Verbs: Transitivity and Animacy

All languages have nouns and verbs. The most basic nouns, those that have representation in all languages, express basic physical objects such as the sun, moon, people, animals, and so on. The most basic verbs express universal human actions, such as eating, drinking, loving, killing, growing, and so on. A fundamental distinction that languages make is between transitive and intransitive verbs. Basic transitive verbs involve an action, instigated by an agent (subject), which is carried out on an object, usually changing the object in some way. Some basic transitive verbs in English are kill, eat, cook, and break, as in the following examples:

In each case there is an agent (subject), a doer, an initiator, who carries out an action on an object, a snake, an apple, meat or a bottle. These verbs each have an agent/subject, and an object, and there is a transfer of action from the agent/subject to the object. Such a verb is said to be transitive. The following crude illustration summarizes the dynamics of a transitive verb: the action of the subject is applied to the object.

Compare the transitive verbs above with the verbs in the following examples.

Each of these verbs has only a subject, and you cannot use them as transitive verbs, for example, as in the following (an asterisk (*) means that the sentence is grammatically incorrect, that is, that it doesn't fit the grammatical patterns of English):

Verbs that only allow a subject are said to be intransitive, because there is not a transfer of action from an agent/subject to an object. There is only a subject. The verbs kill, cook and drop in the examples above are transitive; the verbs die, fall, and stink are intransitive. We can readily schematize such an intransitive verb with the following simple diagram:

Now there's nothing about the form of the English verbs kill, cook and drop that tells you that they are transitive: you can only know from the way that they are used in particular sentences; and it's the same with the intransitive verbs die, fall and stink: there's nothing marking them in any way as intransitive verbs. In fact, in English, the same form can be used in many different ways. Consider the following sentences, all containing the word cook.

  1. The chef cooked the roast.
  2. The chef isn't goofing off; he's been cooking all day.
  3. My friend Julian cooks for a living.
  4. The roast has been cooking all day.

In sentence 1, the verb cook is transitive, because there is a subject/agent [the chef] and an object [the roast]. In sentence 2, however, the verb seems rather intransitive, because there is no mention of an object, and the verb cook is being considered as an activity to be contrasted with goofing off: what matters here isn't what is cooked, but that the chef has been cooking rather than goofing off. A similar sense can be seen in sentence 3: Julian's means of livelihood is cooking, as opposed to playing the piano or being a librarian. Obviously he has to cook something, but the focus here is not at all on what he cooks, but that he cooks. We could say that the object is so de-emphasized that it grammatically disappears. The following diagram attempts to illustrate this idea:

These distinctions are sometimes hard for English speakers to get a handle on because English uses the same word form for both verbal ideas, cook.

Now let's consider the equivalent verbs in Ojibwe:

  1. The verb corresponding to cook in The chef cooked the roast is minozan.
  2. The verb corresponding to cook in He's been cooking all day is jiibaakwe.

Notice the difference in how the two languages work: in English the same word form is used for both ideas, transitive cook and intransitive cook; in Ojibwe there are totally different words, transitive minozan and intransitive jiibaakwe. In English, it would seem that you don't have to be so attentive to transitivity as you do in Ojibwe.

Now let's consider sentence 4, above, The roast has been cooking all day. This sentence too has the verb cook, but obviously the way that a chef relates to cooking is very different from the way that a roast does: chefs do the cooking (they are agent); roasts have cooking "done to" them (they are objects). Yet English uses the same form, cook, in both cases. But Ojibwe does not! Here are the equivalent forms:

  1. The verb corresponding to cook in The roast has been cooking... is minode.
  2. The verb corresponding to cook in The chef has been cooking... is jiibaakwe.

In a sense, this is an intransitive verb which derives from a transitive idea, in which the agent/subject is completely de-emphasized. The following diagram attempts to capture this idea:

Here the subject is greyed out to show its vagueness, its indefiniteness. And the object, lleft to stand alone, now becomes the subject of a new intransitive verb, though it still retains some of its objecthood in its meaning.

So, to review, we have three distinct kinds of intransitive verbs:

  1. Those that are inherently intransitive (we can call these inherent intransitives)
  2. Those that seem to focus on the subject/agent of a transitive concept, and completely de-emphasize the object (we can call these subject-focus intransitives).
  3. Those that focus on the object of a transitive, and completely de-emphasize the subject of a transitive (and the object becomes the subject of a new intransitive verb) (we can call these object-focus intransitives).

And we have seen that there are three distinct Ojibwe verbs for each of , minozan, jiibaakwe, and minode, corresponding to English cook. The choice of which Ojibwe verb is used has to do with whether the cooking event is presented as transitive or intransitive, and when intransitive, whether the focus is on the cooker or the cooked.

Maybe things seem very complicated now, but there's more! This is because not just transitivity has a bearing on the choice of Ojibwe verbs, but also animacy. Notice the following:

  1. Minozo nika. 'The goose is cooked/cooking.' (nika, 'goose,' animate noun)
  2. Minode wiiyaas. 'The meat is cooked/cooking.' (wiiyaas, 'meat' inanimate noun)

So when talking about something cooking in the sense of being cooked, you use a different verb form depending on whether the thing cooking is animate or inanimate.

There's more! When expressing the transitive idea of cooking, that is, X cooks Y, there are two different verbs as well:

  1. Ingii-minozwaa nika. 'I cooked the goose.'
  2. Ingii-minozaan wiiyaas. 'I cooked the meat.'

These verbs look very similar, but they have important structural differences, and they show very different patterns of prefixation and suffixation to indicate subjects and objects. A transitive verb that takes an animate object is called a transitive animate verb, abbreviated vta; a transitive verb that takes an inanimate object is called a transitive inanimate verb, abbreviated vti. An intransitive verb that has an animate subject is called an animate intransitive verb, abbreviated vai; an intransitive verb that requires an inanimate subject is called an inanimate intransitive verb, abbreviated vii. These are the four basic sub-classes of verbs in Ojibwe:

vai verb, animate intransitive intransitive, requires animate subject
vii verb, inanimate intransitive intransitive, requires inanimate subject
vta verb, transitive animate transitive, requires animate object
vti verb, transitive inanimate transitive, requires inanimate object

To be continued...