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Latin verbs with double accusative and their passivization

Les verbes latins avec un double accusatif et leur passivation
Maria Napoli
p. 79-87


Cet article a pour objectif de réexaminer le comportement des verbes latins avec un double accusatif, dans une perspective privilégiant l’approche fonctionnelle et typologique des constructions appelées « ditransitives ». Je concentrerai mon attention sur deux questions : les types de passivation que ces verbes admettent et les types de constructions qu’ils forment en fonction d’attribution de fonctions syntaxiques à leurs deux arguments.

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I would like to thank the audience at the 18th ICLL and two reviewers for their remarks. Thanks are due to Chiara Fedriani, Chiara Meluzzi and Olga Tribulato for providing some bibliographical material. The texts and translations of the Latin examples follow the Loeb editions, with modification of the relevant portions.

1. Introduction

  • 2 Pinkster, 1990, p. 45-46; cf. also Bennett, 1914, p. 247.

1This paper aims at investigating three-place verbs with double accusative in the light of the most recent results of functional-typological research. In literature on Latin, they have been classified as “verbs with thing and person objects”:2 in the active voice, one of the two accusatives generally corresponds to a human entity, whereas the other corresponds to an inanimate entity. This is illustrated by (1), where doceo ‘teach’ occurs:


Quid nunc te, asine, litteras doceam? (Cic. Pis. 73)
‘What, you ass! must I begin to teach you letters?’

2It is also usually claimed that “dans la transformation passive, c’est la personne qui devient sujet” (Flobert, 1975, p. 399-400). An example is provided in (2), where the subject of the passive of doceo is the person taught (pueri):


Valent pueri, studiose discunt, diligenter docentur. (Cic. ad Q. fr. 3, 3, 1)
‘Our boys are well, they apply themselves to their lessons, they are being carefully taught.’

3I will explore how the strategy introduced above can be analyzed within the theoretical framework sketched here, and on the basis of which parameters we may explain the alternation between double accusative construction and other constructions. The organization of this contribution is as follows. In Section 2, I will outline the theoretical groundwork for my analysis. Section 3 provides a brief survey of Latin ditransitive verbs. In Section 4, I present some data on the double accusative construction in Latin. Section 5 contains some conclusive observations.

2. Ditransitive constructions: a typological account

  • 3 This section is based on Siewierska, 2003; Haspelmath, 2005, 2007, 2013, 2015; Malchukov et al., 20 (...)

4In typological studies,3 a ditransitive construction is described as a syntactic construction made up of a ditransitive verb, normally expressing an event of transfer, and three arguments, i.e. an agent (henceforth, A), a theme (henceforth, T), a recipient (henceforth, R). A typical ditransitive verb denotes possessive transfer, which may be concrete (cf. give, pass…) or more abstract (cf. offer, promise…): it describes “a scene in which an agent participant causes an object to pass into the possession of an animate receiver (= recipient)” (Malchukov et al., 2013, p. 2). This also means that the prototypical ditransitive event presupposes a human (or animate) R and an inanimate T (cf. § 2.2). However, the typological classification also includes verbs denoting cognitive transfer, which presuppose a Recipient-like argument (e.g. tell, teach…), rather than a R in the narrow sense. Finally, some languages have three-place verbs behaving like ditransitives which encode dispossession (e.g. steal, deny…): they may be interpreted as blocking a transfer, by implying the negation of the basic meaning (Colleman, 2011), i.e. “an agent causes an object not to pass into the possession of an animate receiver”.

2. 1. Argument coding and alignment types

5Ditransitive verbs may give rise to different types of constructions in an individual language and also across different languages. This diversity is captured by the concept of alignment, which is based on the comparison of the coding of the two object arguments T and R with the coding of the monotransitive patient (henceforth, P). Three basic alignment types of ditransitive constructions may be distinguished: indirective alignment; secundative alignment; neutral alignment. The indirective alignment, giving rise to the indirect-object construction, is characterized by the fact that the T is coded like the P, whereas the R is encoded differently: in general, the T and P are both unmarked or bear a direct-object marker, the R is encoded by means of a case-marker or adposition. An example from Italian is provided below:


Ho dato










‘I gave the apple to the child.’

