional generalization that seems to emerge is that the Reflexive Construction
is used in Early and Classical Latin as a strategy for anticausativization only with
inherently telic predicates, i.e. with verbs lexically encoding a final, result or target
state, as shown in (11) below:
se ipsae
aperuerunt (Cic. Div. 1, 34, 74)
doors.NOM REFL themselves.NOM opened
‘The doors suddenly opened of their own accord’
commutat sese semper cum calore (Cat, Agr. 157, 1)
cabbage.NOM changes REFL always with heat.ABL
‘Cabbage constantly changes its nature with heat’
The Reflexive Construction seems to be preferred over the Mediopassive
Construction when the subject, although inanimate, is personified, therefore showing
some degree of control, as in (11a), which can be contrasted with (11b), where no
personification is involved, and the presence of se simply marks the intransitive
anticausative variant (cf. the discussion in Cennamo 1998 and Section 3.2).
3.1.3 The Active Intransitive Construction
In Early and Classical Latin the Active Intransitive Construction is mainly instantiated
by gradual completion verbs, as in (12a), and activities, as in (12b):
leniunt (Plaut. Mil. 583)
anger.NOM.PL soothes.3PL
‘Anger soothes’
saxa volutant
stones roll
‘Stones roll’
The Active Intransitive is not used in anticausative function with verbs lexically
encoding a final state, i.e., causative accomplishments and achievements such as
rumpere ‘to break’ and scindere ‘to crackle’ (13a–d), which may be regarded as the
core of the category of verbs in Latin and in other languages which shows this type of
transitive–intransitive alternation. One exception from this is found with rare
examples like aperire ‘to open’ in Early Latin, e.g., Plautus, shown in (13e). This
verb, however, denotes a reversible change of state, i.e., a target state, unlike scindere
and rumpere, which denote a non-reversible change, i.e. a result state, and which
therefore lexicalize a higher degree of telicity.
*foris rumpit
door breaks
Intended meaning: ‘The door breaks’
*lutamenta scindunt
plaster.PL crack
Intended meaning: ‘Plaster cracks’
*vulnus claudit
wound closes
Intended meaning: ‘The wound heals’
*corrumpit iam
already dinner
Intended meaning: ‘Dinner is spoiling already’
door.NOM opens
‘The door opens’ (Plaut. Persa 300)
The Active Intransitive Construction in anticausative function really flourishes in Late
Latin, especially in 4th century non-fictive text, like veterinary texts. By this age
verbs expressing causative accomplishments and achievements alternate freely
between all three anticausative constructions, as illustrated with the verb rumpere
‘break’ in (14) (Pirson 1906, Feltenius 1977):
rumpuntur dentes (Chiron 776)
dentes se rumpunt
teeth REFL break
rumpunt dentes
break teeth
‘Its teeth break (sc. iumentum)’
Active Intransitive
3.1.4 Interim Summary
A close inspection of the distribution of the three different anticausative devices in
Early and Classical Latin reveals that the choice between them reflects both the
idiosyncratic, i.e. the root, and the structural aspect, i.e. the event structure template of
verbal meaning. The Mediopassive is found with all types of verbs in Early and
Classical Latin. The Reflexive Construction, in fact, can only occur with telic verbs,
like scindere ‘crack, movere ‘move’ and aperire ‘open’ at this stage. The Active
Intransitive, moreover, occurs most typically with verbs which do not lexicalize the
attainment of a final state, i.e. the endpoint of the process. These factors, i.e. the
idiosyncratic meaning of the root and the event structure template, interact, in the
course of time, with changes in the voice system and the encoding of argument
structure (Cennamo 1998, 2000b, forthcoming).
Anticausatives, P-Lability and Transitivity in Late Latin
In Late Latin the distribution of the three anticausative constructions across verbs
changes: the Mediopassive Construction, in fact, although still widely attested, is
often instantiated by the same verbs as the Reflexive and the Active Intransitive,
which have come to be used with different aspectual classes of verbs, with which they
were not found in Early and Classical Latin. Therefore the choice of anticausative
construction is no longer determined by the semantics of the predicate and the
inherent and relational properties of the subject.
In particular, the Reflexive occurs also with verbs of reduced telicity, comprising
gradual completion verbs like minuere ‘to decrease’ (15a), as well as with other types
of accomplishments, for instance deadjectival and denominal verbs like sanare ‘to
heal’ and cicatricare ‘to heal’ (15b) (Pirson 1906, Feltenius 1977):
se morbo (Plin. Nat. 23, 50)
decreasing.ABL REFL disease
‘When the disease is on the decline’
vulnera cum se cicatricaverint (Orib. Syn. 7, 10 Aa)
wounds when REFL will-have-healed
‘When the wounds will have healed’
Late Latin
The use of the mediopassive r-form in anticausative function in Late Latin, illustrated
in (16), from a 6th century text, might also reflect the so-called deponentization
(Flobert 1975), i.e. the widespread use of the passive morphology in active function
with all kinds of verbs (Cennamo 1998, 2009 and references therein).
