Transitivity is the degree to which an action is carried over or transferred from one participant in an event to another (Hopper and Thompson 1980, p. 253
). It is an essential component of argument structure and verbal semantics across languages. The foundational work of Hopper and Thompson
) described a cline of semantic components of transitivity. These components contribute to the categorization of an event as high or low in transitivity. Hopper and Thompson
) hypothesized that the contribution of the semantic components co-varies systematically with grammatical marking of transitivity across languages, an idea called the Transitivity Hypothesis.
Questions of verb marking and transitivity in the Australian mixed language Light Warlpiri are especially interesting because Light Warlpiri verb structure is a combination of elements from three source languages, which differ in how transitivity is marked. The source languages are Warlpiri, a Pama-Nyungan language; Kriol, an English-lexified Creole; and varieties of English. Specifically, Warlpiri indicates transitivity through ergative case-marking on overt transitive subject arguments; Kriol indicates transitivity through the variable application of affixes on transitive verbs; and Standard Australian English indicates transitivity through the presence of overt object nominals or pronominals in transitive clauses, most often in AVO word order. Some varieties of English spoken by Indigenous speakers, known collectively as varieties of Aboriginal English, may also employ a Kriol-derived transitive marker on transitive verbs.
| ||1PL.S||swim||you.know-LOC||creek-LOC|| |
| ||“We swim in you know, in the creek”.|
|1b||Nait-taim||wi-m||bugi.|| || |
| ||night-time||1PL.S-NFUT||swim|| || |
| ||“We swam at night”.|
| ||“But mosquitoes bit us”.|
| ||(ELICIT _LAC58_2015)|
In the examples, elements from Warlpiri are in italics, and elements from English and Kriol are in plain font. To discuss marking on core arguments of verbs, we use the distinction drawn by Dixon
) between A arguments (agentive arguments of transitive verbs), O arguments (non-agentive arguments of transitive verbs) and S arguments (arguments of intransitive verbs). As shown in example 1, Light Warlpiri combines verbal structure from Kriol, including variable presence of the Kriol-derived transitive marker -im
(as in bait-im
‘bite-TR’), with nominal structure from Warlpiri, including the ergative case marker -ng
on overt A arguments, optionally applied. In examples (1a, b), the intransitive verb is Kriol bugi ‘
swim’. The verbal complex also shows the influence of both English and Warlpiri (O’Shannessy 2013
The variation in transitive marking on verbs, along with the ways the source languages of Light Warlpiri combine, raise the questions of how transitivity is marked in Light Warlpiri and how the variability in transitive marking in Light Warlpiri is conditioned. Light Warlpiri is known to combine source language features in surprising ways, for example, with a near-maximal inventory of plosive consonants (Bundgaard-Nielsen and O’Shannessy 2021
), and a near-maximal inventory of reflexive and reciprocal marking (O’Shannessy and Brown 2021
); so it is not straightforward to predict the influence of each of the source languages of Light Warlpiri in this domain.
In this paper, we describe and analyze variable transitive marking in Light Warlpiri, and ask if the semantic components of Hopper and Thompson’s
) cline of transitivity condition the presence of the transitive markers. The next section gives an overview of research on variable transitive marking in other contact languages in Australia, including Kriol and contact languages where reflexes of the Kriol transitive markers are found. Section 3
gives some background on Light Warlpiri, and how transitivity is indicated in its source languages. Section 4
describes the methods of this study, and Section 5
the findings. We discuss these and conclude in Section 6
2. Variable Transitive Marking in Contact Languages in the Area
The Transitivity Hypothesis claims that ten features affect the degree of transitivity of a clause, and that a clause with more of these features present will more often be overtly marked as transitive, for instance, through morphological marking (see Table 1
For the current study, we adapt Hopper and Thompson’s
) components slightly, by choosing the aspectual distinction of progressive vs. nonprogressive, rather than telic vs. atelic. There is discussion about the connection between telicity, perfectivity and progressiveness (e.g., Declerck 2007
; Guéron 2008
), where a telic event is often also perfective and nonprogressive (e.g., Hopper and Thompson 1980, p. 262
). In this study, our coding of aspect is specifically in terms of a verb being marked as progressive or not, so for transparency, we make the aspectual distinction of progressive vs. nonprogressive. This distinction appears to align with that of telic vs. atelic in the other studies reported on.
