What is the grammatical "logic" of the impersonal construction with psychological verbs like pudet, piget, paenitet, taedet, miseret? (here is a short descriptive characterization of so-called “psych verbs” (in English))? A couple of typical examples follow:

Me non solum piget stultitiae meae sed etiam pudet. (Cic. De Dom. 29)

Sunt homines quos libidinis infamiaeque suae neque pudeat neque taedeat. (Cic. Verr. I, 1, 35)

Why is the experiencer object marked with accusative rather than with dative? (e.g., cf. Italian: A me mi importa solo di questo. Gloss: 'To me (dative!) matters only of this'. Translation: ‘Only this matters to me’). As for the genitive case, I guess that such an unexpected marking could be related to that of other mental verbs like memini. Many years ago I read (unfortunately, now I can’t remember the reference) that psychological verbs in Indo-European were basically denominal (i.e., derived from nouns), which in fact makes sense (e.g., in some languages something like “I fear ghosts” is expressed by means of a locative construction with the psych emotion being expressed with a noun: “the fear towards ghosts is (placed) in me”. Irish is an example of these languages).

Assuming that the Latin psychological verbs at issue are denominal, I was wondering if the genitive case could be explained by claiming that it is actually modifying the noun incorporated in the verb. But what about the accusative case of the experiencer object? In principle, it is a bit surprising since accusative marking of the object would typically require having a semantic/meaningful (i.e., non-expletive) subject in the sentence: e.g., cf. so-called ‘Burzio’s Generalization’. Notice that the Latin examples at issue (unlike examples with dative experiencer like Hoc mihi placet or with accusative experiencer like Hoc me delectat) can be regarded as involving an intriguing violation of this linguistic generalization. In this impersonal construction the verb does not assign a semantic function to its subject but it does assign accusative case to its object.

Another curious well-known fact of these verbs is that the construction is not impersonal if the subject is a pronoun (e.g., Non te haec pudent? Ter. Adelph., 754) or a clause or an infinitive (e.g., Me, mi Pomponi, valde paenitet vivere. Cic. Att. 3,4). As for the latter example, I was wondering why a gerund in genitive case could not instead be used here: e.g., Me paenitet vivendi.

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    It's an interesting construction, but I don't quite understand what kind of answer you're looking for -- what could the answer to the "why" question be beyond "because that's how this construction works"? (Unless you're asking about the historical origin of the construction, that is.)
    – TKR
    Jul 25, 2019 at 21:02
  • Yes, the grammatical "logic" of this construction can be related to (hopefully, even explained by) its historical origin. So any comment on its historical formation will also be VERY helpful (e.g., to understand the cases involved in it: genitive and accusative). In fact, notice that in my post I related genitive case here to the diachronic formation of these verbs (in particular, to the fact that they could be denominal in their ORIGIN). But perhaps this explanation of its genitive case is false/wrong.
    – Mitomino
    Jul 25, 2019 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


Let us look at the verbs behaving like this and some corresponding nouns:

  1. pudere; pudor
  2. paenitere; paenitia, paenitudo
  3. taedere; taedium
  4. pigere; ?
  5. miserere; miseria

The list of related nouns is probably not exhaustive, but I could not come up with more. In cases 1–3 all the nouns appear to be derived from the verb rather than the other way around. I found nothing related to pigere. In case 5 both the verb and the noun appear to come from the adjective miser.

Above is a list of five common verbs with the peculiar behaviour you describe, but none of them appears to be derived from a noun which survives in classical Latin. Of course, earlier nouns cannot be ruled out, but that sounds rather unlikely. Therefore I am tempted to dismiss the theory of denominal origins for verbs of this kind unless some proof is produced.

It is worth noting that all these verbs are of the second conjugation, and verbs in that conjugation tend to be semantically different from others. They often describe state rather than action. Some of these verbs are derived from adjectives, like ruber > rubere and albus > albere. Therefore one might want to analyze 4 and 5 above as miser > miserere and piger > pigere. But this doesn't quite work; the meanings are off and the roles of the accusative and the genitive are too different. Therefore I cannot see these kinds of verbs as state verbs derived from adjectives either. Nevertheless, these verbs do describe state rather than action as is common in their conjugation.

I am not convinced there is a grammatical logic that can be justified by the origins. There is a grammatical logic that I use to make sense of these verbs to myself, and I have no evidence for it beyond its making sense to me. I would be glad to hear of other approaches than the one I will describe next.

These verbs are impersonal. Just like with pluere, there is no subject. The verb pudere means "to make ashamed", "to excite/cause shame", or similar. Therefore me pudet is "[it] makes me ashamed". Such wording is unnatural in many languages (not Finnish!), so it is often best translated in a different way. Better English would be "I am ashamed". The cause of this emotion is expressed as a cause, not as a subject. A cause is typically expressed with ablative, not genitive. This can be circumvented by inserting an ablative like causa. This turns me pudet stultitiae [causa] into "[it] makes me ashamed because of stupidity".

(There is also a question about miserere mei.)

  • As for your analysis of the accusative case in me pudet, I agree with you that this causative interpretation is quite natural: 'X makes me to be ashamed'. By the way, when you're saying "such wording is unnatural in many languages (not Finnish!)", do you mean that this accusative construction can also be impersonal in Finnish? I'm asking this because the personal construction {Hoc/latine loqui} me pudet is indeed found in many languages. What is really unexpected is to find an impersonal causative verb assigning accusative case (cf. so-called "Burzio's Generalization" above).
    – Mitomino
    Jul 25, 2019 at 23:21
  • As for your analysis of the genitive case in me pudet stultitiae, I found it quite original to claim that there is a missing noun causa in ablative. To put in Giordano Bruno’s aphorism, “se non è vero, è ben trovato”, i.e., even if it is not true, it is a good story. However, I’m not sure if I want to buy it but in any case I do appreciate your attempt to find an explanation that sounds logical (at least for you!). Thanks also for pointing out the related link/question.
    – Mitomino
    Jul 25, 2019 at 23:23
  • @Mitomino Concerning Finnish: "I am ashamed" is most naturally minua hävettää, where minua ("me") is the object and hävettää is a verb without subject. The structure is exactly as in me pudet. In Finnish the cause of shame is expressed with a subject, but the word order is unusual and suggests that it is not really understood semantically as a subject but more as a cause. Furthermore, I have never seen the predicate in any person but third person singular, so only such subjects/causes are possible. The story is the same for many feelings. This may affect my reading of the Latin.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 25, 2019 at 23:36
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    @Mitomino It's indeed partitive, but both of the two cases can be used for transitive objects. Minut is impossible. If you want to discuss Finnish further, we should take it to the chat instead.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 26, 2019 at 7:39
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    Thanks, Joonas, for your kind invitation to take it to the chat. The truth is that I'm not used to this system and when I used it, I never talked in English (I think that the last time I used it was about 15 years ago or so!). But I see why you say this. Otherwise, the section of comments could increase indefinitely, which makes no sense.
    – Mitomino
    Jul 26, 2019 at 20:40

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