vulnera cicatricantur (Orib. Syn. 7, 3)
wounds heal.R
‘The wounds heal’
Late Latin
This has, however, been argued to be a part of the reorganization of voice distinctions
and the consequent functional opacity of the voice morphology conveying them
(Cennamo 1998, 2005, 2006, Herman 2002). The mediopassive r-form, in fact, may
occur in active function, replacing active morphology, with both intransitive and
transitive verbs, already in 4th century texts, as exemplified in (17a), and even more
so at later stages, as in (17b), from the 9th century A.D. (see also Gianollo, this
et sabbato
non ieiunantur (Peregr. Aeth. 27, 1)
and Saturday.ABL not fast.R.3PL
‘And they do not fast on Saturdays’
cum illo,
eam ... dugatur uxorem
with he.ABL who.NOM her.ACC take.R.3SG spouse.ACC
‘With that who will marry her’ or ‘With that who will take her as his
(Cod. Verc. cap. 192; Löfstedt 1977: 275)
Towards the end of the imperial age, with attestations from the second half of the 4th
century A.D., as in the Mulomedichina Chironis, and even more so in later texts, the
Reflexive also occurs with non-inherently telic verbs, i.e. gradual completion verbs,
as well as with activities (Cennamo 2001b, 2006: 333, fn. 8). This pattern, therefore,
is also found with accomplishments like citare ‘cause’ and provocare ‘cause’,
denoting the coming into being of an entity, and with activities like vexare ‘oppress’,
servare ‘keep’ and excusare ‘justify, excuse’. At times ambiguity is found between an
anticausative and a passive interpretation, i.e. between a spontaneous vs. an induced
process reading, as shown in (18a) (Cennamo 1998, 2000b, 2006):
mala … toto
servare se
possunt (Pall. 3, 25, 18)
apples whole.ABL year.ABL keep
REFL can
‘Apples ... can keep/be kept for the whole year’
si se … provocaverint (Chron 230)
excrements if REFL will-have-been-caused
‘Excrement, if ... it is induced’
The verb provocare ‘to cause, provoke’ in (18b), however, when occurring in the
Reflexive Construction, can only denote an induced process, i.e. with the so-called
passive reading. Such a reading is also the only possible reading found with activity
verbs when occurring in the Reflexive, as shown in (19):
qui se
vocat padule (Cod. Dipl. Bar. 5)
that REFL calls marsh
‘(A place) that is called marsh’
Also the Active Intransitive increasingly occurs in anticausative function, alternating
with the Reflexive, as in (20a–b), from the 4th century veterinary text Mulomedichina
Chironis (Feltenius 1977: 82, Cennamo 2006: 317):
confirmet (sc. vulnus) (Chiron 670)
Active Intransitive
in-order-to heal
‘So as it (sc. the wound) heals’
donec cicatrix oculo se confirmet (Chiron 76)
scar.NOM eye.DAT REFL heal
‘Until the scar in its eye heals’
In the same texts, illustrating the expansion of the Active Intransitive to include verbs
with different aspectual templates, oblique anticausatives are also found, as shown in
(21). In this construction the subject, or the S-argument, occurs in the accusative case,
rather than in the canonical nominative case (cf. Cennamo 2009 and references
many.ACC illnesses.ACC are-healed.3PL
‘Many illnesses heal’
This oblique encoding of the subject reflects more general changes in the encoding of
the argument structure of the clause in Late Latin, leading to the use of the accusative
in subject function, as a part of the loss of the case system and as a part of the general
rise of head-marked patterns of active syntax in the transition to Romance (for a full
discussion of this issue, cf. Cennamo 2009).
To summarize, in Late Latin, therefore, the Reflexive spreads from inherently telic
and punctual verbs denoting change of state and location, i.e., situations that can be
brought about spontaneously, with verbs like mutare ‘change’, frangere ‘break’ and
We remain impervious here to the question of whether the accusative is an “inherent” or “structural”
case, but refer the reader to Barðdal (2011a), where the generative distinction between structural and
lexical case is contested on the basis of non-corroborated empirical predictions following from the
scindere ‘crack’, to non-inherently telic and atelic verbs. These are active
accomplishments and activities, found either with the Reflexive in the passive
function, or found in both the Active Intransitive and the Mediopassive in the
anticausative function. It is only when the event clearly denotes an induced process
that the Mediopassive r-form is preferred (Cennamo 1998, 2006).
Following Haspelmath (1993: 93), verbs such as facere ‘do, make’, citare ‘cause’,
vexare ‘oppress’ and provocare ‘cause, induce’ might be defined as having an Agentoriented meaning component, since they denote situations that most typically involve
a human causer, which in turn makes the spontaneous interpretation highly unlikely
(Cennamo 1998: 96). We believe that Haspelmath’s intuition can be made more
precise if we restate it in aspectual terms, i.e. in terms of the aspectual template of
verbs, as proposed above.
Interestingly, in late texts, the reflexive pronoun and the r-form may co-occur in
anticausative function, as in (22), at times with ambiguity between an anticausative
and a passive reading, depending on the verb and on the syntactic context (see further
discussion in Cennamo 1998):
si autem minutetur se medicamen
if then pulverizes.R REFL drug
‘If then the drug pulverizes/gets pulverized’
(Orib. Eup. 4, 63; Svennung 1935: 463, n. 2) (VI A.D.)
se festivitatis habebitur dies
REFL festivity will-have.R day.NOM
‘It will be a day of festivity/The day of festivity will take place’
(Papyr. Mar. 8; Norberg 1943: 166) (VIII A.D.)
The co-occurrence of the two morphological devices, the mediopassive r-form and the
reflexive pronoun, suggests a functional equivalence of the two constructions, and is a
clear sign of the restructuring of the voice system taking place in Late Latin, with the
mediopassive r-form gradually demising in the spoken language and being replaced
by the Reflexive Construction. This construction, in turn, spreads to all verb classes in
Late Latin, with both animate and inanimate subjects. Hence, it is no longer confined
to the truly reflexive and core anticausative domains, i.e., with verbs of telic change,
as in Early and Classical Latin (Cennamo 1998; 2005; 2006).
In particular, se together with the active form is no longer confined to the three
functional domains in which it occurred in early and Classical Latin, namely:
(i) reflexives, marking coreference between the A and P arguments
(ii) inherent reflexives, a.k.a endoreflexives
(iii) core anticausatives, i.e., verbs of telic change
With inherent reflexives, i.e., with intransitive patterns where an original animate S
argument occurs as subject, in Early and Classical Latin fluctuation is often found
among voice forms. This may be taken as reflecting the degree of control of the
subject over the verbal process, as illustrated in (23) (cf. Cennamo 1998: 86):
adplicor ignotis
oris (Ov. epist. 7, 117)
lean.R unknown.ABL shores.ABL
‘I land on unknown shores’
– Control
quo sese applicet (Pacuv. trag. 370)
where REFL lean
‘Where he goes’ or ‘Where he leans’
quo applicem? (Enn. trag. 77)
where lean
‘Where shall I go?’
+ Control
The r-form in (23a) marks the affectedness or inactive nature of the subject, whilst in
(23b) the use of the reflexive signals volitionality of the subject. The active
intransitive in (23c) is neutral as to the realization of this semantic feature. Although
these alternations are usually explained in the literature as being due to stylistic
reasons or personal choices on the part of the author, in many cases they convey a
difference in control, as just illustrated in (23) above.
