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Latin utilizes some verbs that pretty much only occur impersonally, like oportet. One can also regularly form impersonal actives from intransitive verbs like placeo and impersonal passives from transitive verbs like dico.

Is it possible to form impersonal actives of transitive verbs?

This doesn't seem to be a necessity as if the patient is not impersonal, one can use the personal passive, and if the patient and agent are both impersonal, one can use the impersonal passive. However, this isn't quite the case as there are defective transitive verbs like aio. So maybe a specific subquestion would be whether ait is ever used impersonally.

  • What would an impersonal ait mean? Something like "they say" or "people say"? – Draconis Jul 23 at 3:56
  • @Draconis I suppose. I guess I am wondering for a defective verb that lacks a passive whether ait as impersonal would mean what aitur would mean if it existed. What I am wondering in general is different. In English you can have impersonal transitive actives: "How's it going?" "It sucks %^&*s". Can you do that in Latin, or do you have to say "%^&*s are being sucked"? – C Monsour Jul 23 at 4:34
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Here is a couple of examples from Plautus that could be relevant for your question:

a. Personal use of a transitive verb like decet:

contempla ut haec (vestis) me deceat (Pl. Most. 172). 'See how this dress suits me.'

b. Impersonal use of a transitive verb like decet:

ita ut vos decet (Pl. Most. 729). 'so as befits you'.

The following example could also be useful for you. Note that in this example fallit is a transitive verb that is also used impersonally:

nisi me fallit (Cic. Fam. 5, 20, 6), 'unless I am mistaken' ('unless it deceives me').

See A&G (1903: 388c: pp. 241-242) for other similar impersonal verbs that take accusative case.

From a more theoretical point of view, those impersonal verbs that take accusative case are expected to be grammatically marked (e.g., compared to the ones that take dative: cf. ita nobis decet (Ter. Ad. 928), 'thus it befits us'). Cf. the so-called "Burzio's Generalization", whereby, if a verb does not assign a semantic function to its subject, then it does not assign accusative case to its object.

Note also that Burzio's famous grammatical generalization appears to be infringed by the well-known constructions of the pudet me tui type since these verbs assign accusative case to the experiencer object but do not assign any semantic function to their subject (these verbs are impersonal). Interestingly, the accusative case of the experiencer argument of these stative psychological verbs has been originally related to those causative verbs of the 2nd conjugation. Cf. Matasović's (2013) proposal that "the irregular case-frames of the Latin bivalent statives are innovations based on the analogy with the case-frames of causative verbs, which had the Causee argument in the accusative case".

Note how this proposal somewhat restores Burzio's insight. The impersonal verbs at issue here assign accusative case to their experiencer object since they can be originally related to (not impersonal!) transitive verbs with causative meaning. As predicted by Burzio, those transitive verbs that assign accusative case are not (initially!) expected to be impersonal.

So, as for your question above ("Is it possible to form impersonal actives of transitive verbs?"), my preliminary answer is: yes, but only secondarily (e.g., through an analogical process. Cf. Matasović's (2013) proposal). NB: not primarily, because of Burzio's Generalization.

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  • This is indeed most of what I am looking for. I'd also be interested if there are examples that don't feel like they ought to take the dative...e.g., examples of straightforward action verbs like "strikes" or "sucks" or "kills" appearing as active impersonals. – C Monsour Jul 23 at 22:28
  • @CMonsour The English verbs you mention are causative verbs that can be interpreted psychologically. Note that Lat. stative verbs of the pudet type are also psychological and their accusative case has been originally related to those causative verbs of the 2nd conjugation. Cf. Matasović's (2013) proposal that "the irregular case-frames of the Latin bivalent statives are innovations based on the analogy with the case-frames of causative verbs, which had the Causee argument in the accusative case". degruyter.com/view/journals/indo/118/2013/… – Mitomino Jul 23 at 23:59
  • Thanks for copying that material into your answer! – C Monsour Jul 24 at 2:02
  • However, while I can see how "it kills me" uses "kills" as a psychological verb, I don't see how you can make the same claim about how "it sucks balls" uses "sucks". – C Monsour Jul 24 at 2:10
  • @CMonsour Your example it kills me involves figurative usage but contains a "normal" transitive verb, i.e., a transitive verb whose subject (the pronoun it) is semantically interpreted as a Cause argument. So this example, unlike the Latin ones discussed above (e.g. the pudet-type ones), lacks impersonality. Same with the idiomatic expression It sucks balls: I understand this it is referring to something (e.g. a movie). So I'd not consider it impersonal either. Note also that Hoc/id (nominative) VERB me (accusative) is not (usually considered) an impersonal construction in Latin. – Mitomino Jul 24 at 3:53

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