Question on agentive nominalizations

Kulikov, L.I. L.Kulikov at LET.LEIDENUNIV.NL
Tue Jun 17 12:07:23 UTC 2008

Dear Mark, dear Nicholas, dear Typologists,

An addendum to Nicholas' counter-examples (from Sanskrit) and comments: 

Yes, Sanskrit is a good example, but I would rather quote Vedic: (Classical) Sanskrit 
was not a living language any longer (its status being comparable to that of the medieval Latin), 
but Vedic (to which Speijer's characterization "in the earlier period" refers) _was_, at least 
in its early period (until approx. the beginning of the 1st mill. BC, in the language 
of the Rgveda and, perhaps, Atharvaveda). Incidentally, the accentual oppositions mentioned 
by Nicholas are only applicable for (early/middle) Vedic, where the accentuation still was marked; 
Classical Sanskrit lost the accents which existed in Vedic.  

Also, I would be careful when quoting Panini: he is usually supposed to rerflect the usage
as attested (foremost) in middle Vedic, but, in fact, some of his prescriptions should be 
taken with caution as they are not corroborated by evidence from texts (W.D. Whitney has repeatedly 
noticed that fact). But at least in case of his
accentual rules, they do correspond to usages attested (in Vedic). 

For the usage and syntax of TR/TAR-nouns, you may now consult a comprehensive monographic description 
by Eva Tichy (Eva Tichy. Die Nomina agentis auf -tar- im Vedischen. Heidelberg: Winter, 1995; 
see esp. pp. 331ff. on constructions with acc. vs. gen., but also passim).

Note also that the (very productive) TAR-nouns are also compared with participles by grammarians
and even considered some sort of 'quasi-participles' (e.g. Whitney, Sanskrit grammar (1889), p. 446:
"these [agent-nouns in TR] in the oldest language are very frequently used participially, governing the 
object in the accusative")


Leonid Kulikov

Leiden University 
Faculty of Arts, Dept. of Indo-European Comparative Linguistics (VIET)
PO Box 9515
2300 RA Leiden 
The Netherlands 
Tel. +31-71-5272203 
E-mail: L.Kulikov at

-----Original Message-----
From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto:LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] On Behalf Of Nicholas Ostler
Sent: maandag 16 juni 2008 21:16
Subject: Re: Question on agentive nominalizations

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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