Thomas Blecke thomas_blecke at SIL.ORG
Wed Jun 25 11:12:21 UTC 2008


I would think that “Vater brachte die Vase zum Zerspringen“ is a perfectly
acceptable causative rendering.


Thomas Blecke



From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto:LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] On
Behalf Of Frans Plank
Sent: Dienstag, 24. Juni 2008 11:15
Subject: Crackers



Consider the following relationship between a state, a change of state, and
the causation of a change of state.

X was in a state of not being whole, being partially fractured though
without the parts completely separate or without the whole completely
(where X is something, preferably an artefact, of brittle consistency, hard
but breakable, such as vases or window panes made of glass, plates made of
porcelain, earthenware, urns or tablets made of clay, walls made from dried
cow-dung, etc.)

X spontaneously, or at any rate without an animate agent acknowledged as
causally involved, changed from a state of being whole to a state of not
being whole, being partially fractured though without the parts completely
separate or without the whole completely destroyed

An animate agent caused a change of state of A from being whole to not being
whole, being partially fractured though without the parts completely
separate or without the whole completely destroyed

To exemplify this trias from English.


The vase had a crack.           (transitive verb of possession,

                                with [deverbal???] noun as object) 

The vase was cracked.           (existential copula,

                                stative-resultative participle of
[intransitive, denominal???] verb)


The vase cracked.                       (same verb as for causation, used


Father cracked the vase.                (same verb as for change of state,
used transitively)

And here's closely related German.


Die Vase hatte einen Sprung.            (transitive verb of possession,

                                with deverbal noun as object)

Die Vase war gesprungen.                (existential copula,

                                stative-resultative participle of
[intransitive] verb)


Die Vase sprang.                        (intransitive verb, a verb of

                                literally designating a sudden spring from
the ground)

Die Vase bekam einen Sprung.    (inchoative verb, lit. 'to get',

                                with deverbal noun as object)


Remarkably, though a native speaker, I find no way of expressing this
straightforward state of affairs in German, other than in extremely
roundabout ways ('Father was careless and did something to the vase that
resulted in its having a crack', or such).  Neither the denominal noun
Sprung nor some morphological or syntactic way of causativising the verb
springen works (there is an old causative, sprengen, but that now means
'cause to burst with a loud nose, explode'):

*Vater brachte der Vase einen Sprung bei.

*Vater sprang die Vase.  *Vater ließ die Vase springen.

The prefixal derivative zer-springen (with zer- a completive-destructive
prefix) again is only intransitive and means 'to go to pieces';  and
transitive zer-sprengen likewise means 'break up completely'.

At long last my question:

Is this gap in German unique?  Preliminary enquiries -- though of very
limited crosslinguistic range -- suggest it is not.  Is it easy or difficult
or impossible to express the concept 'to cause something to be cracked' in
the language(s) that you speak or know well?

I find this gap somewhat worrying, from a practical as well as a theoretical
point of view.  I'd assume that brittle things frequently end up being
cracked, in German-speaking lands no less than in English-speaking ones, and
that spontaneous crackings (ice comes to mind here, as temperature rises)
worldwide are overall far less frequent than cracks caused by the
carelessness of human agents.  (If there is a difficulty with 'to cause
something to be cracked', it might therefore be to do with the semantics of
transitivity rather than with frequency, a notion often invoked to account
for the differential ease of expressibility of anything thinkable and
sayable and in particular for the directionality of derivations of
causatives or decausatives.)

I'd appreciate any feedback.


(And I'd like to gratefully acknowledge the unwitting input from Alex
Tantos, discussing English crack at his thesis defence yesterday, if from
the angle of Discourse Representation Theory and how it accounts for
causation -- a really hard nut to crack.)


frans.plank at


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