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Coding causal–noncausal verb alternations: A form–frequency correspondence explanation1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 August 2014

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
University of Waikato
University of Malta
Tohoku University
University of Würzburg
Authors’ address: (Haspelmath)Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig,


We propose, and provide corpus-based support for, a usage-based explanation for cross-linguistic trends in the coding of causal–noncausal verb pairs, such as raise/rise, break (tr.)/break (intr.). While English mostly uses the same verb form both for the causal and the noncausal sense (labile coding), most languages have extra coding for the causal verb (causative coding) and/or for the noncausal verb (anticausative coding). Causative and anticausative coding is not randomly distributed (Haspelmath 1993): Some verb meanings, such as ‘freeze’, ‘dry’ and ‘melt’, tend to be coded as causatives, while others, such as ‘break’, ‘open’ and ‘split’, tend to be coded as anticausatives. We propose an explanation of these coding tendencies on the basis of the form–frequency correspondence principle, which is a general efficiency principle that is responsible for many grammatical asymmetries, ultimately grounded in predictability of frequently expressed meanings. In corpus data from seven languages, we find that verb pairs for which the noncausal member is more frequent tend to be coded as anticausatives, while verb pairs for which the causal member is more frequent tend to be coded as causatives. Our approach implies that linguists should not rely on form–meaning parallelism when trying to explain cross-linguistic or language-particular patterns in this domain.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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We are grateful to three anonymous referees for the Journal of Linguistics as well as to Bernard Comrie for very useful comments on this paper. In addition, we are grateful to the audiences in several places where we presented this work: at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (which also deserves thanks for bringing several of the authors together), at the 4th UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference (London), at the Societas Linguistica Europaea 2012 in Stockholm, and at the Syntax of the World's Languages 5 in Dubrovnik.


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