The notion of control indeed plays an important role in the marking of transitivity
in Latin, and probably in early Indo-European, an issue that we leave for further
investigation. However, this notion is relevant for voice fluctuations with animate
subjects (Cennamo 1998) and the ‘impersonal’ encoding of situations, as shown in
(24), attested with activities, like delectare ‘please’ and states like poenitere ‘repent’,
libere ‘like’ and others. Forms such as me fallit ‘I am wrong’, me delectat ‘I am
delighted’, me libet ‘I am pleased’, registered in traditional Latin grammars as
‘impersonal’, may be regarded, instead, as crystallizing a usage that must have been
very common in earlier stages of the language, with an oblique subject and an
impersonal verb form which denotes lack of control of the subject over the verbal
process. This is illustrated in (24) for the verb fallere ‘deceive’ (see full discussion in
Cennamo 2010):
nisi memoria
Active Transitive
if-not memory.NOM me.ACC deceives
‘If memory does not deceive me’
nisi me forte
if-not I.ACC strongly deceives/is-in-error
‘If I am not completely wrong’
nisi fallor
if-not deceives/is-in-error
‘If I am not wrong’
me non fefellit
Oblique Intransitive
as-far-as-this I.ACC not deceives/is-in-error
‘I was not (I did not happen to be) wrong as far as this is concerned’
Interestingly, (24d) me non fefellit, is morphosyntactically identical with analogous
Old Norse-Icelandic oblique subject patterns discussed in section 4.1.5.
In Late Latin the notions of control and aspect no longer play a role in
determining voice realizations and alternations in the reflexive-middle continuum and
anticausatives, respectively. This, in turn, means that changes in the distribution of the
strategies used to encode anticausatives reflect deep and wide-ranging changes taking
place in the domains of voice and grammatical relations, as is partially illustrated
above. We refer the interested reader to Cennamo (1998, 2000b, 2006, 2009) for
further discussions on this topic.
In Late Latin the Reflexive and the Active Intransitive come to be used in
anticausative function with different aspectual classes of verbs. The Reflexive
expands to verbs of variable and reduced telicity and to activities, while the Active
Intransitive spreads to causative accomplishments and achievements. In late texts,
therefore, all verbs may freely alternate between the three forms when used
anticausatively, regardless of their structural or inherent features. This development
can be regarded as part and parcel of wider and more pervasive changes in the
encoding of argument structure in the passage to Romance, a result of which is the
emergence of Oblique Intransitives, where the subject is in the accusative case rather
than in the canonical nominative case.
Both the event structure template of verbs and the meaning components
lexicalized in the verb, i.e., in the root, in particular the type of change encoded as
well as the degree of control of the P-subject, appear to affect the choice of
construction, interacting, in the course of time, with changes in the encoding of
Although the progression of the change seems to be mainly aspectually driven,
further investigation is needed, on a larger corpus, in order to give a more fine-grained
description of the path of development. A more fine-grained analysis is also needed to
detect, for instance, whether the anticausative Reflexive occurs earlier with gradual
completion verbs, as seems to be the case, for instance with verbs such as minuere
‘decrease’, than with other types of non inherently telic predicates, such as active
accomplishments like citare ‘cause’, and with atelic verbs, i.e. activities, such as
vocare ‘call’.
Moreover, the role played by inherent lexical properties of the verb, i.e. the root,
and by the nature of the verbal argument, i.e., its animacy and control, in determining
the interpretation of the construction as anticausative needs to be further explored, and
in particular the interplay between these factors in cases where there is ambiguity
between a spontaneous and an induced reading.
We conclude, however, that in Late Latin the anticausative Reflexive Construction
is no longer confined to verbs of inherent telicity, i.e. to verbs lexically encoding a
final, result or target state. Conversely, the lack of such encoding and the presence of
a manner or processual component (so-called ‘specific change’ in Haspelmath’s
terms) in the verb’s inherent meaning appears no longer to be a requirement for the
occurrence of the Active Intransitive in anticausative function, unlike in Early Latin.
Anticausatives in Old Norse-Icelandic
Because of its status as the best-attested representative of North Germanic, we now
investigate the constructions that are available in Old Norse-Icelandic for expressing
anticausatives, their relationship with their transitive counterpart, and the interplay
between the structural and lexical aspects of verb meaning in determining the
selection of a particular construction. The main anticausativization strategies are the
following (Ottosson 2009):
Suffixed na-verbs
The Reflexive construction, i.e. so-called ‘middle’ sk-verbs, originating
from a cliticized reflexive pronoun
The Nominative Active Intransitive Construction
The Oblique Active Intransitive Construction
We will now discuss each in turn.
Synchronic Aspects
4.1.1 The na-Verbs
In Old Norse-Icelandic the verbal suffix -na has been regarded as a detransitivizer,
marking the spontaneous manifestation of a situation and the lack of control or
affectedness of the subject.2 The anticausative function of the suffix is very common
and is attested with causative achievements, different types of accomplishments, and
marginally with states. Some examples of causative–anticausative pairs are given in
(24); the transitive verbs in question can be either strong (24a) or weak (24b):
brjóta – brotna ‘break’
bleikja ‘bleach’ (adj. bleikr ‘pale’) – blikna ‘grow pale’
Traditionally in the Icelandic literature, the -na suffix with the so-called na-verbs is
considered as being inchoative, a term which refers to the inception or beginning of
an event, signaling the transition to a state, since this suffix generally occurs with
change of state verbs. A more accurate view is to regard the -na suffix as a general
detranisitivizer, marking an inactive subject, having most typically, albeit not
exclusively, a clear anticausative function (Ottosson 2009, Lazzeroni 2009). This
analysis is corroborated by the fact that the suffix -na is, indeed, found alternating
with both transitive and intransitive verbs, as in (25).
vekja ‘waken’ – vaka ‘be awake’ – vakna ‘wake up’
4.1.2 The Reflexive
The Old Norse-Icelandic Reflexive Construction with sk-verbs originates in
cliticization of the reflexive pronoun to the verb (Ottósson 1992). The reflexive clitic
pronoun became an affix, which is realized as -sk in all persons except for the first
person singular, where it is -mk. The sk-form comprises a wide range of functions,
notably reflexive, reciprocal and anticausative, and in rare cases in Old NorseIcelandic, passive (Ottosson 2009: 23), a function that later becomes dominant in
Mainland Scandinavian (cf. Barðdal & Molnár 2003). This development is very
similar to the one displayed by the Latin se.