) explored variable transitive marking in 386 transitive clauses from five contact varieties in the South Pacific (Meyerhoff 1996, p. 60
). Two of the languages are Australian: Kriol and Yumplatok (referred to as Broken), spoken in Australia’s Torres Strait. The other three languages are Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Bislama (Vanuatu), and Pijin (Solomon Islands). These five languages are referred to as Contact Englishes; however, in this paper, we consider them to be English-lexified contact languages. For each one, the lexifier English varieties were those spoken in north east Australia at the time of language emergence. Verbs coded as higher in transitivity were marked with the transitive affix more often (Meyerhoff 1996, p. 69
). The features of Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity that had the highest correlations with the presence of the transitive affix were number of participants, O affectedness, punctuality, aspect and mood. Interestingly, the presence of the transitive affix correlated with irrealis mood, not realis mood, contrasting with Hopper and Thompson’s
) hypothesis (Meyerhoff 1996, p. 72
); furthermore, kinesis was not found to correlate with transitive marking.
These ideas were developed further by Batchelor
) in a study of Barunga Kriol, which examined 441 tokens of syntactically transitive Kriol verbs (i.e., with two or more participants) in recorded interviews. Firstly, the verb stems were coded ‘always marked’, ‘never marked’, or ‘variable’, based on how frequently the transitive suffix was present on a particular stem: e.g., kil
(to kill or hit) was always marked with -im
, while lisin
(to listen) was never marked (Batchelor 2017, pp. 32–33
). Secondly, verb tokens were coded as having ‘high’ or ‘low’ transitivity for each component in Hopper and Thompson’s transitivity cline (Batchelor 2017, pp. 29–30
). These were then analyzed quantitatively using a single-level mixed effects model. Qualitative, discourse-functional features were also considered for each token (Batchelor 2017, p. 31
Like the previous studies of English-lexified contact languages, ‘high’ value variables from Hopper and Thompson correlated with a higher frequency of the transitive suffix. For example, verb stems coded with a high level of kinesis had overt transitive marking 80.2% of the time, while stems with low kinesis had overt marking 18.8% of the time (Batchelor 2017, p. 35
). Kinesis (80.2%) and affectedness of O (84.5%) had the strongest correlations, followed by volitionality (52.3%) and agency of A (53.1%). The single-level mixed effects model confirmed that kinesis and affectedness of O, followed by volitionality and agency, were the best predictors of transitive marking. The remaining features were not statistically significant predictors, even when correlations were found with transitive marking (Batchelor 2017, p. 36
) investigated variable transitive marking in another English-lexified contact language in Australia, Alyawarra English, spoken in a remote community in the Northern Territory. A corpus of 252 transitive present tense clauses in data recorded in the children’s home context was examined for the features of Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity. The transitive affix was always present in clauses with unexpressed O arguments and when the event was iterative and marked with the Kriol-derived iterative affix -bat.
The affix was never present in progressive clauses marked with the English-derived progressive marker -ing
, or when the O argument was expressed by pronominal it
‘3SG.O’. A multivariate analysis found that, among Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity, the most influential features were kinesis, aspect, punctuality, volitionality and object individuation. With the exception of kinesis, these features correlate with the presence of the transitive affix in a manner similar to that reported by Meyerhoff
) for five other contact languages. These studies did not try to control for the frequency of the verb type in their statistical models, leaving open the possibility that the effects that they found may have been driven by one or a few high-frequency verbs.