6The opposite phenomenon is proper of secundative alignment (or primary-object construction), where it is the T which is treated in a special way as compared to the P and R. An example is provided by Chamorro (Austronesian, Guam), where an absolutive marker precedes the R, which is the same marker used for the P, whereas the T is preceded by an oblique marker (from Topping, 1973, p. 251):














‘He gave the milk to the child.’

7Finally, in the neutral alignment (or double-object construction), the two ditransitive object arguments are coded like the monotransitive P. This pattern is illustrated by two examples from Dagbani (Gur, Niger-Congo; Olawsky, 1999, p. 45) and Panyjima (Ngayarda, Western Australia; Dench, 1991, p. 193), respectively.














‘The man gave groundnuts to the woman.’










I gave the dog meat.’

8In (5), both the R and T are unmarked: this is the most recurrent type across languages (Haspelmath, 2013). In (6), the R and the T show the same case-marker as the P, i.e. the accusative case. When compared with indirective and secundative alignments, “the neutral pattern is most economical because it needs no marker, and it is possible because distinguishability can also be ensured by other clues such as word order” (Malchukov et al., 2010, p. 5). Word order distinguishes the R and T in many double-object languages or constructions: if the order of the two objects is fixed, the R usually precedes the T (cf. Primus, 1998). 

2. 2. Alignment alternations and splits

9Ditransitive verbs may be characterized by alignment alternations and splits. Alternation defines a situation in which a given verb shows distinct ditransitive constructions without any (apparent) change in meaning. A well-known instance of this phenomenon is the alternation between double-object construction (7a) and indirect-object construction (7b) in English:


a. I gave the child the apple.

I gave the apple to the child.

10On the other hand, a construction split refers to a situation in which only one type of construction occurs, related to a specific array of grammatical and/or lexical features. In English, for example, only the indirective alignment is allowed when the T corresponds to a personal pronoun and the R to a full noun phrase.

11In general terms, factors influencing the choice between different ditransitive constructions are (i) degree of affectedness of the R and T; (ii) referential prominence of the R and T, involving properties such as animacy, definiteness and topicality (Haspelmath, 2007, p. 83f). In particular, it has been pointed out that “the Double Object construction is favored in cases where R outranks T on the prominence scales, and is disfavored otherwise” (Malchukov et al., 2010, p. 20). In other words, from a cross-linguistic point of view, the asymmetry between the R and T in prominence may have a role in determining the preferential use of neutral alignment with ditransitives.

2. 3. Argument behaviour: passivization

12The two object arguments of a ditransitive verb may behave like the monotransitive P not only with regard to coding, but also with regard to various syntactic constructions or processes, like incorporation, nominalization, passivization, relativization (Malchukov et al., 2010, p. 25; Haspelmath, 2015, p. 25). In the present section, I will sum up a few tendencies concerning passivization, which are particularly relevant to the analysis of the Latin material. First of all, the most significant generalizations which can be made on the basis of typological data are the following: (i) if the P is passivized in a given language, either the R or the T of a ditransitive may be passivized; (ii) “R-passivization is generally preferred over T-passivization” (Malchukov et al., 2010, p. 30). On the basis of the same principles illustrated in § 2 (whether it is the T which behaves like the P or whether it is the R), three types of alignment may be recognized in passive sentences: indirective passivization, if the P and T are allowed as the subject of a passive ditransitive verb, while the R is not; secundative passivization, when the P and R passivize, as opposed to the T; neutral passivization, characterized by the fact that both T and R can passivize. It should be mentioned that the alignment of passivization often follows the alignment of coding, although this is not necessarily the case.

3. Ditransitive verbs and types of alignment in Latin

13In Latin, many trivalent verbs are attested corresponding to the semantic definition of ditransitives which has been provided by typological literature. These verbs show different types of constructions, which means different alignments. More precisely, the basic types of alignment described in § 2 are documented in Latin:


atque hinc pateram tute exemisti atque eam / huic dedisti. (Plaut. Amph. 796-7)
‘… you took the bowl out yourself and gave it to her.’


Cohortemque postea duplici stipendio, frumento, veste, cibariis militaribusque donis amplissime donavit. (Caes. Civ. 3, 53, 5)
‘And he afterwards presented the cohort in amplest measure with double pay, grain, clothing, bounties and military gifts.’


