Arguments About Arguments

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what linguists call valency. This is in part because I was recently discussing the weird privileging of some grammatical structures over others by self-appointed "grammar nerds", and in part because it's been very relevant in studying Zulu.

Valence or valency refers to the number of arguments a verb has (or "takes"). What's an argument? In this jargon, it's basically a noun or noun phrase. The idea is that different verbs require --or allow -- different numbers of nouns. The ones that are required are sometimes referred to as core arguments. For instance:

  • I strolled.

The above is referred to as intransitive, and it allows only one argument. It makes no sense to say, for instance:

  • *I strolled you.

(the * means the sentence is ungrammatical, meaning that it doesn't make structural sense.)

Similarly, there are verbs that take two arguments (transitive verbs) and verbs that take three (ditransitive verbs). Examples are:

  • he hit me.
  • I gave him a book.

Admittedly, this is not all that interesting. What is interesting, however, is valence changing operations

Different languages have different tools for taking a verb of one kind, and changing the number or structure of core arguments. What does this mean? It means making a peripheral argument into a core argument, like this (kind of cheat-y example):

  • I gave a book to him
  • I gave him a book

Or totally changing which arguments have which syntactic positions:

  • I ate a whole thing of ice cream.
  • A whole thing of ice cream was eaten.

The above example, many of you will recognize as the passive voice. The passive voice has gotten a bad rap. The passive voice is freaking cool! It lets you keep the same meaning, but shuffle around what structural role all of the noun phrases are playing. This, in turn, allows you to highlight a different part of the sentences, and shift focus away from the agent (or even refuse to name the agent). What's more, it's just one of many valence changing operations that languages make use of.

Image from the blog   Heading for English .

Image from the blog Heading for English.

Other languages have more. And they're awesome. David Peterson has a great discussion of this in his book The Art of Language Invention, but his examples in that book are often created languages. Natural languages, though, were the inspiration. Zulu, for instance, has passives like English, but also has causatives and benefactives. And you can combine them. For instance:

  • fona = to telephone someone
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you (lit. I you call)

You can make it causative by adding -isa, which then makes the verb mean to cause/make/let/allow/help someone telephone someone. Notice anything? That's right, you've added an argument. 

  • fona -> fonisa
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you
  • ngi-ni-fon-isa umama = I help you call mama

Benefactives are similar, but they make it so you do the verb for/on behalf of/instead of someone else. In Zulu, this is done by adding -ela to the verb stem:

  • fona -> fonela
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you
  • ngi-ni-fon-ela umama = I call you for mama.

Other languages have other kinds of things. For instance, some languages have malefactives. That is, things that are done not for or on behalf of someone, but despite someone or intending them harm, ill-will, or general bad...ness. Salish, Native American language spoken in the Pacific Northwest makes use of malefactives. English has a construction which does the same thing, but doesn't encode it on the actual verb:

  • she hung up on me.
  • he slammed the door on me.
  • she walked out on me.
  • My car broke down on me.

Imagine something like "she hung-on-up me." Notice, also, that benefactives do a weird thing to the arguments. In English, you can say:

  • I cook rice.

And that's transitive. If you add a bit about who you're doing it for, you get:

  • I cook rice for you. 


  • I cook for you.

In Zulu, though, there's very specific sentence structure. I'll put the words in English, but add the Zulu morphemes, to make it as clear as possible:

  • I cook rice
  • I cook-ela you rice
  • I cook-ela you. 
  • * I cook-ela rice you.

Remember the * means "ungrammatical." This is usually discussed in terms of promotions (yay!) and obligations (ugh). That is, the benefactive in Zulu promotes the argument that is benefiting from the action, and makes it obligatory. It also must immediately follow the verb. The thing that was the object of the sentence (rice, in this case) is then an optional argument. You don't even have to say it. Or think it. Just forget about the rice.

Therefore, as valency changing operations add arguments, so too they taketh away. This is what the passive voice is doing. Whereas benefactives promote an indirect object to direct object, and then make the original direct object optional, passives promote the direct object to subject:

  • I cook rice
  • rice is cooked (by me!) 

...or, if you prefer:

  • The whole thing of ice cream was eaten. (I refuse to say by whom.)

This is why I don't understand "grammar snobbery." Your language has a syntactic tool that does a totally cool thing, and you're just gonna decide that it's somehow bad? It's a feature, not a bug! If you think calling a natural function of your grammar that's linguistically universal bad is a way of indicating how much you know about grammar, you've got weird priorities. Appreciating grammar is not a competition to see how little of your language you can use or appreciate.

Not only are valence changing operations not bad, and totally super cool, but get this: you can combine valence changing operations, so you can have a passivized benefactive in Zulu, or a passivized causative. You can have things like:

  • A cake is being baked for mama

...but they're encoded entirely on the verb:

  • (ikhekhe) li-zo-bhak-el-wa umama
  • cake      it.FUT.bake.BEN.PASS mama

Even better, you can have a causative, a benefactive, and a passive marker on the verb, so you get something like:

  • bhala = "write" or "enroll"
  • ba-bhal-is-el-wa-ni
  • they.enroll.CAUS.BEN.PASS.why = "why are they being made to enroll?"

Somewhere, there's a language that can express my desire that the passive voice be made to be used by self appointed grammar snobs, malevolently, by me, and that language can encode most of that on the verb. If not Salish, then maybe the Niger-Congo language Koalib. And that's a beautiful thing.


©Taylor Jones 2015

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