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Abstract Meex & Mortelmans

Transitivity and case in English / German

It is a well-known phenomenon that the syntactic distinction of verbs governing the accusative and verbs governing the dative may pose considerable problems for both learners and teachers of German alike. This goes particularly for learners and teachers whose mother tongue lacks a case-marking system and hence does not mark the direct object morphologically by means of the accusative. For example, teachers may have serious difficulty explaining why some verbs combine with the accusative (e.g. unterstützen ‘to support’), whereas others with a similar meaning take the dative (e.g. helfen ‘to help’). Building on previous analyses of transitivity and case (Rice 1987; Langacker 1991; Smith 1993; Draye 1996, 2002), the aim of this paper is to present a usage-based comparative account of transitivity in English and German with a focus on German as a target language. More specifically, we want to examine if and to which extent the transitive prototype set out by Rice (1987) for English can be transferred to German. This paper argues that German differs from English in at least two crucial and complicating respects. First, the corresponding German verbs are either construed with the accusative or with the dative case, depending on the event’s and the object’s characteristics and on the semantic participant role with which the object is conventionally associated (e.g. patient vs. experiencer). Second, passivizability as a test for transitivity does not always work for German since there is no one-to-one correspondence between passivizability and transitivity. While not all transitive accusative verbs can be passivized (less prototypical transitivity correlates with reduced passivizability; e.g. *Unser Lehrer wurde von uns getroffen “*Our teacher was met by us”), some intransitive dative verbs allow for passivization (e.g. Ihm wurde geholfen ‘He was helped’). Our hypothesis is that these facts point in the direction of a deviance from the English transitive prototype, which needs to be refined and/or adjusted. Drawing on corpus-based material, we want to clarify the relationship between the accusative-dative construal in the expression of the object-zone, and to advance its implementation into language pedagogy.



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