Non enim te celavi sermonem T. Ampi. (Cic. Fam. 2, 16, 3)
‘For I did not hide T. Ampius’ discourse from you.’

  • 4 As is well-known, apart from secundative alignment, dono also shows the same type of indirective al (...)
  • 5 See Kittilä, 2006, p. 574; cf. also Malchukov, 2013, p. 268; Croft, 2014, p. 541.

14In (8), the verb do ‘give’, denoting possessive transfer, occurs in the indirective alignment: the T is marked by the accusative, whereas the R is marked by the dative. Example (9) is an instance of secundative alignment with another verb of possessive transfer, i.e. dono ‘present (a present)’: here, it is the R which is marked by the accusative, while the T is encoded with the ablative.4 In (10), the neutral alignment is used with the verb celo ‘hide’, denoting dispossession, which takes the accusative of both the R and T. In languages with verbs showing both neutral and indirective alignment, give, considered as the prototypical ditransitive verb in literature, belongs to the first class “almost invariably”.5 Evidently enough, Latin does not confirm this typological prediction, since do is regularly associated with the indirect-object construction (dare alicui aliquid) displayed in (8). This, however, may be explained by looking at the morphological and syntactic characteristics of the Latin language.

15As pointed out in § 2.2, a double object construction tends to be preferentially used if the R is affected and if a situation of asimmetry exists between the R and T in terms of prominence. More precisely, to quote from Malchukov (2013, p. 269), “for some verbs like ‘teach’, this asymmetry is even more pronounced, hence they can appear in a double object pattern even in languages where ‘give’ cannot”. An example is provided by German lehren ‘teach’, occurring in a double object construction, whereas geben ‘to give’ shows indirective alignment. This is exactly the same state of affairs as in Latin. The verb doceo, expressing a cognitive transfer, always presupposes an R which is affected by the verbal action and outranks the T on the animacy scale: as already pointed out by Pinkster (1985, p. 170), this feature allows to identify the distinct role of the two object arguments. In other words, the use of the double object construction may be really defined as the most economical pattern for Latin verbs like doceo (see § 2.1). On the other hand, the two object arguments of a verb like do can be both inanimate or animate, as in (11):


Di immortales mihi liberos dederunt, vos reddidistis. (Cic. p. red. ad Quir. 5)
‘The immortal gods gave me children; you have given them back to me.’

16In (11), both the R (mihi) and the T (liberos) correspond to human entities: the use of a double-object construction would not have allowed us to distinguish between the distinct roles of the two object arguments. Their roles could have been disambiguated neither through word order, since, as is well-known, it is (relatively) free in Latin.

4. Latin verbs with neutral alignment

17Bennett (1914, p. 247-51) listed more than 50 Latin verbs governing two accusatives typically or occasionally. I have selected 10 of these verbs (celo, doceo, edoceo, flagito, oro, exoro posco, reposco, rogo, and rogito), and analyzed their behaviour in 10 authors (Plautus, Terence, Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Ovid, Seneca, Quintilian, and Tacitus), by consulting electronic resources. An exhaustive examination of the selected verbs in quantitative terms is far beyond the scope of this contribution. By starting from the typological approach, I will test the validity of some previous assumptions on the double-object construction, and also address new research questions. This may be preliminary to a more comprehensive investigation of these verbs.

  • 6 According to Bennett, 1914, p. 247, the construction with double accusative “apparently originated (...)

18First of all, one should distinguish between the use of the double-object construction with semantically ditransitive verbs and the extension of this strategy to nonditransitive verbs, which is a phenomenon attested across languages (Croft, 2014, p. 539). As is well-known, Latin three-place verbs which are nonditransitives may admit a double-object construction: in this case, the “accusative of the thing” corresponds to neuter pronouns.6 As related to this issue, another aspect is particularly relevant, which was already focused on by Pinkster (1985, 1990). The scholar rightly noted that “this group of verbs is characterized by the fact that apart from the three-place frame we also find a two-place frame. At any rate a two-place construction occurs with the inanimate entity as the Object. Often, but not always, the animate entity can be the Object in a two-place frame” (Pinkster, 1990, p. 46). As a matter of fact, this is confirmed by all the 10 verbs that I have analyzed. As an example, I quote two occurrences of doceo, one with the sole R (12), the other with the sole T (13):


Dionysius quidem tyrannus Syracusis expulsus Corinthi pueros docebat. (Cic. Tusc. 3, 27)
‘The Tyrant Dionysius, after his expulsion from Syracuse, became a schoolmaster at Corinth.’


in litteris, quas pater eius etiam docebat. (Quint. Inst. 2, 17, 12)
‘… in literature, that his father taught.’