See Lazzeroni (2009: 16) for a recent hypothesis that the detransitivizing -na suffix in Germanic,
Baltic and Slavic is the same suffix as the homophonous transitivizing -na suffix in Sanskrit, Hittite,
Greek, Celtic and Armenian.
The reflexive and reciprocal functions of the Reflexive Construction are shown in
(26) below (cf. also Andersen 1990 and Barðdal & Molnar 2003: 253–254 for Modern
en þó
lagðist hann niður og sofnaði
but though laid-sk he down and fell-asleep
‘but despite this he laid down and fell asleep’
(Grænlendingaþáttur, Ch. 6)
of drepask kváðu
(Þjóðolfr ór Hvini Ynglingatal 11)
of kill-sk said
‘they said they would kill each other’
The anticausative function of the Reflexive Construction is shown in (27) below.
Verbs occurring in this construction are generally causative achievements and
accomplishments, although some activities are also found, as in (28).
svo hristusk hringarnir
then shook-sk rings-the.NOM
‘then the rings shook’
earth.NOM shakes-sk
‘the earth shakes’
þar til er bogastrengrinn
there till when bowstring-the.NOM cut-sk
‘until the bow-string got cut’ (Cleasby & Vigfusson 1874)
þat mólsk á kverninni
it ground-sk on handmill-the
‘it got ground on the handmill’ (Cleasby & Vigfusson 1874)
þá mun brátt af þvásk öll sú sǿmð
then will soon off wash-sk all that honor.NOM
‘then all the honor will soon get washed off’
(Cleasby & Vigfusson 1874)
Finally, psychological verbs in the Reflexive Construction are usually states, as in
(29a) below (cf. Barðdal 2001a), although of course not all psychological predicates
are historically derived anticausatives (cf. Barðdal & Eythórsson 2009).
I.NOM this.GEN remember-sk
‘I remember that’
að minna konunginn á með nokkuru móti
to remind king-the.ACC on with any way
‘to remind the king some way or another’
(Þormóðar þáttur [eftir Flateyjarbók], Ch. 2)
Observe, that with these anticausatives an animate P-argument of the transitive
becomes the S-argument of a corresponding anticausative. The example in (29b) gives
the causative variant of the verb minna ‘remind, remember’ in Old Norse-Icelandic.
The main property of the anticausative Reflexive Construction seems to be to
signal lack of external agency, whereas the -na suffix is mainly a marker of telicity, as
well as of an inactive subject (Ottosson 2009: 18, Lazzeroni 2009: 16–17).
4.1.3 Interim Summary
Our comparison between anticausative na-verbs and reflexive sk-verbs in Old NorseIcelandic reveals that they occur with different aspectual classes. Whilst the -na suffix
occurs with achievements, accomplishments and marginally with states, the -sk suffix
also occurs with activity verbs. Therefore there appears to be a clear distinction
between the two devices: -na is incompatible with atelic, dynamic predicates, i.e.
activities, whereas -sk is compatible with both telic and atelic predicates.
Ottosson (2009: 24) observes that an important difference between the two
constructions is that the one with na-verbs puts an emphasis on the effect of the
situation denoted by the verb, i.e. it occurs with verbs which lexicalize a final, result
or target state. The Reflexive, in contrast, conveys how this change comes about,
occurring therefore also with verbs which lexicalize manner, i.e. with activities.
It is also worth noticing that na-verbs and sk-verbs in Old Norse-Icelandic have in
common that they are to a high degree lexicalized. That is, the causative and its
anticausative variant are not necessarily examples of the ‘same’ verb, but have
lexicalized in different ways.
4.1.4 The Nominative Active Intransitive (lability proper)
The Active Intransitive strategy, i.e., P-lability, is apparently quite rare in Old NorseIcelandic (Ottosson 2009: 43). The issue, however, needs further investigation, with
an in-depth study of the texts showing this pattern. Only very few examples, in fact,
are given by Ottoson for the use of the Active Intransitive in anticausative function,
with the derived subject occurring in the nominative case and agreeing with the verb,
as in (30) below, of the gradual completion verb minnka ‘diminish, reduce’, where
(30a) contains a transitive verb and (30b) its anticausative variant:
minnkuðu þessi orð
mjök hans gleði
diminished these words.NOM much his joy.ACC
‘these words greatly diminished his joy’
(Barlaams ok Josaphats saga 1981:207f)
hans kraptr
ok máttr
his power.NOM and might.NOM diminishes
‘his power and might is reduced’
(Barlaams ok Josaphats saga 1981:20)
This requires an investigation aiming at exploring the classes of verbs instantiating
this construction, and at detecting whether the construction is also found with verbs
which lexicalize a final, result or a target state, such as break, tear, crackle, open, or
whether it is mainly confined to non-inherently telic verbs, as exemplified in (30b).
4.1.5 The Oblique Active Intransitive
In contrast to the construction discussed in the previous section, a much more widely
used type of lability in Old Norse-Icelandic involves verbs taking oblique subjects
(“impersonal detransitives” in Ottosson’s terminology). The nominative agentive
subject of the transitive construction is “suppressed” in this anticausative variant, and
the original object shows up as a subject preserving its original object case,
accusative, dative, or more rarely genitive. In this pattern the verb is in the default
third singular. The predicates occurring in this pattern most typically denote a telic
change of state, i.e., they comprise causative achievements and accomplishments
(Ottosson 2009: 45), as illustrated in (31–34):
blása hár
af höfði e-m
blow hair.ACC of head sby
‘blow hair off somebody’s head’
hafði blásit hauginn
had blown mound-the.ACC
‘the mound had eroded’
þá hvelfðu þeir
then capsized they.NOM it.DAT self
‘then they capsized it themselves’
í því hvelfdi skipinu
in that capsized ship-the.DAT quickly
‘then the ship capsized quickly’
brutu skip
they.NOM broke ship.ACC their
‘they broke their ship/they were shipwrecked’
ships-the.ACC broke
‘The ships were shipwrecked’
ljúka einhverju
finish something.DAT
‘finish something’
something.DAT finishes
‘Something ends’
The nature of the subject is relevant as well; as with other verbs taking oblique
subjects, it is never an agent (cf. Barðdal 2001b: 103, 2004).
Ottosson (2009: 44) regards the Oblique Active Intransitive as a special Old
Norse-Icelandic development. However, we have come across similar examples in
Bavarian German, Modern Russian and Lithuanian, as illustrated in (35–37):
Es trieb den
Kahn an den Strand. (Kainhofer 2002)
it drove the.ACC boat to the beach
‘The boat drifted to the beach.’
prinešė sniego.
garden.ACC brought snow.GEN
‘The garden was filled with snow.’
