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Macroscopic and microscopic typology: Basic Valence Orientation, more pertinacious than meets the naked eye

  • Frans Plank EMAIL logo and Aditi Lahiri
From the journal Linguistic Typology


Basic Valence Orientation has been suggested as a typological parameter by Nichols, Peterson, & Barnes (2004). Generalising over the entire lexicon, the idea is that languages can be distinguished as transitivising or detransitivising, depending on whether their verbs are basically intransitive or transitive and the opposite valency values require some means of derivation, such as causativisation or decausativisation. Whereas derivedness among valency opposites is assessed through easy-to-spot overt segmental morphological or syntactic markers by Nichols et al. (2004), we argue that phonological alternations, on their own or attendant upon conjugation class switches between intransitives and transitives, can be as directed as derivations are which are implemented through adding segmental markers. Illustrating from German, we show that stem vowel patterns in strong and corresponding weak verbs (with the former expressing inflectional categories through ablaut) as well as umlaut alternations in verb derivation are systematically involved in valency oppositions and are both directed. Thus, German emerges as being typologically mixed, being strongly transitivising on the grounds of such asymmetric formal patterns, while also showing (as observed by Nichols et al. 2004) a detransitivising or indeterminate disposition through syntactic “middle” marking or verb lability. This typological result is also of diachronic significance, insofar as the older transitivising inclination is seen to have been remarkably pertinacious, long surviving the loss of the affixal valency-increasing morphology of Common Germanic and able to hold its own against more recent detransitivising competition.


An earlier version of this article was presented at ALT 8, Berkeley, 23–26 July 2009, and on many occasions hence. Thanks to audiences, correspondents, and several (three?) pertinacious LT reviewers for keeping us rethinking and rewriting even when our own pertinacity was flagging, and to Johanna Nichols for much-appreciated continuing encouragement and advice.


1/2/3 = 1st/2nd/3rd person; CAUS = causative; IMP = imperative; IND = indicative; INF = infinitive; PL = plural; PRES = present; PRTCP = participle; SG = singular; SUB = subjunctive.


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Received: 2011-9-5
Revised: 2015-1-31
Published Online: 2015-5-1
Published in Print: 2015-5-1

©2015 by De Gruyter Mouton

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