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Review of  Lexical Perspectives on Transitivity and Ergativity, Causative constructions in English

Reviewer: Radu Daniliuc
Book Title: Lexical Perspectives on Transitivity and Ergativity, Causative constructions in English
Book Author: Maarten Lemmens
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 10.888

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Maarten Lemmens, 1998 "Lexical Perspectives on Transitivity and Ergativity.
Causative Constructions in English", John Benjamins Publishing Company,
Amsterdam, The Nederlands, 281pp.

reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc

Lexical Perspectives on Transitivity and Ergativity. Causative Constructions
in English is an extensive revision of the doctoral dissertation of Maarten
Lemmens from the Universit\233 Charles de Gaule, Lille, France. The aim of the
work is defending the view expressed by Davidse (1991, 1992) according to
which the English grammar of causative constructions is governed by the
transitive and ergative paradigms. The author has chosen a
cognitively-inspired lexical approach in order to clarify how lexical and
constructional meaning interact dynamically, and as such, the book situates
itself in between purely syntax-based and purely lexically-oriented
The point of departure is the distinction between two levels on which
paradigmatic oppositions manifest themselves: the phenotypical level, i.e.
with overt formal reflections, such as case-marking, and the cryptotypical
level, i.e. with more covert categories making themselves felt only
indirectly. As far as the English language is concerned, ergativity
manifests itself by the systematic use of the same lexeme in two-participant
constructions, as well as in one-participant constructions. As a result,
two-participant constructions practically illustrate two models:
phenotypically, they instantiate the transitive model; and cryptotypically,
they realize the ergative model. Lemmens' main concern is with context-bound
constructions that reveal the complex character of the two paradigms.
The book is structured into two parts: the first presents the theoretical
premises which form the basis of Lemmens' research. He adheres primarily to
the principles of Cognitive Grammar as developed by Langacker, but also to
the frameworks of Systemic-Functional Grammar as developed by Halliday and
especially Davidse, and of Generative and Relational Grammar, as well as
their derivatives. It must be noted that Lemmens' work is a corpus-based
analysis of verbs of killing thanks to which he considers the semantics of
the entire clause in which a verb is used. In the next two chapters of Part
I, he focuses on a paradigmatic approach on the semantics of causative
constructions and on a cognitive perspective on the semantics of causative
verbs. Lemmens argues how lexical and analytical causatives, which have
often been regarded by the linguistic tradition as semantically equivalent,
involve in fact quite different conceptualizations of a given situation.
Actually, the difference reflects the distinct transitive and ergative
systems. However, the constructional potential of a verb cannot be stated as
absolute (i.e. either transitive or ergative), but depends on the kind of
participants which are involved in the process. The semantics structure of
verbs is viewed by Lemmens as forming a complex category of related senses,
which, following Langacker, encompasses a cognitive approach on categories
as structured around a prototype from which different meanings extend. This
holds also for lexical fields, such as that designated by the group of verbs
of killing. Lemmens appreciates Levin's work on English verb classes, but
criticizes it for its 'too absolute' view on verbal semantics and for its
overlook on verbs' polysemy that may trigger changes in the type of
alternations allowed. Lemmens provides a general presentation of the
transitive and ergative paradigms as viewed by Davidse, whose work reveals
how, in the domain of material processes, the relations between participants
and processes are assembled differently. Lemmens generally follows Davidse's
way of arguments, but their terminology is different, as shown in the
terminological overview.
The second part presents in detail Lemmens' investigation of
kill-expressions with the aim of describing the two models of causality, the
transitive and the ergative, and their dynamic interaction with verbal
meaning. It offers a meticulous analysis on the lexical flexibility of
verbs, which has a direct impact on the verb's constructional properties.
Chapter 4 provides both a synchronic and diachronic perspective on lexical
and constructional variability with verbs of killing. The first description
deals with lexically determined constraints on the middle and medio-passive
construction in contemporary English. The meaning of the middle construction
is characterized as implying a profile on the properties of the Affected
that facilitate the process or predestine it to be submitted to the process.
The diachronic perspective considers a number of paradigmatic shifts: some
of them have been lost in the evolution to present-day English (e.g. the
ergativization of hunger), others have left some isolated traces (e.g.
smother), and still others have entrenched a new constructional prototype
(e.g. starve). This description evinces the non-rigidity of the transitive
and ergative paradigms. Lemmens shows how verbs may temporarily or
permanently shift their constructional prototype, thing that proves that the
import of the ergative and transitive paradigms is cognitively real and is
at issue in our experience of actions and events. The complex interaction of
the two paradigms is described extensively, both diachronically and
synchronically, in the analysis of the verb abort.
Chapter 5 focuses on the Agent-centredness of the transitive paradigm
illustrated by the MURDER verbs which are studied from a lexical,