Lodku uneslo
vniz po tečeniju.
boat.ACC drifted-away down on stream
‘The boat drifted down the stream.’
Modern Russian
Clearly there s a need to explore the relationship between the anticausative patterns
illustrated in (31–34) in Old Norse-Icelandic, and the ones in (35–37) for some other
Indo-European languages, and other constructions with oblique subject-like
arguments, denoting lack of control of the S-argument over the verbal process. In all
these structures, in fact, the situation expressed by the verb is encoded as affecting the
nuclear argument, with no causer involved. This type of pattern is attested in Old
Norse-Icelandic, as in (38b–39b), as well as in some other early Indo-European
languages, like Old Russian, Ancient Greek and Old Saxon, shown in (40–43):
fýsa einhvern
urge someone.ACC something.GEN
‘urge someone to do something’
fýsir til einhvers
someone.ACC urges to something.GEN
‘Someone desires something’
gefa einhverjum eitthvat
give somebody.DAT something.ACC
‘give somebody something’
og er
gaf byr
and when they.DAT gave wind.ACC
‘and when they got wind’
The examples in (38–39) are like the examples in (31–37) in the sense that they
convey a spontaneous event, happening by itself, with no external causer. However,
they differ in that they are ditransitive and the S-argument is animate. Similar
examples are also found in more early Indo-European languages:
fâhit im
an sâlig thing
Old Saxon
brings him.DAT to holy thing
‘he is brought to holy things’ (Heliand, here cited from Dewey & Arnett 2010)
mē dē
skotodinian iliggon
te hymin empoiēsē Ancient Greek
not already dizziness.ACC faintness.ACC and you.DAT cause.SUBJ
‘Let you be brought faintness and dizziness’
(Plat. Leg 892.e.7-a.1, here cited from Seržant 2010)
Jako g’nasta pout’ m’nog’, ti
tako pristig’ša
Old Russian
so chased paths many thee.DAT such overtook
‘You have followed many paths, so you have been overwhelmed’
(Nest.Zhit.Theod.3, here cited from Smitherman 2010)
Observe that the Old Saxon example with fâhan ‘bring’ in (40) and the Ancient Greek
example in (41) with empoeiō ‘bring’ are parallel to the Old Norse-Icelandic example
with gefa ‘give’ in (39b) above, exhibiting exactly the same case pattern, Dat-Acc.
The existence of Oblique Active Intransitive anticausatives and of other
corresponding derived transitives with an oblique subject in other Germanic
languages, both early and modern, as well as in Baltic, Slavic and Ancient Greek,
suggests an inheritance, although perhaps only a West-Indo-European inheritance (see
also discussion of similar lack of control patterns in Latin in section 3.2).
The examples in (39b) and (40–41) are exactly like anticausatives in that they
denote a spontaneous event without a willful external causer and that they are derived
from corresponding causatives where the causer is the A-argument. They only differ
from prototypical anticausatives in that they are derived from causative ditransitives
and not causative transitives. The reason that examples like these have gone
unnoticed in the literature on anticausatives is most likely because they are confined
to the early or archaic Indo-European languages where nominal case marking is still
intact, meaning that the dative and the accusative of the Dat-Acc case frame must be
morphologically distinguishable in order for structures like these to be found.
4.1.6 Summary
Old Norse-Icelandic presents a varied picture with respect to anticausative
constructions. The formation with the na-suffix is quite common, while the Reflexive
Construction is generally used to form anticausatives. In addition, a common
anticausative strategy involves active intransitive verbs taking oblique subjects
exhibiting the same object case as their transitive counterparts and a verb in the third
person singular. In contrast, P-lability proper i.e., the strategy where the same verb
form occurs both as a transitive and as an anticausative with a nominative subject, is
only rarely attested.
Conjecturing the Diachronic Development of Anticausative Constructions
in North Germanic
As pointed out in Section 4.1.1, Germanic na-verbs ultimately derive from ProtoIndo-European nasal presents and already existed at the Proto-Germanic stage (Ringe
2006: 176–179, Suzuki 1989: 151–159, Ottoson 2009, Lazzeroni 2009: 176–179). In
Old Norse-Icelandic anticausative na-verbs can generally be considered as having had
a transitive counterpart, even though in many cases only a corresponding verbal
adjective is attested. As discussed by Ottosson (2009), Gothic na-verbs also
commonly enter into causative–anticausative pairs, although not as regularly as in Old
Norse-Icelandic. In this light, it appears legitimate to conclude with Ottosson (2009)
that the anticausative function of the -na suffix in Old Norse-Icelandic can be traced
back to Proto-Germanic.
The Reflexive -sk construction is presumably a North Germanic innovation, even
though it is not attested in the early runic inscriptions. Owing to the limited scope of
this corpus, the absence of the Reflexive Construction at this stage is not necessarily
very significant. In fact, Ottosson (2008, 2009) argues that the Reflexive Construction
must have originated in Proto-Nordic, because already in the earliest Old NorseIcelandic sources it exhibits a very extensive and systematic anticausative function. In
order for this development to have become so extensive, it must be assumed that it
had already begun at an even earlier stage.
However, the other West Germanic languages lacked reflexive pronouns,
developing instead an anticausativization strategy involving formal identity between
the transitive and intransitive use of the verb, i.e., P-lability. It needs be be
investigated whether, and to which extent, the development of P-lability as the only
anticausative strategy in these languages is related to the change of Oblique Active
Intransitive anticausatives into Nominative Active Intransitive anticausatives, through
the canonization of subject marking. Such a process is known under the label
Nominative Substitution, and has been found in languages irrespective of the loss of
morphological case (Seefranz-Montag 1983, 1984, Smith 1994, 1996, Barðdal &
Eythórsson 2003, Eythórsson and Barðdal 2005). Clearly, however, when
morphological case is lost, all potential Oblique Active Intransitive anticausatives
automatically change into Nominative Active Intransitive anticausatives.