5. Variable Transitive Marking in Light Warlpiri
The current study asks how transitivity is marked on Light Warlpiri verbs, and how variable marking is conditioned. A total of 1851 transitive clauses have been analyzed, out of which 1145, or 62%, have a verb with a transitive marker (either -im
‘TR’ or -it
‘TR’). Of these verbs, 90% host the -im
form and 10% host the -it
form. The -im
form attaches directly to the verb stem, as in examples 1, 2, 4, 12, and 13, whereas most of the occurrences of the -it
form follow the progressive affix -ing
‘PROG’, at 86%, as in example 14. Conversely, only 30% of transitive progressive verbs marked with -ing
host the transitive affix. In other words, the -im
‘TR’ form only occurs on non-progressive verbs, and never co-occurs with the progressive -ing
affix. The -it
form mostly occurs on progressive verbs, but can occur on non-progressive verbs as well. These frequencies are summarized in Table 4
The results of the GLMM analysis (given in Appendix A
) are that the six semantic components from Hopper and Thompson’s
) analysis of transitivity, and the syntactic attribute of the nominal status of the following word, all contribute to conditioning the occurrence of the transitive affix. There is more likely to be a transitive affix present when at least one of the six semantic features is ‘high’: kinesis, e.g., ‘take’ (β = 1.28, p
< 0.001), punctuality, e.g., ‘bite’ (β = 0.37, p
= 0.006), volitionality, e.g., ‘give’ (β = 0.52, p
= 0.04), O affectedness, e.g., ‘hit’ (β = 0.57, p
< 0.001), the verb being nonprogressive (β = 1.88, p
< 0.001), and the mood being irrealis (β = 2.30, p
= 0.004). On the other hand, when a first or second person pronoun follows the transitive verb, there is less likely to be a transitive affix present (β = −2.32, p
< 0.001). As a visual summary, Figure 1
shows the exponential of the beta value of each predictor in the statistical model, giving the factor by which a unit increase in the value of the predictor increases or decreases the odds ratio of a given speaker using a transitive marker on a given verb. For example, if a speaker has 1:1 odds—i.e., 50% probability—of using a certain verb with a transitive marker, given that this verb scores ‘low’ or zero on all the predictors, then if the speaker uses the same verb in the irrealis, the odds of their using a transitive marker become roughly 10:1—i.e., 91% probability.
In addition to being affected by the semantic features and syntactic context of the verb, the likelihood of transitive marking may also be affected by individual preference. This is accounted for in the model by our use of random intercepts that vary by speaker. The mean baseline log odds ratio across speakers is −2.76; this means that, on average, a speaker is 6% likely to use a transitive marker on a verb that scores ‘low’ or zero on all predictors. The standard deviation of baseline log odds ratios across speakers is 0.70; this means that for 95% of potential speakers, the baseline probability is between 2% and 20%.
shows that the semantic components of kinesis, aspect, and irrealis mood have the highest positive contribution, with irrealis mood having greater uncertainty. The syntactic attribute of ‘pro’, indicating that a first or second person pronoun follows the transitive verb, has a negative contribution equal in size to the positive contribution of irrealis mood.
In Figure 2
, the predicted probability of transitive marking for each verb type per speaker is given on the Y axis, and the observed probabilities are given on the X axis. The solid line is the 45-degree diagonal, representing the “ideal” case where the predicted and observed probabilities match exactly.
Verb types per speaker are labeled with the verb name, e.g., each instance of ‘look’ reflects an individual speaker’s use of ‘look’. Larger type means that the speaker used the verb more often; small type means that the speaker used the verb less often. A glance at Figure 2
shows that, e.g., ‘look’, a verb low in kinesis, is rarely marked with a transitive marker, and that speakers who use the ‘look’ verb often are actually less likely to use it with transitive marking than is predicted by the model. In contrast, ‘get’, which is higher in kinesis, is more often marked with a transitive marker, and is (correctly) predicted by the model as having a higher likelihood of transitive marking, regardless of the speaker. The vertical clusters of items at either end of the X axis are due to there being many cases where a given speaker uses a given verb only once, resulting in an observed probability of transitive marking of either 0% or 100%.
This study examined Light Warlpiri verbs in terms of six features drawn from Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity, and one syntactic attribute. The statistical model shows that the presence of a transitive marker is conditioned by all six components of transitivity, as well as the presence of a following first or second person O pronoun. The model suggests that variation in transitive marking is consistently patterned.