morphological and constructional perspective. The lexical-semantic
description supports the view that transitive verbs centre around a
volitional Actor; the notion of control is central to the notion of
agentivity and thus also to the transitive model. From a morphological
perspective, Lemmens shows that the -er suffix is strongly tied to the
transitive paradigm by its inherent tendency to focus on the Actor and that
the semantic network of this suffix parallels the prototype structure of the
'clausal' Agent. Further on, Lemmens also shows that the objectless
transitive, somehow the transitive equivalent of the ergative
non-effectives, provides a maximization of the semantic focus on the Action
The transitive paradigm, fundamentally and prototypically Agent-centred, is
opposed to the ergative paradigm, primarily concerned with the Affected (the
Medium). By analyzing the SUFFOCATE verbs, a predominantly ergative group,
Lemmens reveals the experiential basis of the ergative predilection of these
verbs, discusses their extremely rich semantic and constructional coverage
and their dynamic history, as well as particular cases of transitivization
of ergative choke and drown triggerd by particles that enhance the
force-dynamic component in the process conception. Lemmens discusses the
semantic coverage of different SUFFOCATE verbs in order to illustrate that
in their evolution to contemporary English, these verbs have crystallized
towards more distinct prototypes, mostly a continuation of their
etymological basis. The differentiating feature, Lemmens argues, is mostly
the type of cause that brings about the suffocation, which may be the
salient bodily activity of the Affected, the prototypical imperceptibility
of the cause mostly seen as internally affecting the Medium, or the common
temporal distance between cause and effect. Lemmens reveals that the
SUFFOCATE verbs have an entirely different character than the MURDER verbs,
which were shown to be much more stable in their usage and their
The next chapter focuses on the complexity of the interplay between the
transitive and ergative paradigms in the polysemic cluster abort, a marginal
member of the field of killing. The ambivalent nature of abort appears to
have a clear experiential basis and Lemmens illustrates it by tracing the
item's lexical and grammatical introduction into English (attested in the
14th century) up to present day. He demonstrates that the ergative paradigm
which governed the abort cluster in the previous centuries is well-motivated
and that the transitivization of abort in contemporary English is influenced
by the medical and technological advances. This process of transitivization
has lead to a peculiar imbalance in the semantic network of the abort
cluster: while instantiations referring to a premature termination of a
pregnancy are governed by the transitive system, the metaphoric uses
continue to realize the older ergative paradigm. This paradigmatic contrast
deepens the division between the literal and metaphorical uses.
Lemmens' work ends with a summary and evaluation stressing again the view
that the English grammar of causative constructions is governed by the
transitive and ergative paradigms. The author argues that Levin's
exclusively lexical-semantic approach on verbs is inadequate as it neglects
the meaning of the constructions. His major achievement lies in the
importance accorded to lexical meaning as determining the range of
constructions in which a verb can occur. On the whole, he tried, and mostly
succeeded, to present in detail and account for the semantic and
constructional range of verbs of killing. Each chapter begins with a
theoretical presentation of the problem in question and then abounds in
corpus-based examples illustrating specific usage events. Lemmens is very
strict with his own terminology which he presents in a table that also
contains other terminologies and examples, as well as a glossary. In the
end, Lemmens suggests furter research into the complex interplay between
verbal and constructional meaning. First of all, he recommends a more
differentiated corpus, especially for an analysis of the middle construction
and of 'middable verbs'. Other suggestions regard the prototype of the
transitive paradigm and the constructional differences between the
transitive and ergative systems that have not been observed so far. Lemmens
also recommends a contrastive extensive computerized analysis of
collocational patterns which would lead to more reliable and accurate
Although Lemmens do not offer definitive answers to all the questions he has
raised in the beginning of his book and in its course, his research proves
to be an interesting exploration into the fascinating domain of verbs, a
step further on the way of lexical and constructional variation.

1. Langacker, Ronald W., 1991: Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. I:
Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press
2. Langacker, Ronald W., 1991: Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. II:
Descriptive Applications. Stanford: Stanford University Press
3. Langacker, Ronald W. 1991, Concept, Image and Symbol. Berlin & New York:
Mouton de Gruyter
4. Levin, Beth. 1993, English Verb Classes and Alternations. A Preliminary
Investigation. Chicago: Chicago University Press
5. Davidse, Kristin. 1992. "Transitivity/Ergativity: The Janus-Headed
Grammar of Actions and Events". Advances in Systemic Linguistics. Ed. by
Martin Davies & Louise Ravelli, 105-135. London:Pinter


The reviewers - Laura and Radu Daniliuc - Suceava, ROMANIA - are BA in
English Language (Linguistics) and Literature, members of SSA, authors of
the first complete Romanian translation of F. de Saussure's "Courses" and of
articles on generativism and applied linguistics. Their main interests
include: generativism (P&P theory, minimalist structures etc) and
computational linguistics. [other info available on request]