I’m not sure how interesting this is to other people because it seems like such a simple concept, but I find it inexpicably interesting and I ended up doing a baby thesis on it… It was something I’d never really thought about before until a lecturer mentioned it.
You know in English where you have the form of a verb that can be used both transitively and intransitively?
1. The vase broke.
2. John broke the vase.
3. The ice melted.
4. The sun melted the ice.
In these examples, the intransitive form (1) is the inchoative, and the transitive form (2) is the causative (because y’know, you’ve added a ‘causer’) - hence ‘causative-inchoative alternation’.
Native speakers of a language intuitively know whether or not a verb can participate in this alternation (for example, (6 and 8 sound obscure to me as a native English speaker), but how would you explain this to a foreigner? Some linguists have suggested that verbs entailing a change of state can participate, but:
5. Kim assassinated the senator.
6. *The senator assassinated.
7. The soldiers destroyed the city.
8. *The city destroyed.
There’s no denying that there’s been a change of state here: the senator was alive, and now he’s dead. The city was all good, now it’s not. Definite change of state. So why doesn’t it work?
As it turns out, only a finite number of verbs can have a causative and inchoative participle. These verbs are summarised by Smith (1970) as those that denote an activity that can occur spontaneously, but also over which external control can be assumed (that is, the addition of a ‘causer’) - like the verbs ‘break’ and ‘melt’. ‘Assassinate’ and ‘destroy’ do not work because although it isn’t the ‘causer’ that undergoes the change of state, assassination and destruction cannot occur spontaneously - they can’t have an inchoative participle. Likewise the following verbs cannot participate, because they lack a causative variant:
9. The flowers bloomed.
10. *John bloomed the flowers.
11. His health deteriorated.
12. *He deteriorated his health.
This isn’t just an English thing, either. In some Romance languages (French, Spanish and Italian at least, but I don’t know enough to speak for all) it appears in the absence or presence of a reflexive pronoun, for example in Spanish:
13. El vaso se rompió. (Inchoative)
14. Kim rompió el vaso. (Causative)
There are four different types of expressing this alternation, these are only two. The situation becomes a bit more complex when you consider agglutinative languages like Persian and Basque, which use three -maybe four - of the four different types. However, I don’t know how interesting this post is to anyone, so I’ll leave it there for now :-)