19Pinkster (1985, p. 70) hypothesized that this may be the explanation why some Latin verbs govern two accusatives. However, the fact that these verbs may show a two argument structure and take the R or the T as their only accusative may be a by-product of their selecting neutral alignment, rather than its motivation. In Italian, for instance, the ditransitive verb insegno ‘I teach’ may appear as a monotransitive verb (insegno storia ‘I teach history)’ or may take only the R, which, however, is still marked with the preposition a ‘to’ (i.e., it is an “indirect” object: insegno a dei bambini ‘I teach babies’). In order to demonstrate which interpretation is more plausible, a close inspection of these verbs from a diachronic perspective would be necessary, which is beyond the scope of this paper (cf., however, § 5).

4. 1. Passivization of Recipient or Theme

  • 7 A referee notes that, following Pinkster (2015, p. 167), quae ratione docentur is not a three-place (...)

20In previous literature on Latin verbs governing the accusative of the person and of the thing, it has been assumed that in the passive, the verb agrees with the constituent that indicates the person: examples attesting passivization of the T have been considered as “exceptions” (Pinkster, 1990, 45, and note 7). Nevertheless, on a closer inspection, it seems that the behaviour of Latin ditransitive verbs usually taking double accusative is consistent with the typological tendencies mentioned in § 2.3, and that this issue can be reassessed as follows: R-passivization is generally preferred (14a-b), but T-passivization is also admitted (15a-b).7


a. Non est profecto de illo veneno celata mater. (Cic. Cluent. 189)
‘Of that poison his mother, assuredly, was not kept in ignorance.’

b. Serius populo Romano hunc vestitum atque arma dedimus quam ab eo flagitati sumus. (Cic. Phil. 10, 19)
‘We have given the Roman people this garb and these arms, but long after we have been asked by them.’


a. Et quoniam in omnibus quae ratione docentur… (Cic. Orat. 116)
‘Furthermore, since in all subjects that are taught by systematic principles…’

b. Idque ex omnibus partibus ab eo flagitabatur. (Caes. Civ. 1, 71, 2)
‘And such action was demanded of him from every quarter.’

21The possibility of retaining the accusative of one of the two object arguments in the passive voice – what Flobert (1975, p. 399-404) called le passif transitif – occurs when the R is passivized (16), although not frequently. Interestingly enough, (17) attests how the opposite strategy may be employed (however, this seems to be the only example):


Cum esset sententiam rogatus… (Cic. Verr. 1, 1, 44)
‘When he was called upon to speak…’


Quor haec, tu ubi rescivisti ilico / celata me sunt? (Plaut. Pseud. 490-491)
‘The minute you heard of all this, why was it kept from me?’

22We may conclude with the observation that Latin verbs with double accusative analyzed here show neutral alignment also in the passive, although they admit the passivization of the T and the R to a different extent.

4. 2. Changing alignment

23It is well known that Latin verbs governing two accusatives may appear in different syntactic constructions: in other words, they may exhibit other types of alignment apart from neutral alignment. However, they do not necessarily have the same behaviour. Among the verbs that I have analyzed two main groups must be distinguished:

  1. Verbs showing neutral alignment or secundative alignment (T expressed by the ablative or de + ablative), e.g. doceo, celo, rogo;

  2. Verbs showing neutral alignment (especially in Archaic Latin, rarely in Classical Latin) or indirective alignment (R mainly expressed by a preposition plus the ablative), e.g. flagito, posco, reposco, oro, exoro.

24Thus, the R always takes the accusative case only with verbs belonging to the first group:

  • 8 We may consider this phenomenon as an alignment split, since the construction in (18) – docere aliq (...)


