Question on agentive nominalizations

Nicholas Ostler nostler at CHIBCHA.DEMON.CO.UK
Mon Jun 16 19:16:19 UTC 2008

Well, Sanskrit as ever provides counter-examples to *(4) - if we accept 
(as ever) that it can be counted among the natural languages of the 
world. Here the agentive is signified with a formative in -tr.-, 
nominative -ta: E.g. (examples from Speijer 1886 - Sanskrit Syntax, p. 40):

Pancatantra iii.71:
narapatir neta: prajña:s
kingNOM.SG leaderNOM.SG subjectACC.PL
king leader of his subjects

Daçakuma:racarita 199:
sambha:vayita: budha:n prabha:vayita: sevaka:n ud.a:vayita: bandhu:n 
nyagbha:vayita: çatru:n
honourerNOM wiseACC.PL promotorNOM servants ACC.PL raiserNOM 
kinsmenACC.PL lowererNOM enemiesACC.PL
honourer of the wise, promotor of servants, raiser of kinsmen, 
bringer-low of enemies

There are some complications. There are two possible accentuations of 
these agentives, oxytone and barytone. According to Panini [3.2.135] 
only the barytone have this construction (otherwise genitive being 
required to mark object dependents). The particular sense of barytone 
agentives is 'lasting and inherent qualities'.

Speijer comments (p. 40):
The acc. with the barytona in -tr.-, though not rare in the earlier 
period, seems to protract but an artificial life in classical Sanskrit 
[from which the two above examples come - NDMO], as it is met with only 
in the refined style and even there side by side with the genitive... On 
the other hand, the examples given by Ka:çika: on Panini 3.2.135 prove 
that, at the time, they were applied at first, the construction with the 
acc. was obvious and natural.

These examples include
makerNOM matACC.SG
'(skilful) maker of mats'

Complicating the picture, the ending -tr.- is also used with another 
meaning, viz periphrastic future, e.g.
Malavagnimitra i, p. 15
mukta: ma:ghavasenam tatah. 'ham
freeAGENT.NOM MaghACC then I.NOM
then I shall free Maghavasena
and there behaves like a regular finite verb. Formally it seems to be on 
its way to reanalysis as quite  separate from the noun - since in the 
1st and 2nd person (plural and dual), and in the feminine singular too,  
the MASC.NOM.SG-looking -ta: is still used, instead of corresponding 
dual and plural (or fem). Nevetherless, masculines do select agreeing 
forms of the form, as if it were an agentive noun:  -ta:rau (Dual), 
-ta:rah. (Plural)

We are told (Speijer p. 259) that
"the tense in ta: cannot be used of every future, but only of such 
actions as will not occur soon... it is therefore a remote future." So 
it is not a marginal pattern, but one well established in the literature 
and so interpreted.

In fact, many other deverbal nominals in Sanskrit also allow accusative 
direct objects: e.g.
desideratives in -u-, -ishlu-
agentives in -aka-
some in -in (e.g. çatam da:yi: 'owing 100')

These are all totally distinct from the present participle (formed in 
-ant-), by the way.

So a student of Sanskrit would not naturally come to think of your 
generalization as valid, Mark.



Mark Baker wrote:
> Dear Typologists:
> I have a question that perhaps people out there can help me with.  Two of
> the more common kinds of deverbal nominalization are event/action-denoting
> nominals like (1) in English, and agent-denoting nominals like (2) in
> English:
> (1)	The finding of the wallet (?so quickly) [was a relief.]
> (2)	The finder of the wallet (*so quickly)  [received a reward.]
> These can be reasonably similar in their gross syntax, apart from the
> difference in meaning, as in the English case.  Now alongside (1) is the
> gerundive nominal in (3), which is another way of denoting the
> action/event.
> (3)	Finding the wallet (so quickly) [was a relief.]
> (3) is semantically similar to (1), and like (1) it acts like a noun
> phrase in the larger clause, but its internal syntax has many verbal
> features: the object of “find” is an unmarked accusative NP, adverbial
> modifiers are possible, the definite article is not used, etc.  The
> literature contains many discussions that compare and contrast examples
> like (1) and (3) in various languages.
> 	What I am interested in is the fact that there seems to be no more verbal
> construction that denotes an agent.  For example, in English there is
> nothing like (4), which would be parallel to (2) in much the way that (3)
> is parallel to (1) [but see qualification below].
> (4)	*(The) finder the wallet so quickly [received a reward].
> I have good evidence that there is nothing like (4) in three unrelated
> languages I am studying (English, Sakha, Mapudungun) and I don’t recall
> seeing examples like (4) in my general reading.  I am thus interested in
> the possibility that examples like (4) are impossible universally. 
> However, I am finding it a bit hard to evaluate this by looking at
> standard grammars, since many of these simply list a few examples of
> agentive nominalizations in isolation, without saying one way or another
> if they combine with direct objects, adverbs, etc.  Can anyone point me to
> relevant cases, pro or con, that could be worth looking into?  Any
> references to general/theoretical discussions of this pattern would be
> most welcome too.
> Thank you!
> Mark Baker
> Qualification: One challenge in evaluating this hypothesis that I am aware
> of is the need to distinguish true agentive nominalizations from active
> participles that are used as headless subject relatives—e.g. constructions
> like “The one who is seeking the wallet anxiously”, where “one who is” may
> be null, leaving only “the - seeking the wallet anxiously”.  I know how to
> tell the difference between active participles and true agentive
> nominalizers in the languages I know, but this might not be
> straightforward in other languages.  I don’t necessarily expect people to
> sort this out for me before mentioning possible cases.

Nicholas Ostler
Chairman, Foundation for Endangered Languages
Registered Charity: England & Wales 1070616
172 Bailbrook Lane, Bath BA1 7AA, England
Phone: +44 (0)1225-852865 Mobile: (0)7720-889319
nostler at

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