Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Lexical Classes and the Conative Construction in Old English

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Lexical Classes and the Conative Construction in Old English

Article excerpt


This paper is concerned with the description of the event structure and the meaning components that motivate the realization of the conative construction within some canonical Old English verb classes. In the same line as the latest proposals framed within the Lexical Constructional Model, this kind of description is intended to evidence the essential role of semantic features that are not necessarily realized in the syntax and thus help elucidate and comprehend lexical-constructional processes. Besides, this work seeks to establish adequate criteria to identify the conative construction and provides insights into the distribution of diathetic alternations associated to the conative construction in Old English.

1. Introduction

Goldberg (1995: 63) defines the conative construction as "x directs action at y" which designates the intended result of the action, i.e. an action for which no accomplishment or result is expressed. The fact that no completion of the action is indicated by this construction becomes clear from the so-called "conative alternation" between the transitive and intransitive-prepositional patterns shown by some Present-day English verb classes, more specifically those that involve the notions of "motion" and "contact" (see Levin 1993: 41-42; Goldberg 1995: 63-64). Consider, for instance, the following examples taken from Lee (2003: 171-173):

1) a. The visitors beat the door down.

a'. ?? The visitors beat at the door down.

b. She pulled the tablecloth off.

b'. ?? She pulled at the tablecloth off.

c. ?? The player knocked the ball but missed.

c'. The player knocked at the ball but missed.

The locative particles down and off in (1a) and (1b) denote the final position or location of the object, i.e. a change of location as a result of the action of beating and pulling respectively. This kind of particles cannot occur when the prepositional at-phrase is introduced as in (1a') and (1b') since both beat at and pull at denote intended actions with no specified result. Similarly, (1c') indicates that no result is involved by knock at. Otherwise, the action could not be missed (see Quirk et. al. 1985: 697).

In what follows, we shall try to demonstrate that some Old English verbs classes such as the verbs of running and contact-by-impact verbs share the basic features of the conative construction as well as what we will label as the locative-conative alternation. In addition, we will contend that, in contrast to Levin's (1993) proposal, the conative construction is not restricted by transitivity. Information on diathesis alternations and on constructions will be used as a means to identify the relevant subevents and the participants involved in them, one of the principal advantages of this kind of analysis being that it accounts for the role of meaning components that are not necessarily expressed syntactically.

We will support our claims by presenting samples appropriately collected from, and examined in the context of, the following sources: A thesaurus of Old English (Roberts et al. 1995); Bosworth, Toiler and Campbell's Anglo-Saxon dictionary (henceforward BT); A concise Anglo-Saxon dictionary (Hall [19601996] 1894); The Helsinki corpus of English texts (Rissanen et al. 1991) and The Oxford English dictionary (Murray et al. [1987] 1971, henceforward OED). (2)

2. Contact-by-impact verbs

One of the crucial features characterizing Old English contact-by-impact verbs concerns the syntactic realization of the instrument arguments as subjects. As illustrated in (2) below, this instrument-subject alternation (see Levin 1993: 80) accounts for the fact that, in active voice expressions involving verbs like beatan (to beat), the instrument argument can be expressed either as an oblique case or as the subject of a clause. Thus, in (2a), the instrument (hameron) is realized by the instrumental case introduced by the preposition mid 'with'. …

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