Investigating the transitive and intransitive constructions in English, Chinese and Japanese: A functional perspective

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Abstract

The present study compares quantitatively the use of transitive and intransitive constructions in English, Chinese, and Japanese, and attempts to show that they differ in the use of these constructions. Any event can be described in any form along the “causative-inchoative-stative” continuum (Croft, 1990) depending on how the speaker wants to portray it. Previous research (e.g., Alfonso, 1966; Hinds, 1986; Jacobsen, 1992; Pardeshi, 2008) has suggested that languages differ in terms of how much prominence is given to the agent along this continuum. For example, Ikegami (1981, 1991) argues that English prefers to give prominence to a human agent, whereas Japanese prefers to suppress the human agent and express events as if they happen spontaneously. He therefore calls English a “DO-language” and Japanese a “BECOME-language”. Based on this observation, it was hypothesized that languages would use the transitive and intransitive constructions differently. To verify this hypothesis quantitatively, the present study examined 508 tokens of verb phrases in a Japanese novel and its English and Chinese translations. The tokens were classified for syntactic transitivity (i.e. transitive, intransitive, passive, and adjectival), and for semantic transitivity (i.e., Kinesis, Aspect, Punctuality, Volitionality, and Agency; Hopper and Thompson, 1980). The results show that Japanese uses more intransitive constructions than either Chinese or English, and that English and Chinese use more transitive constructions than Japanese. In addition, it is found that these differences are only observed in low semantic transitivity events, whereas the three languages exhibit similar trends for high semantic transitivity events. For example, for the event of being left alone which has low semantic transitivity, Japanese uses an intransitive verb (i.e., nokoru), whereas English and Chinese use a transitive verb (i.e., leaving me alone in English and sheng4xia4 ‘leave behind’ in Chinese). On the other hand, for the event of opening a door which has high semantic transitivity, all three languages use a transitive verb. It is also shown that Japanese is able to use intransitive verbs to describe situations which can only be described in other constructions (i.e., passive) in English and Chinese. These findings support the claims by previous research that Japanese prefers the intransitive construction, and English prefers the transitive construction. The results thus suggest that there are subtle meaning differences of the transitive and intransitive constructions among the three languages in a Construction Grammar framework. The present study is important in giving us a clearer picture of how these three languages differ in the use of the transitive and intransitive constructions, which would contribute to both second language learning and teaching. Since the transitive and intransitive construction are often viewed as universal invariants across languages in most current linguistic theories such as the generativist approaches (e.g., Chomsky, 1957; Lasnik, 2002) and Cognitive Grammar (Langacker, 1986; 2008), the present study would serve as the basis for psycholinguistic research that attempts to shed light on this issue. Copyright © 2012 International Conference on Bilingualism and Comparative Linguistics.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

Citation

Luk, Z. (2012, May). Investigating the transitive and intransitive constructions in English, Chinese and Japanese: A functional perspective. Paper presented at the International Conference on Bilingualism and Comparative Linguistics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.

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