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An applicative is a derived verb stem denoting an action with an additional participant which is not an actor-like argument. If the non-applicative verb is already transitive the old direct object can be replaced by the new argument and is then pushed into an adjunct or secondary object position.


German (with replacement of the direct object):

Horst be-läd-t den Wagen mit Heu
PN APPL-load-3s trolley with hay
‘Horst loads hay on the trolley.’

Hakha Lai (Peterson 2002) (without replacement):

ʔa-law ʔa-kan-thloʔ-taak
3s.POSS-field 3s.A-1p.P-hoe-RELINQUITIVE.APPL
‘He left us and hoed his field.’


Many languages with applicative constructions have different applicative morphemes depending on the former role of the attached argument. Hakha Lai, for instance, has different suffixes for Comitative, Instrumental, Allative/Malefactive, Benefactive/Malefactive, Additional Benefactive, Prioritive and Relinquitive.

Other languages may have a number of different suffixes but not systematically link particular suffixes with particular usages. Nahuatl generally works this way. For instance, it is not predictable in Tetelcingo Nahuatl, but must be learned, that kōw-ia [buy-applicative] means ‘buy for (s.o.)’ whereas kōwi-lia [buy-applicative] means ‘buy from (s.o.)’.

The relationship of Applicatives and Causatives

Applicatives and causatives are closely related in a number of languages. Both introduce a new nominal argument to derive a new transitive verb from a more basic verb (whether transitive or intransitive). Causatives, however, introduce a new subject rather than a new object.

Nahuatl suffixes which are usually used as causatives (e.g. -tia or -ltia) nearly always have a few usages in which they are applicatives, and applicative suffixes (e.g. -ia or -lia) nearly always have a few usages in which they are causative.

Some cases show aspects of causative meaning along with aspects of applicative meaning. Thus in Tetelcingo Nahuatl when the (normally causative) suffix -tia is affixed to the stem čōka ‘cry’, the resultant stem (čōkītia) does not mean ‘cause (s.o.) to cry’ (causative), nor ‘cry out to (s.o.)’ (perhaps the most-expected applicative meaning). Rather it means ‘mourn (s.o.)’. A person’s death (in the typical case) causes someone to cry: this is clearly like a causative. However, the person who causes the crying (the new nominal argument) is not taken as the subject of the complex verb stem, but as its object. This is like the applicative pattern. However, in the typical applicative pattern the crying would be viewed as causing an effect on the new object; here it is caused by the new object.

Where a causing and a caused process are of the same kind, either a causative or an applicative construal of the same event may be possible. Thus the German be-atmen (applicative-breathe) ‘give artificial respiration mouth-to-mouth’ could be construed as causing the object to breathe or as breathing (in)to or for the object. The more extensive usage of be- as an applicative than as a causative would favor the second construal.

Causative and applicative affixes may also be used for verbalizing non-verbal stems, usually producing a transitive verb, as they do when affixed to verb stems. Many of these usages can be seen as tending towards a causative meaning (when the designatum is associated with the subject) and others towards an applicative meaning (when the designatum is associated with the object.) However, the analysis is not straightforward, and most cases can be seen as in some degree mixed. For instance, in Orizaba Nawatl ama-tia (paper-causative) ‘provide (s.o.) with documents’, one could see the idea as the subject causing [the object to have papers], or as [the subject preparing or issuing papers] to/for the object. The first would be a causative-tending construal, and the second an applicative-tending construal.

Somewhat similarly, the German verb beenden 'finish (s.t.)' can be taken as a derivative of the verb enden ‘come to an end’. (Unusually for be-, this would be a causative.) Otherwise, it can be taken as a verbalization (with be- -en) of the noun end, meaning either the subject cause [the object to have an end] or [the subject bring/put an end] to the object.


The name “applicative” is of Latin origin (applicātum ‘attached’). The first linguistic researchers who made use of this term in today’s sense were missionaries in MesoAmerica in the 16th and 17th centuries. They found applicative constructions in Nahuatl and other Uto-Aztecan languages and called them verbos aplicativos (e.g. Rincón 1595:45, Carochi 1645:63ff).

See also


  • Bußmann, Hadumod (2002) Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. Stuttgart: Kröner. ISBN 3-520-45203-0.
  • Carochi, Horacio. 1645. Arte de la Lengva Mexicana con la Declaración de los Adverbios della. México: Iuan Ruyz. Edición facsimilar, 1983. México: UNAM.
  • Peterson, David A. 2007. Applicative constructions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Rincón, Antonio del. 1595. Arte mexicana compuesta por el padre Antonio del Rincón. Reprint: México 1885

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