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In English, most verbs can be used intransitively, but ordinarily this does not change the role of the subject; consider, for example, "He ate the soup" (transitive) and "He ate" (intransitive), where the only difference is that the latter does not specify what was eaten. By contrast, with an ergative verb the role of the subject changes; consider "it broke the window" (transitive) and "the window broke" (intransitive).
Ergative verbs can be divided into several categories:
- Verbs suggesting a change of state — break, burst, form, heal, melt, tear, transform
- Verbs of cooking — bake, boil, cook, fry
- Verbs of movement — move, shake, sweep, turn, walk
- Verbs involving vehicles — drive, fly, reverse, run, sail
Some of these can be used intransitively in either sense: "I'm cooking the pasta" is fairly synonymous with both "The pasta is cooking" (as an ergative verb) and "I'm cooking", although it obviously gives more information than either.
Unlike a passive verb, a nominalization, an infinitive, or a gerund, which would allow the agent to be deleted but would also allow it to be included, the intransitive version of an ergative verb normally requires the agent to be deleted:
- "The window was broken" or "The window was broken by the burglar."
- "[…] to break the window […]" or "[…] for the burglar to break the window […]"
- "[…] the breaking of the window […]" or "[…] the breaking of the window by the burglar […]"
- "The window broke" but not *"The window broke by the burglar."
Indeed, the intransitive form of an ergative verb can be used to suggest that there is no agent. With some non-ergative verbs, this can also be achieved using the reflexive voice:
- "He solved the problem." becomes:
- "The problem was solved"; or:
- "The problem solved itself."
This use of the reflexive voice can be used to indicate the lack of any agent, but it can also be used in cases when a specific agent is unknown. For example, the phrases "John broke the window, or maybe Jack did — at any rate, the window broke" and "John solved the problem, or maybe Jack did — at any rate, the problem was solved" both have quite naturally understandable meanings, though they're slightly idiomatic.
Another way to construct the reflexive voice is:
- "He solved the problem." becomes:
- "The problem solved itself"; but not:
- *"The problem solved itself by him."
This use of the reflexive voice indicates that the subject of the sentence is the causative agent; the phrase "John solved the problem, or maybe Jack did — at any rate, the problem solved itself" is literally self-contradictory, though idiomatic usage does not always follow this prescription. Accordingly, some grammarians would consider both "The window broke" and "The problem solved itself" to be examples of a distinct voice, the middle voice.
The significance of the ergative verb is that it enables a writer or speaker not only to suppress the identity of the outside agent responsible for the particular process, but also to represent the affected party as in some way causing the action by which it is affected. This can be done neutrally when the affected party can be considered an institution or corporate entity and the individual member responsible for the action is unimportant, for example "the shop closed for the day". It can also be used by journalists sympathetic to a particular causative agent and wishing to avoid assigning blame, as in "Eight factories have closed this year."
English is not the only language with ergative verbs; indeed, they are a feature of many languages. French is another language that has them:
- "Il tourne la tête." ("He turns his head.")
- "Sa tête tourne." ("His head turns.")
- "J'ouvre la porte." ("I open the door.")
- "La porte s'ouvre." ("The door opens itself", i.e. "The door opens.")
Further, verbs analogous to English cook have even more possibilities, even allowing a causative construction to substitute for the transitive form of the verb:
- "Je cuis les pâtes." ("I cook the pasta.")
- "Je cuis." ("I cook", i.e. either "I cook [something]" or e.g. "It's so hot in here, I'm practically roasting.")
- "Je fais cuire les pâtes." (lit., "I make cook the pasta", i.e. "I make the pasta cook", i.e. "I cook the pasta.")
- "Les pâtes cuisent." ("The pasta cooks.")
In Dutch, ergative verbs are used in a way similar to English, but they stand out as more distinct particularly in the perfect tenses.
In the present, the usage in both languages is similar, for example:
- "Jan breekt zijn glas." ("John breaks his glass.")
- "Het glas breekt." ("The glass breaks.")
However, there are cases where the two languages deviate. For example, the verb zinken (to sink) cannot be used transitively, nor the verb openen (to open) intransitively:
- "Het schip zonk." ("The ship sank.")
- Not *"De marine zonk het schip." (Unlike "The navy sank the ship.")
- "Jan opent de deur." ("John opens the door.")
- Not *"De deur opent." (Unlike "The door opens.")
In this last case, one could say: "De deur gaat open." (lit. "The door goes open"), while the former would be stated as "De marine liet het schip zinken." (lit. "The navy let the ship sink").
A difference between Dutch and English is that typically the perfect tenses of intransitives take zijn (to be) as their auxiliary rather than hebben (to have), and this extends to these verbs as well.
- present: "Het glas breekt." ("The glass breaks.")
- perfect: "Het glas is gebroken." ("The glass has broken.")
Perfect ergative innocence
Ergatives are verbs of innocence, because they imply the absence of an actor who could possibly be blamed. This association is quite strong in Dutch and speakers tend to treat verbs such as forgetting and losing as ergatives in the perfect tenses even though they typically have a direct object and are really transitive verbs. It is not unusual to hear sentences such as:
- Ik ben mijn boek vergeten. - I forgot my book (and it just 'happened' to me: there is no actor).
- Ik ben mijn geld verloren. - I lost my money (poor me).
Something similar happens with compound verbs such as gewaarworden ('become aware (of something)'). It is a separable compound of worden ('become'), which is a typical 'process'-verb. It is usually considered a copula, rather than an ergative, but these two group of verbs are related. For example, copulas usually take to be in the perfect as well. A verb such as blijven ('stay') is used both as a copula and as an ergative and all its compounds (nablijven ('stay behind'), bijblijven ('keep up'), aanblijven ('stay on') etc.) are ergatives.
Gewaarworden can take two objects, a reflexive indirect one and one that could be called a causative object. In many languages the causative object would take a case such as the genitive, but in Dutch this is no longer the case:
- Ik werd me dat gewaar - I became aware of that.
The perfect usually takes to be regardless of the objects:
- Ik ben me dat niet gewaargeworden. - (roughly) I did not catch on to that.
Hebrew does have a few ergative verbs, due in part to calques from other languages; nonetheless, it has fewer ergative verbs than English, in part because it has a fairly productive causative construction and partly distinct mediopassive constructions. For example, the verbs שָׁבַר [ʃaˈvaʁ] (active) and נִשְׁבַּר [niʃˈbaʁ] (its mediopassive counterpart) both mean to break, but the former is transitive (as in "He broke the window") and the latter is intransitive (as in "The window broke"). Similarly, the verbs לַעֲבֹר [laʕaˈvoʁ] (active) and לְהַעֲבִיר [ləhaʕaˈviʁ] (its causative counterpart) both mean to pass, but the former is intransitive (as in "He passed by Susan") and the latter is transitive (as in "He passed the salt to Susan")