The conditioning factors of transitive marking on verbs in Light Warlpiri have correlations with English-lexified languages in the area. In Kriol, the four main conditioning factors are affectedness of O, kinesis, punctuality and aspect. These correlate with Light Warlpiri. In Kriol, mood was not a conditioning factor, but in Light Warlpiri, it conditions in the opposite direction to that expected—irrealis clauses are more likely to have transitive marking. Light Warlpiri and Kriol also differ in terms of the presence of the transitive marker in reflexive and reciprocal clauses. In Kriol, reflexive and reciprocal forms are pronominal forms that follow the transitive-marked verb (Dickson and Gautier 2019
; Ponsonnet 2016
; Batchelor 2017
). In contrast, in Light Warlpiri, reflexive and reciprocal forms occur within the verbal component of the clause and, in these clauses, the verb is only rarely marked with both a transitive marker and a reflexive and reciprocal form (O’Shannessy and Brown 2021
Alyawarra English and Light Warlpiri have in common four of the conditioning features of verbal transitive marking: kinesis, aspect, punctuality and volitionality. They differ in that, in Alyawarra English, transitive marking is also conditioned by object individuation, which was not tested for Light Warlpiri. In addition, in Alyawarra English, reflexive and reciprocal marking follows transitive-marked verbs, as in Kriol.
The English-lexified languages in Meyerhoff’s
) study have the conditioning features of aspect, punctuality, mood and affectedness of O in common with Light Warlpiri. They also have some similarity in that irrealis mood, not realis, is a conditioning factor. These comparisons are summarized in Table 5
. Variables not examined in this paper are marked n.a.
It is not surprising that these languages would have conditioning attributes in common, not only because the components of transitivity are hypothesized to apply universally, but also because the transitive affixes are likely all derived from ways of speaking that either have earlier pidgin forms in common or were in contact (e.g., Meyerhoff 1996
; Koch 2000
). We might especially expect a connection between Kriol and Light Warlpiri, because the Light Warlpiri constructions are derived from Kriol. Although similarities between Light Warlpiri and Kriol had been hypothesized, it is always necessary to undertake empirical studies to test hypotheses, because sometimes a language resolves questions in unexpected ways, e.g., in Light Warlpiri, irrealis mood clauses have considerable amounts of transitive marking, where less marking would be expected according to the Transitivity Hypothesis. Unexpected patterning is seen in other areas of Light Warlpiri, for instance, in the near-maximal inventories of reflexive and reciprocal forms (O’Shannessy and Brown 2021
) and plosive consonants (Bundgaard-Nielsen and O’Shannessy 2021
). In these two domains of Light Warlpiri, the source languages play out differently from each other.
A hypothesis suggested in earlier work is that future tense or irrealis mood clauses, often containing warnings or threats, are not marked with a transitive marker (O’Shannessy 2005, p. 41
). The current, larger dataset shows that this is not accurate, as 67% of clauses with irrealis mood contain a verb with a transitive marker present. In the statistical model, irrealis mood strongly predicted a greater likelihood of transitive marking. A more satisfactory explanation is that warnings or threats are often directed to a second person. Clauses in which a first or second person pronoun follow the transitive verb have a transitive marker present on the verb statistically less often. Interestingly, it was found that in the English-lexified languages examined by Meyerhoff
), irrealis mood also showed increased presence of transitive marking, in contrast to Hopper and Thompson’s
To explore the consistency of patterning further, we look more closely at the ditransitive verb, ‘give’, realized as gib-im ‘give-TR’, gib-it ‘give-TR’, gim-mi ‘give-1SG.O’, or gib/giv ‘give’, because it is interesting in terms of the occurrence of a transitive affix on the verb and the presence of a following first or second person pronoun. In Light Warlpiri, as in English, ditransitive ‘give’ can occur in two types of constructions. One, as in example 17, is where the direct object referent wumara ‘money’, immediately follows the verb. The other, as in example 18, is where the indirect object referent, mi ‘1SG.nonsubject’, immediately follows the verb.
| ||“No, no, I gave money to this one”.|
| || || || || |
| ||“When you go to Darwin, you should give me the blanket”.|
There are 62 instances of the indirect object construction in the data, and of those, 11 clauses (17%) have a transitive marker. Of 55 direct object constructions, 46 clauses (85%) have a transitive marker. This suggests that within the variable marking with a transitive affix, there is in some contexts fairly clear patterning.