The labile ‘proper’ alternation only occurs to a very limited degree in Old NorseIcelandic. Instead, this language has an anticausative construction with an oblique
subject and default verb morphology. Similar structures also occur in Bavarian
German and Old Saxon, and, outside Germanic, in Russian, Lithuanian and Ancient
Greek, and may have been inherited from an earlier stage of the Indo-European
languages. It should be noted that there is a sporadic tendency in the history of
Icelandic for the oblique subjects of such verbs to be replaced by nominative subjects,
through Nominative Substitution (Eythórsson 2000a–b, 2002, Barðdal & Eythórsson
2003, Barðdal 2011b), even though the case system of Icelandic has stayed intact
throughout the Icelandic period, and no loss of case marking is detectable (Barðdal
2001b, 2008, 2009).
Ottosson (2009) speculates that an important factor triggering these developments
is the demise of the synthetic mediopassive of Proto-Germanic which would partly
have had an anticausative function, i.e. the r-form. Within Old Germanic this passive
category only survives in the present tense in Gothic. The loss of this passive would
have contributed to the emergence of new, alternative anticausative formations, i.e.,
na- and sk-verbs. While it is undeniable that the encoding of anticausativization in
Old Norse-Icelandic is to be seen within the wider context of the encoding of
transitivity, there is no evidence for the demise of the synthetic mediopassive as being
a possible trigger of the different anticausative strategies and their distribution in early
West Germanic in general and Old Norse-Icelandic in particular.
Moreover, contra Ottosson, we find it quite likely that Oblique Active
Intransitives, which are robust in Old Norse-Icelandic, existed at the earliest stage of
Germanic, suggesting that they are the result of a systematic earlier development.
Comparative evidence from other languages suggests that these have a ProtoGermanic and even Indo-European origins (Barðdal & Eythórsson 2009).
Constraints on anticausativization in Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic:
Similarities and differences
The analysis of the morphosyntactic constructions expressing anticausatives in Latin
and Old Norse-Icelandic has shown that they involve the aspectual templates of
predicates, the meaning components lexicalized in the verb, and the degree of control
or thematic (under)specification of the subject.
The relevant constructions in the two languages are generally of the same or
similar kind, although the details differ according to language-specific possibilities. In
particular, both languages make use of the reflexive pattern and the active intransitive.
The mediopassive r-form in Latin and the -na suffix in Old Norse-Icelandic, although
deriving from different forms, they both function as general detransitivizers, marking
the affectedness or the inactive nature of the subject, and are used as
anticausativization devices. The r-form is the most general anticausativization
strategy in Early Latin, whereas the functional domains of the na-forms in Old NorseIcelandic are more limited, unlike the sk-forms which comprise a substantially wider
range of verbs and functions. A comparison of the distribution of anticausatives in
Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic across aspectual verb classes is presented in Table 1.
As to the semantic development, in Early and Classical Latin the Active
Intransitive mainly occurs with gradual completion and activity verbs and is only
marginally attested with accomplishments encoding a target, i.e. a reversible state. In
contrast, the Active Intransitive does not occur in anticausative function with verbs
lexically encoding a final or a result state, i.e., with achievements. The Reflexive
Construction, however, occurs in Early and Classical Latin as a strategy for
anticausativization, mainly with inherently telic predicates, i.e. with verbs lexically
encoding a final, result or target state, i.e. achievements and accomplishments. The
Reflexive Construction is also preferred when the subject, although inanimate, is
personified, involving some degree of control. Finally, the Mediopassive Construction
is the most general device of the three, occurring at all stages of Latin with all verb
classes which allow the anticausative alternation: achievements, accomplishments and
activities. With the last two aspectual classes, however, ambiguity may occur between
an anticausative and a passive interpretation, although this is resolved in each case by
the immediate context.
Table 1: Early/Classical Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic compared.
Achievements Accomplishments Activities
Early/Classical Latin
Mediopassive r-form
Reflexive Se+active
Active Intransitive
Old Norse-Icelandic
Reflexive sk-verbs
Nom. Intransitive
Oblique Intransitive
Accomplishments comprise verbs with different degrees of telicity. The reflexive pattern
does not occur with gradual completion verbs and active accomplishments.
Active intransitives with nominative subjects are mainly attested with gradual completion
In Old Norse-Icelandic the main anticausativization strategies are the na-suffix, the
Reflexive Construction, i.e. sk-verbs originating in reflexives, and the Active
Intransitive with Oblique subjects. The anticausative function of the detransitivizing
suffix -na, marking the lack of control, affectedness or the inactive nature of the
subject, is quite common and is attested with achievements and accomplishments and
to a limited degree with states, but not with activities. That is, it is not attested with
atelic dynamic predicates. The Reflexive Construction, in contrast, the most general
anticausativization device, is compatible with all these aspectual classes.
In the Oblique Active Intransitive the subject retains the accusative, dative or
genitive case of the object of the original transitive construction, whilst the verb
reverts to the third person singular impersonal form. This pattern is attested with
achievements and accomplishments and is much more common than the Nominative
Active Intransitive form, the labile strategy in Old Norse-Icelandic, which seems
mainly to be attested with non-inherently telic verbs, e.g., gradual completion verbs.
The nature of the subject is relevant as well here; the subject is never an agent,
neither in the Nominative nor in the Oblique Intransitive anticausative construction.
An Oblique Active Intransitive form emerges in Late Latin, but the verb never occurs
in the impersonal form and the oblique subject is always in the accusative case. More
research is needed, however, in order to uncover the relationship between the Late
Latin oblique anticausative pattern, the oblique case-preserving anticausative strategy
attested in Old Norse-Icelandic and in other early Indo-European languages, and the
other types of oblique subject constructions attested in Old Saxon, Old Russian,
Ancient Greek and Latin, mentioned in sections 3.2 and 4.1.5.
To conclude, a close inspection of the distribution of the different anticausative
strategies in Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic reveals that their occurrence reflects the
interplay and the degree of integration of both components of a verb meaning, the
structural aspect, i.e., its event structure template(s), and the meaning components it
lexicalizes, i.e., the root, as well as the inherent and relational properties of the
derived P-subject.
The rise and fall of anticausative constructions: Relative chronology
As mentioned in Section 4.2 above, it has been proposed in the literature that the
original Indo-European Mediopassive construction, the so-called synthetic passive,
disappeared and its demise may have triggered the development of a new construction
with similar functions, in this case the Reflexive Construction. Ottosson (2009)
suggests this for the development in Germanic, pointing out that one of the functions
of the synthetic passive was anticausative. As we have discussed above, the Latin
r-form, which is the Romance descendent of the Indo-European Mediopassive, also
exhibits an anticausative function.
