Suzanne Kemmer kemmer at RICE.EDU
Wed Jun 25 05:52:13 UTC 2008

I'll weigh in as a native speaker of English.

I don't think _Father cracked the vase_
is actually ungrammatical or necessarily semantically anomalous (in  
the right context cf. below)

HOWEVER-- to me  it is decidedly odd,

  unlike  _Father broke/crushed/smashed/shattered the vase_ which
all sound very normal. The latter, normal cases all express  
situations in which the vase has its state changed to an
extreme result: loss of integrity as a complete object.

_Father cracked the vase_ doesn't give me the idea of a situation in  
which the vase
simply became cracked , i.e. got a crack in it.   Rather, it sounds  
like he broke it in half or in pieces by
cracking it, much like cracking an egg.   _He cracked the vase on the  
edge of the table_ , similarly,
sounds like he struck it on the edge of the table and it broke or  
cracked apart.
_He cracked it open_ is similar.

(there's more to say about certain kinds of objects like heads, whips,
and glass pane-like objects,  but I will leave it at this for now.   
The D.O. of course affects the interpretation. But the vase situation
gives me a clear-cut intuition that transitive _crack_ in English,  
with most kinds of objects,
does not mean simply 'produce a crack in'.)

The semantics of the verb _crack_  in English , when transitive,
suggests breaking something apart with a blow that not only creates a  
crack but results
in separation of parts (loss of integrity),
and (typically)  the accompanying cracking noise. (I conjecture the
verb was onomotopeic and the noise was a prominent part of the  
meaning.)  Perhaps
transitive _crack_ inherits this 'breaking apart' property from the  
prototypical transitive construction which,
with impact verbs, seems to yield a meaning of total affectedness.

All those metaphorical uses
others cited, like cracking codes, preserve the 'loss of integrity'  
feature of the prototype. So transitive
_crack_ in English really is different from intransitive _crack_,  
which does not require this. Intransitive
_crack_ is not as specific--it allows the single crack result, as  
well as the loss of integrity result.

Without googling for data, I'll venture to predict that intransitive  
_crack_  in English, if referring to
loss of integrity, will usually occur in some resultative  
construction (i.e. with a particle describing
the final result):  _It cracked open/apart_  Resultative  
constructions are good, of course,
for expressing total affectedness.   If my frequency prediction is  
true, then intransitive _crack_ would not only
allow but PREFER  the single crack result (fissure but not total  
breakage) . For expressing  total affectedness
at least with the intransitive, speakers would prefer the resultative  

Back to transitive _crack_ in English   - If I were going to express  
the situation of somebody doing something to a fragile
object like a vase that resulted in a single crack in it, but not a  
breaking into pieces, I would prefer
to say:  _You got a crack in it! _ or _You put a crack in it!_   or  
_You let it get cracked!_
rather than _You cracked it!_    In a similar situation I could also  
say _She bumped/knocked/hit it
and it cracked_.

If my intuitions are borne out, then English is more like the other  
languages cited than at first glance. We still
have the problem of why words meaning 'crack' in English and other  
should be different in the intransitive vs. transitive argument frames--
to the point where some languages resist using the verb in a  
transitive construction at all.

I think it has to do with the interaction of the semantics of  
'cracking' (splitting along a created fissure) and the
semantics of prototypical  transitive vs. intransitive constructions.
The transitive frame, used protoypically with impact verbs, has a  
strong implication
of  total affectedness/extreme results, but the intransitive lacks  
this property.


On Jun 24, 2008, at 11:34 AM, Peter Kahrel wrote:

> Frans,
> Are you sure that "Father cracked the vase" is ok in English? Maybe  
> other transitive uses of "crack" (crack a joke, crack a code) make  
> it look ok. Anyway, the Dutch facts for this situation parallel  
> your German examples.
> State:
> De vaas had een barst. (the vase had a crack)
> De vaas was gebarsten. (the vase was cracked)
> Change of state:
> De vaas barstte.
> Causation:
> Same gap as German: *Vader barstte de vaas. You need roundabout  
> ways like German, such as "Door vaders onhandigheid barstte de  
> vaas" (through father's clumsiness cracked the vase).
> Regards,
> Peter

On Jun 24, 2008, at 10:54 AM, Andrej Malchukov wrote:
> In Russian /tresnutj /'crack' (like in /Zerkalo tresnulo/ 'the  
> mirror cracked', a Russian translation of the title of a movie)  
> cannot be used transitively either. Neither can /potreskalo-sj/  
> 'crack (small cracks)', which belongs to reflexiva tantum. Maybe it  
> has smth to do with the fact that the semantics of these verbs  
> focuses more on the manner of destruction than on the result, which  
> blocks the transitive uses.
> best,
> Andrej

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