Designing an Artificial Language: Transitivity

Designing an Artificial Language: Transitivity

Author: Rick Morneau

MS Date: 07-27-1994

FL Date: 08-01-2020

FL Number: FL-00006B-00

Citation: Morneau, Rick. 1994. «Designing an Artificial

Language: Transitivity.» FL-00006B-00, Fiat
Lingua, . Web. 01
August 2020.

Copyright: © 1994 Rick Morneau. This work is licensed

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Designing an Artificial Language:


by Rick Morneau

August, 1992
Revised July 27, 1994

Copyright © 1992, 1994 by Richard A. Morneau,
all rights reserved.

The following essay is an updated version of an article
that I posted to the Conlang email list in August, 1992.
The Conlang mailing list is dedicated to the discussion of
the construction of artificial languages. To subscribe,
send an email message with the single line: 


to [email protected].

At the risk of sounding somewhat «Darwinian», as Ken Beesley puts it, I will very hurriedly try
to add some data to the discussion on transitivity. It’s certainly not practical to do a real language
count, since data for most languages spoken on this planet is simply not available. However, I
have some familiarity with the transitivity aspects of several of the more widely spoken

Basically, if we limit ourselves to «major» languages, then we would conclude that transitivity is
always marked. In other words, a verb cannot be used both transitively and intransitively without
some morphological or lexical indication of the change in usage. I do not know of a single
language that goes against this trend in a regular and productive manner. For most (all?)
languages, such freedom is either totally denied, or is irregular and/or idiomatic. (Some people
have claimed that English and Chinese allow verbs to be used both transitively and intransitively.
In both languages, however, such use is idiosyncratic and irregular as I will illustrate below.
However, Old Chinese DID have considerably more freedom in this regard than Modern


The most common way of marking transitivity is similar to the way Esperanto does it; i.e.,
affixes convert from transitive to intransitive or vice-versa. Turkish, Quechua, Swahili, Japanese
and many, many others fall into this category. Some languages perform the conversion in only
one direction; e.g., Fijian has verb roots that are inherently intransitive and adds an affix to
convert them to transitive verbs.

Other languages, such as Arabic and Indonesian, have basic roots that undergo morphological
derivation to create transitive and intransitive verb forms. In fact, Arabic makes more distinctions
than any other language I am aware of (transitive/causative, intransitive/reflexive, causative
reflexive and one or more others), although these derivations may no longer be as productive as
we would like for an artificial language.

Romance languages such as French and Italian use reflexive clitics, and Russian uses reflexive
affixes. German allows some freedom, but not as much as English – it often uses a reflexive
construction, or morphologically derives a new verb with a prefix. Probably ALL languages have
irregular forms, such as English «kill/die» and «drop/fall».

English is not nearly as productive as you may think. In fact, for many verbs, it is very nearly
idiomatic. Consider the following examples:

He broke the window. = transitive
The window broke. = intransitive
(In modern Mandarin Chinese, two different forms of the
verb «broke» would be needed for the above example.)

He smashed the window. = transitive
*The window smashed. = intransitive (ungrammatical)

He built the doghouse. = transitive
*The doghouse built. = intransitive (ungrammatical)

He painted the doghouse. = transitive
*The doghouse painted. = intransitive (ungrammatical)

She flew the plane. = transitive
The plane flew. = intransitive (this is grammatically

correct, but is actually a middle
voice construction)

She drove the car. = transitive
*The car drove. = intransitive (ungrammatical without

adjuncts – this is also a middle voice


He climbed the mountain. = transitive
*The mountain climbed. = intransitive (ungrammatical)

The tree fell. = intransitive
*He fell the tree = transitive (ungrammatical)

In other words, it works for some but not for others, even when it makes perfectly good sense

End of Essay

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