The converse hypothesis, namely that the emergence of a new mediopassive
construction may have caused the original synthetic passive to retreat, is also
sustainable and we would like to entertain that idea here. On such a view, first a new
construction arises which is functionally similar to the old construction, at least in
part, causing the old construction to go down in use and frequency. The new
construction gradually acquires more of the functions of the old construction, until it
has acquired most if not all of them. At that point, the old construction is simply not
needed anymore, and reduces in frequency even further until it either vanishes
altogether or lives on as a relic.
The question now arises as to whether the two possible scenarios, discussed
above, make different empirical predictions, so that they can be compared and tested
scientifically. We believe that they do. It seems to us that if a new construction
gradually takes over the function of an existing construction, one should find a certain
degree of usage overlap between the two constructions during the period when the
new construction has emerged and before the old one disappears. In contrast, if the
old construction disappears first, one would not expect to find the two constructions
being used equivalently at the same time, but rather that the new construction neatly
replaces the old one. In other words, there is never an overlap in time where the two
constructions are both used, but rather two subsequent time periods where the two
constructions are used complementarily, the old construction during the earlier time
period and the new construction during the later time period. In an extreme case, one
might perhaps expect a time interval where neither of the two constructions is used.
That would be the ultimate proof that first the old construction disappears and then the
new construction expands and takes over the functional domains of the old
construction, as a need for a new construction has clearly arisen.
A second prediction is that if a new construction causes an old multifunctional
construction to retreat, one might expect the new construction to gradually take over
the different functions of the old construction, before the old one disappears, and
hence that the new construction mirrors the old one functionally. In other words, there
is a one-to-one mapping between the old and the new constructions, as both will be
equally multifunctional and occupy the same functional domain. At that point, the two
constructions may change morphologically, as representing the functional merger. In
contrast, if a new construction arises after the old one has disappeared, then there is
no reason to assume that a functional overlap across the functions of the old
multifunctional construction will be found with the new construction, but rather that
different new constructions will take over different functions of the old construction.
This will yield a lack of a one-to-one correspondence between the old and the new
construction, and rather a situation where several different constructions have taken
over different functions of the old multifunctional construction. For a language family
with many branches, this might manifest itself in different constructions being found
across the branches as having taken over the different functions of the earlier common
construction. However, one would perhaps first and foremost expect this last scenario
in cases where the modern daughter languages have already branched off, before the
old construction disappears.
Let us now consider the development of the different anticausative constructions
discussed here in order to reveal whether the picture conforms to the two specific
predictions laid out above. Observe, first, that there is an overlap between Latin and
Germanic in that both exhibit a Reflexive construction and a Nominative Active
Intransitive. The oddball out in Germanic is the na-construction, which is not found in
Latin. A close scrutiny of the na-construction, however, suggests that it is not a
systematic device for valence reduction, as is otherwise true for anticausatives, since
na-verbs are also found alternating with intransitive verbs. This is shown in (24)
above, repeated here for convenience:
vekja ‘waken’ – vaka ‘be awake’ – vakna ‘wake up’
The vocalism found with the three verbs, i.e. umlauted e vs. a, suggests that vakna
‘wake up’ is derived from the intransitive vaka ‘be awake’, rather than from the
transitive vekja ‘waken’. This category of na-verbs is therefore better regarded as a
detransitivizing device, denoting change of state and an inactive subject, rather than as
an anticausative construction.
Turning to P-lability proper, both Latin and Germanic exhibit Active
Anticausative Constructions, although the diachronic relation between the Nominative
and the Oblique Constructions is far from clear. Comparative evidence from Baltic
and Slavic suggests that the Oblique Active Intransitive may be inherited. Whether
the Nominative Active Intransitive has developed out of the Oblique Active
Intransitive, through Nominative Substitution, or whether the two co-existed side by
side, needs further investigation. However, if the Active Intransitive, the Nominative
or the Oblique, is inherited, then this construction may have competed with the IndoEuropean synthetic Mediopassive Construction already at an early stage of the IndoEuropean languages. The difference between the two, however, is that the synthetic
Mediopassive Construction had more functions than only an anticausative one, like
for instance the passive function, while the Active Anticausative Construction is
functionally confined to anticausativization.
Finally, let us consider the relation between the Indo-European synthetic
Mediopassive and the Reflexive Construction. It is a known fact that the IndoEuropean synthetic Mediopassive disappeared and is replaced with a Reflexive
Construction, both in Germanic and Italic. The question is therefore whether the IndoEuropean synthetic Mediopassive disappeared first and its demise trigged the
emergence of the Reflexive Construction or whether the synthetic Mediopassive
retreated because of the expansion of the Reflexive Construction. As we have shown
in Section 3 above, the Latin reflex of the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassive
Construction, the r-form, is clearly the preferred anticausative construction in Early
and Classical Latin, while the Reflexive Construction is more restricted. Gradually,
the Reflexive Construction expands to new aspectual classes of verbs, living side by
side with the r-construction, which also has a passive function. It is, thus, not until
after the Reflexive Construction has expanded into the functional space of the rconstruction (or at least into parts of its functional space), that the r-construction starts
regressing and disappears in Romance. This co-occurs with the merging of the voice
distinction in Romance and a general development to transitive syntax. Not only does
the Reflexive Construction in Romance gradually take over the middle and the
anticausative domain of the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassiv, but also its passive
The same development as in Latin, and from Latin to its Italic daughter languages,
may also be assumed to have taken place in Germanic. As discussed in Section 4
above, the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassive Construction is only found in the
earliest Germanic language, Gothic, and only in one of its tenses, i.e. present tense.
