Causative theme in English
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Causative theme in English

by David Wulstan
The causative is found in Hamito-Semitic languages and in Sanskrit; but it is not often acknowledged as occurring in Indo-European languages generally. Crystal (Cambridge Enc. of Language, 93) calls the causative a tense, a description which Semitic scholars would certainly dispute. Jespersen (Essentials of Eng. Gramm., p.117), in discussing the difference between the transitive and intransitive use of verbal forms, points out that certain transitive verbs (‘to grow corn’), when used intransitively (‘corn grows’), “must be considered a causative”.

He goes on to list “two cases [where] we have separate verbs for the intransitive and the corresponding transitive (causative) use”, instancing sit, sat, sat and lie, lay, lain (intrans) as against set, set, set and lay, laid, laid (trans. = causative). The matter is, however, more complicated than Jespersen supposed in his somewhat confused treatment.  Granted that in various registers of speech (including that of the poets) these forms are sometimes confused (J cites Byron’s ‘there let him lay’), there are reasons for such misprisions: those of us who mistake ‘he was hung at Tyburn’, for the correct ‘he was hanged’ deserve some sympathy: the morphology and syntax are by no means clear. This is because thematic and ‘strong’ causatives have a system of ablaut, which is extremely confusing in modern English, for these forms often sound like the past tense or participle of the ordinary verbal theme.

To define the causative: oremus is ‘let us pray’ in Latin. Although Latin exhibits some instances, the language as we know it does not typically have a causative theme; so the subjunctive mood is used here, instead. In classical Greek, this or the optative mood might have been be used (although Greek, too, had a few separate causatives). In Hebrew, however, the causative theme proper would come into play, the significance of which would more accurately be rendered ‘cause us to pray’. In English, the foregoing phrase is not a thematic causative, as it is formed from a modal verb. Similarly, ‘make that horse canter’ is syntactically but not morphologically causative.

It might be argued that ‘waken’, ‘gladden’, and so on are thematic causatives, the -en being a causative suffix, as ‘envision’, ‘entrap’ have apparent causative prefixes. I do not know the answer as to whether these (or ‘glorify’, ‘mesmerise’ and the like) are thematic causatives, but for the moment they will be excluded. True, Sanskrit nayati ‘lead’ has the causative nāyayati ‘cause to lead/to be led’, but it is regular. So far as may be divined, the English (deriving from the Germanic) causative theme is based on vowel-gradation similar to that found in ‘strong plurals’ (mouse-mice).

When set is used as the causative of sit, it derives, as the OED says, from the OE (sęttan) and Gothic (satjan), causative of *setjan (sitjan), whence also settle, verb and noun (these, and one or two further references to OE etc, are due to the OED/NED) If one ‘sets’ the table, however, the phrase is a species of synecdoche, meaning that the setter is causing the silver and glass to ‘sit’ in its appropriate place.

Other uses of ‘set’ as in ‘setting the Maths Paper for the Upper Set’) are not really related. Curiously, the Latin sĕdeo, sēdi, sessum means ‘to sit’ whereas sēdo, -āvi, -ātum is causative, ‘to settle’. All of these words (including Greek cognates) are related to Sanskrit (in which, by chance ‘sit’, ās, is not recorded in its causative form). What the dictionaries (and Jespersen) do not tell us, however, is that sat may also be causative: ‘I sat him down’. It is this usage which gives rise to the solecism, ‘I was sat in the corner’ i.e. sitting rather than having been unceremoniously made to sit.

That ‘lay’ is the causative of ‘lie’ is acknowledged by the dictionaries (to lay a hedge or an egg is to cause it to lie); to lay down one’s life is a more metaphorical locution, but hardly obscure. A coin may have lain under hedge or hen, but it was caused to lie by whomsoever left it there, accidentally or not: the problems arise with speaking of the past, as to whether the coin was laid or layed.

Similarly, to fell a tree is to cause it to fall. But if the woodman fell, his falling to the ground would have been an accident, perhaps occurring when the tree had already been felled. So it befell (this time with a prefix) that he had to recover from his fall. Latin has cădo, cĕcĭdi,cāsum for ‘to fall’, but caedo, cĕcīdi, caesum for the causative. Ordinary ablaut makes ‘wend’
(OE wenden) the causative of ‘wind’ (winden – in the sense of following a winding path).

The verb ‘rise’ (rising, rose, had risen) has two causatives, ‘to raise’ (raising, raised, had been raised) and to ‘rouse’ (rousing, roused, had been roused – the British Army bugle call for ‘Rouse’ differed from that of ‘Reveille’). Here the morphology is reasonably straightforward, but with the proviso that the forms ‘arise’ and ‘arouse’ lurk in the wings:  indeed, a connexion with hawking is the origin of ‘rouse’ (probably Anglo-Norman). To ‘drench’ in the agricultural sense of ‘cause (a sheep) to drink’ is more technical (Dryden says A Drench of Wine … the Patient’s Death did cause); it may be surmised that ‘ferry’ developed similarly as a specialised term in connexion with ‘fare’ in the sense of ‘travel’.

The problem with ‘hanging’ (apart from our estimable habit of hanging the present participle with the sense of a gerund) is not that the causative present sounds like the ordinary past (fell being both the causative of fall and its past tense). It is a particular quirk of the English language that the general verb derives from OE hangian and variants, referring to the ‘base of the neck’, but that it became confused with the Norse causative hęngia which intruded into northern English as henge.

So ‘you shall hang by the neck…’ or ‘shall be hung, drawn and quartered’ are correct pronouncements; ‘was hung at Tyburn’ is not. The name Stonehenge rightly implies that the monument comprises stones which were caused to hang; similarly, any unfortunate ‘hanged at Tyburn’ suffered from the permanent causative rather than the more fleeting indicative.

The Coverdale version of Ps 137:2 reads ‘As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein’. This makes the hanged look like the causative (which it is not in this instance, the Hebrew qt. l form meaning ‘we hung’ – suspendimus organa – the instruments in question were kinnôrôt – lyres), but the inflected (-ed) and strong past tense with ablaut (hung) meant much the same in the English of the period, and hanged is found persisting in the equivalent place in the Authorised Version of King James.

Whether or not this psalm-verse played a part in the longevity of the longer hanged as an alternative past tense to hung is questionable; but it would not have helped to lessen the confusion between the indicative and causative usages of hanged. Moreover, the somewhat inconsidered pronouncements of Jespersen and Crystal, mentioned at the beginning of this
note, will not do.

A postscript. A recent lecture to which I was subjected made me realise that some treatments of linguistics bear the same relationship to philology as astrology has to astronomy. Several manifest idiocies were trotted out by our linguisticist priestess, but not the one which should be stamped upon firmly, the notion that ‘it’s me’ is incorrect. In the Camb. Enc. of the Eng. Lang. (page 203) Crystal asserts that as ‘me’ is the objective “where Latin-influenced grammatical tradition recommends the subjective” and thus the schoolmasterly ‘It is I’ (also commended in his Making Sense of English Usage, 1991, which prompts the suspicion that there is a disastrous misprint in its title).

Apart from Crystal’s subjective use of the word ‘objective’, French has more to do with the idiom than Latin, for ‘me’ in this instance is not the accusative, but the emphatic, as in ‘ç’est moi’. Oddly enough, in 1388 ‘Je suy je’ was the object of derision, in the words Chastillon contrefaisoit son langage (see Lebsanft, 2005, 365 apud Gärtner & Günter, Überlieferungsund Aneignungsprozesse im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert... Trier).