Another verb of interest in terms of transitivity is ‘get’. In Light Warlpiri, there are both transitive and intransitive uses of ‘get’. An example of transitive ‘get’ is given in 19, and of intransitive ‘get’ in 20.
| ||“Why did you get my guitar?”|
| ||“The child is becoming naughty to the teacher”.|
Example 19 shows the transitive verb get-im
‘get-TR’, and example 20 shows the intransitive verb get-ing
‘get-PROG’. Most of the instances of intransitive ‘get’ are inchoative, as in example 20. The inchoative meaning draws on Warlpiri, in which inchoative verbs can be created by the use of a pre-verb and an inflecting inchoative verb, -jarri’
‘INCHO’, and occur frequently (see example 9 in Section 3.2.1
). The semantics of the Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri inchoative verbs are similar, where the S referent becomes, for instance, mata
‘sick’, or api
‘happy’. In Light Warlpiri, complements of the inchoative verbs can be words from Warlpiri or English, showing some similarity to Warlpiri, where the pre-verbal element in an inchoative verb can be drawn from any language. In English, one can say, for instance, ‘get sick’, so the Light Warlpiri inchoative meaning of ‘get’ might also draw on English. The other type of intransitive use of ‘get’ in Light Warlpiri draws on English and Kriol, as in get-ap
‘get up’. In the data, 81% (158/196) of transitive ‘get’ verbs are marked with a transitive affix, and none of the intransitive uses are marked transitively.
It is interesting to note that some verbs may pattern in the data in ways that might not be expected before the data are explored. One example is of the verb drink ‘drink’. This verb was coded as kinesis = ‘high’, punctuality = ‘low’, volitionality = ‘high’, and affectedness of O = ‘high’. However, in the data, when the verb is progressive, drink-ing, it is most often used in the sense of ‘partying’, or ‘drinking with friends’. This means that the coding per verb does not always align with its use in every utterance. Nevertheless, we find that coding per verb type, and including verb frequency in the model, provides interpretable patterns in the data.
Questions not explored in this study that would be of interest are how the variable presence of transitive marking correlates with nominal ergative marking, and with word order, since ergative marking occurs more often when the word order is VA (O’Shannessy 2016b
). Following from these questions, it would be interesting to see if the patterning reported in this study remains constant over time, or shows change when the data of child speakers are examined, or if frequency of use changes over time. Questions that the current data could not address include those of whether both unergative and unaccusative intransitive verbs (cf. Perlmutter 1978
can be transitivized in Light Warlpiri, and how they interact with Hopper and Thompson’s Transitivity Hypothesis.
This study examines the conditions of the occurrence of transitive marking on verbs in the Australian mixed language, Light Warlpiri. Transitive marking on verbs has two forms, -im
and these are productive, as they change the transitivity of a verb from intransitive to transitive. However, it is unclear if all intransitive verbs could undergo this process, or if it is restricted to a subset, for instance, unaccusative intransitive verbs, e.g., kamat
‘come out, emerge’ (cf. Perlmutter 1978
). The two forms of the transitive affix are fairly complementary in occurrence, as the -im
form usually attaches directly to the verb stem, while the -it
form usually attaches to a progressive morpheme, -ing
. The study tests the effects of six features drawn from Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity, and one syntactic attribute, the presence of a following first or second person pronoun.
The study finds that the presence of a transitive marker is conditioned by all six components of transitivity. Where the transitive component of a verb is coded as ‘high’, there is more likely to be an overt transitive marker on the verb. However, the converse is true for the feature of mood, where verbs in irrealis mood clauses are more likely to be transitively marked. The presence of a following first or second person O pronoun also correlates with less transitive marking.
The model suggests that variation in transitive marking is consistently patterned. The correlations of the presence of transitive marking with Hopper and Thompson’s
) components of transitivity show similarity to studies of other English-lexified contact languages in the area, with each language favoring or disfavoring some specific components (Meyerhoff 1996
; S. Dixon 2017
; Batchelor 2017
Transitivity marking and verb semantics in Light Warlpiri draw on all of the source languages: Warlpiri, Kriol and English. The most direct influence is that many of the attributes of transitive marking in Kriol are present in Light Warlpiri, e.g., two forms of the marker, -im and -it, productivity, variable presence on transitive verbs, and the conditioning in terms of degree of transitivity of verbs. Light Warlpiri differs in that the -im form is not contracted to a vowel -i, and the marker is usually absent when a reflexive or reciprocal morpheme is present. It draws on Warlpiri in the use of an inchoative verb of the form get, derived from English, and in that ergative case-marking occurs on overt A arguments in transitive clauses. The ways in which Light Warlpiri constructions differ from those of its sources show that, as in other domains of Light Warlpiri, the source language combinations play out in novel ways.