Linguistics Applicatives
David A. Peterson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0227


Applicative constructions (henceforth, “applicatives”) allow languages to express what otherwise would be expressed as an oblique participant as a core object participant. For instance, in Hakha Lai, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in western Burma, a comitative participant (“with X”) may be obliquely marked, as in the sentence lawthlawpaa=hee ka-kal “I went with the farmer.” In this sentence an oblique comitative is expressed via the clitic postposition =hee (“with”). The verb stem kal “go” is prefixed with a first-person singular participant marker, ka-. Hakha Lai alternatively may express comitative participants by means of a bare, non-oblique object noun phrase, as in the sentence lawthlawpaa ka-kal-pii “I went with the farmer.” In this version, note that the verb is suffixed by -pii, the comitative applicative marker. We can refer to the object in the second sentence as the applicative object. The oblique comitative in the first sentence is syntactically distinct from a normal transitive object in many respects; the comitative in the second sentence, on the other hand, is syntactically identical to a normal transitive object. The term “applicative” is also used for cases in which only the verbally marked variant is possible, although not all researchers would regard such formations as true applicatives. More recently, the term “applicative” has been extended (in the Generative theoretical literature) to refer to other cases of constructions involving multiple objects, including instances where there is no verbal applicative marker and even instances where the objects in question do not bear the same case. Much of the research on applicatives has focused on aspects of their synchronic morphosyntax. In particular, treatments of the phenomenon in specific languages have concentrated on the status of the object that appears in the applicative with respect to an alternative oblique instantiation for such a participant and with respect to normal transitive objects. A further major issue has been the status of additional objects, including the object representing a P participant associated with the basic predicate, widely referred to as the base object, vis-à-vis an applicative object, or the object associated with the applicative marking morphology. A handful of studies have attempted to treat the grammaticalization sources for applicative constructions, in particular the morphology signaling the construction on the verb. Finally, a few studies have attempted to evaluate the function of applicatives in running discourse.

General Overviews

There are numerous brief treatments of applicatives included in discussions of verbally marked valence-affecting morphology. Comrie 1985, Kulikov 2011, and Payne 1997 restrict themselves to examples from just a few languages, without exhaustive coverage of the potential for semantic variation in terms of the applicative object or possible variation in terms of the morphosyntactic characteristics of the constructions. McGinnis 2008, Mithun 2001, and Polinsky 2003 are the best short general treatments. Peterson 2007 and Dixon 2012 provide more extended cross-linguistic treatments.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Causative verb formation and other verb-deriving morphology. In Language typology and syntactic description, Vol. III: Grammatical categories and the lexicon. Edited by Timothy Shopen, 309–348. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Contains a brief discussion of valence-affecting verbal morphology other than causatives, with a few examples and discussion illustrating applicatives. Includes data from Swahili (Bantu), Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan), and Wolof (West Atlantic).

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2012. Applicatives. In Basic Linguistic Theory. Vol. 3. By R. M. W. Dixon, 294–342. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A lucid introduction to some key issues in applicative morphosyntax. Emphasizes fine nuances of applicative semantics and idiosyncrasies of their occurrence with specific predicate types and productivity, which are often ignored. Refers to a sample of languages with applicatives, on the basis of which various potential generalizations emerge.

  • Kulikov, Leonid. 2011. Voice typology. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. Edited by Jae Jung Song, 368–398. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Briefly treats applicative constructions, distinguishing between constructions that allow for the addition of a direct object (applicatives proper) or an indirect object (benefactives and malefactives).

  • McGinnis, Martha. 2008. Applicatives. Language and Linguistics Compass 2.6: 1225–1245.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00078.xE-mail Citation »

    Emphasizes the history of theoretical treatments of applicatives, primarily from a Minimalist perspective. McGinnis provides a relatively clear discussion of issues surrounding the treatment of applicatives and accounts of these issues for non-specialist readers: a certain level of familiarity with Generative syntax is nevertheless required.

  • Mithun, Marianne. 2001. Understanding and explaining applicatives. In CLS 37, The panels 2001: Proceedings from the parasessions of the thirty-seventh meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Edited by M. Andronis, C. Ball, H. Elston, and S. Neuvel, 73–97. Chicago, IL: Chicago Linguistic Society.

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    An accessible and succinct introduction to applicatives. Illustration is primarily on the basis of Tuscarora, an Iroquoian language. In addition to the overall exposition, Mithun makes the novel observation that in Tuscarora, at least, certain applicatives facilitate the expression of events as unitary rather than distinct.

  • Payne, Thomas. 1997. Describing morphosyntax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Includes a brief overview of applicatives and what fieldworkers should look for when approaching a language that possesses them. Also treats similar constructions, such as dative of interest and possessor raising.

  • Peterson, David A. 2007. Applicative constructions. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A book-length treatment of applicatives discussing their synchronic characteristics, their use in discourse, and grammaticalization sources for their associated morphology. Identifies potential structural correlates for different applicative types based on a sample of one hundred languages with and without applicatives. Includes extended illustrations of two quite different applicative systems in Hakha Lai, a Tibeto-Burman language, and Bukusu, a Bantu language, and a questionnaire for investigating applicative constructions as an appendix.

  • Polinsky, Maria. 2003. Applicative constructions. In World atlas of language structures. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A WALS-based survey of applicatives providing a basic introduction to the construction type, and attempting, on the basis of a standard WALS one-hundred-language sample (in addition to other languages the author had access to), to address issues Polinsky regarded as essential at the time of writing.

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