Also, its function is clearly passive and not anticausative, i.e. the process is an
induced one and not a spontaneous one (cf. Braune & Heidermanns 2004:141, 148,
ik daupjada (Greek: ego: baptizomai)
I am-baptized.R
‘I am baptized’ (Mark 10.38)
sa reiks … uswairpada ut (Greek: ho arkho:n … ekble:the:setai exo:)
the ruler thrown-away.R out
‘the ruler ... is thrown out’ (John 12.31)
In the other tenses, a periphrastic construction is used in Gothic to denote an induced
process, i.e. in the passive reading. This is the same periphrastic passive construction
that is found in all the other modern Germanic languages of today.
was fram Iohanne (Greek: ekbaptisthe: hupo Ioannou)
baptized.NOM was from John
‘He was baptized by John’ (Mark 1.9)
The Reflexive sk-construction, however, has already in the earliest North Germanic
acquired an anticausative function (Ottosson 2009). A Reflexive Construction is also
found in Old High German, whereas in Old English, the language where reflexive
pronouns have disappeared, the third common anticausative construction, the Active
Anticausative Construction, has become the dominant construction within the domain
of anticausativization (Kitazume 1996, Gelderen 2010). Whether this is due to
influence from Old French, in which P-lability proper is quite common (cf. Heidinger
this volume), is difficult to know at this stage, although an investigation of
anticausative usages in texts before and after the Norman invasion should be telling in
this respect. So to conclude, Germanic shows the same development as Latin, and the
situation in Germanic can be regarded as a later point in a development that we
witness as starting in Latin.
A comparison with the remaining Indo-European branches is needed to decide on
whether the development found in Italic and Germanic is common to more IndoEuropean branches or not. We know that the Indo-European synthetic Mediopassive
has also disappeared in Baltic and Slavic and a Reflexive Construction has arisen.
So to concretize, how do the two predictions, discussed above, fare in relation to
the data from Latin and Germanic? First, it is clear that both constructions, the IndoEuropean Mediopassive and the Latin Reflexive Construction, are found at the same
time in Latin texts, suggesting that it may in fact have been the Reflexive
Construction that brought the Mediopassive to bay, and not that the Mediopassive
Construction first disappeared and hence gave space to the Reflexive Construction.
The second prediction relates to the functional overlap of the old and the new
constructions, and in this case, we have seen that the Reflexive Construction gradually
takes over the functions of the Indo-European Mediopassive, as in Early Latin it could
only occur with achievements and some accomplishment verbs in anticausative
function, gradually occurring with more aspectual verb classes, and then finally it also
acquired a passive function. At that point in the development, the Reflexive
Construction has acquired all the functional domains of the Indo-European synthetic
Mediopassive, i.e. both its middle and also its passive domain.
In fact, the more we ponder this issue, the more conceptual problems we have
with the general idea that an older construction first retreats, and then through this
regress, a need for a new construction arises, to fill up the functional space that is left
empty by the old construction. It is entirely unclear to us, and appears as highly
illogical, why a perfectly functional construction should start backtracking without a
reason. As long as there is no evident reason for why such a development would take
place to begin with, and as long as such a scenario makes predictions which are not
borne out, we regard it as vanishingly unlikely.
To conclude, the two predictions resulting from the two possible scenarios both
clearly show that it was the functional expansion of the Reflexive Construction that
made the Mediopassive Construction retreat. This takes place in correlation with the
loss of voice distinctions in Late Latin and the development of transitivity during the
period from Latin to Romance. Hence, our investigation here has shown that there is
no doubt that this particular language change, the demise of the Indo-European
synthetic Mediopassive Construction, is caused by the rise and expansion of the
Reflexive Construction and not vice versa.
Summary and Conclusions
A comparison between Latin and Old Norse-Icelandic has revealed the following
similarities and differences in the evolution of anticausativity: Three different
constructions in Latin serve as anticausative, i.e. the Mediopassive Construction, the
Reflexive Construction and the Active Anticausative Construction. It is generally
claimed in the literature on Latin that the three constructions are interchangeable.
However, we have shown here that there is a clear division of labor between the three
constructions, based on aspectual properties. First, the Mediopassive Construction is
the most common in Early and Classical Latin and it can be instantiated by all verbs
which qualify for the anticausative construal. The Active Anticausative Construction,
in contrast, occurs mainly with activity verbs, while the Reflexive Construction is
only found with causative accomplishments and achievements. Gradually, through the
course of history, the Mediopassive Construction has given way to the two other
constructions. Hence, the Reflexive construction starts occurring with gradual
completion verbs and active accomplishments, as well as with activities and
marginally with states. The Active Anticausative Construction is extended to gradual
completion verbs and other types of accomplishments.
In Old Norse-Icelandic, in contrast, there are four different ways anticausativity
may be manifested, of which two are common with Latin. These four ways are
through the verbal -na suffix, the Middle Construction with the original reflexive -sk
suffix, the Nominative Active Anticausative Construction and the Oblique Active
Anticausative Construction. The Nominative Active Construction seems to be very
rare in Old Norse Icelandic, while both the Oblique Active constructions and na-verbs
are more common. Most common, though, is the Middle Construction. The verbs
occurring with the -na suffix are mostly achievements and accomplishments, while
the ones occurring in the Middle Construction with -sk suffix and Oblique Active
Anticausative are not aspectually restricted. All three constructions, with na-verbs,
oblique subjects and the -sk suffix, can be argued to be Proto-Germanic.
The diachrony of anticausativization in the languages investigated shows an
interplay of the strategies employed for the anticausative alternation with more
general changes taking place in the domain of transitivity, such as the rise of the
Reflexive Passive in Late Latin; a comparable change happens in the history of
Mainland Scandinavian, but is marginally attested in Old Norse-Icelandic. Further
phenomena involving the reorganization of voice and grammatical relations may be
seen in the sporadic emergence of nominative subjects (Nominative Substitution) with
oblique subject predicates in Old Norse-Icelandic.
The data also show that the aspectual template of verbs and the meaning
components lexicalized in the verb, e.g. the notion of reversible and non reversible
change in Latin, as well as the nature of the subject, e.g., its degree of control, play an
important role in determining the choice of strategy in the languages examined, both
synchronically and diachronically.
Finally, the investigation carried out in the present article suggests that the demise
of the Indo-European Mediopassive Construction was caused by the rise and
expansion of the Reflexive Construction, and not vice versa. This occurrence is
related to the loss of voice distinctions and the development of transitivity during the
period from Latin to Romance. We have, moreover documented this evolutionary
path from Early and Classical Latin to Late Latin, and the earliest Germanic data are
also compatible with this scenario. The Indo-European Mediopassive is only found in
Gothic, where it is confined to the present tense, and only occurs with a passive
reading and not an anticausative reading. The Middle Construction originating in the
reflexive pronoun is clearly the main anticausative device in Old Norse-Icelandic,
showing that Old Norse-Icelandic represents a later point on this evolutionary path
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