Adherbal tametsi Romam legatos miserat qui senatum docerent de caede fratris. (Sall. Iug. 13, 3)8
‘Although Aderbal had at once dispatched envoys to Rome to inform the senate of his brother’s murder.’


Neminem de supremo officio rogo. (Sen. Epist. 92, 35)
‘I ask no man to perform the last rites for me.’

25On the other hand, it is the T that always takes the accusative with verbs belonging to the second group. In examples (20a) and (20b), the R is encoded by ab + ablative and cum + ablative, respectively:


a. Quamquam non debebam ego abs te has litteras poscere. (Cic. Verr. 2, 4, 36)
‘Not that I ought to be asking you for such documents…’

b. Tecumque oravi ut nummos sescentos mihi / dares. (Plaut. Persa 117-18)
‘I begged you to let me have sixty pounds.’

26The last case is particularly interesting in the light of the fact that, cross-linguistically, “a language may shift from a neutral to an indirective pattern in a situation when T is animate” (Malchukov, 2013, p. 269). Although a statistical survey based on more Latin material would be desirable, it should be noted that my data seem to confirm this phenomenon. Examples (21) and (22) illustrate how reposco and flagito show the indirective alignment with two human object arguments. On the other hand, I have found only one case of neutral alignment with a T corresponding to a human entity (23):


At ego ab hac puerum reposcam. (Plaut. Truc. 850)
‘Well, now I’ll demand the boy back from her.’


Sed unicum miser abs te filium optimum atque innocentissimum flagitat. (Cic. Verr. 2, 5, 128)
‘It is his only son whom this unhappy man demands of you, his noble and wholly innocent son.’


Redde mihi iam argentum aut virginem. […] – Quam tu virginem / me reposcis? (Plaut. Curc. 612, 614-15)
‘Give me back my money or my girl this instant. […] – What girl are you asking back from me?’

27Interestingly enough, in (23) the role of the two object arguments is clearly disambiguated through the context, since the T (virginem) corresponds to an element already introduced.

5. Conclusions

28Latin verbs with neutral alignment are not prototypical ditransitives denoting possessive transfer, but they mainly express cognitive transfer (e.g. doceo and verbs of requesting and demanding) or dispossession (e.g. celo). From a diachronic point of view, we may hypothesize that in languages with an inflectional case system and (relatively) free word order like Latin, the double-object construction is firstly applied to those contexts in which there is no ambiguity, i.e. with verbs necessarily presupposing an affected and human R, outranking the T on the animacy scale. The use of the double-object construction really corresponds to “the most economical pattern” with these verbs, as predicted by a functional-typological approach. On the other hand, if this construction were extended to a verb denoting possessive transfer like do, which admits both a human R and T, the distinct role of the two object arguments could be disambiguated only through context (and not through word order, for instance). At the same time, Latin ditransitive verbs taking a double object construction may shift from neutral alignment to another type of alignment, depending on their semantics and also on the properties of the R and T: also in this respect, features like affectedness of the R and its prominence on the T seem to play a significant role. In order to examine to what extent these features influence the selection and change of alignment with ditransitives in Latin, more research is obviously necessary on individual verbs.

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2 Pinkster, 1990, p. 45-46; cf. also Bennett, 1914, p. 247.

3 This section is based on Siewierska, 2003; Haspelmath, 2005, 2007, 2013, 2015; Malchukov et al., 2010; Malchukov, 2013; Croft, 2014.

4 As is well-known, apart from secundative alignment, dono also shows the same type of indirective alignment as do. On trivalent verbs with alternating constructions, cf. Bolkestein, 1985; Pinkster, 1985, p. 70f; Pinkster, 1990, p. 46, 50.

5 See Kittilä, 2006, p. 574; cf. also Malchukov, 2013, p. 268; Croft, 2014, p. 541.

6 According to Bennett, 1914, p. 247, the construction with double accusative “apparently originated with these (sc. personal pronouns, M. N.), and was slightly extended to other words in the case of certain verbs”.

7 A referee notes that, following Pinkster (2015, p. 167), quae ratione docentur is not a three-place construction, and that this explains why the object is passivized. He also objects that the same is true for (15b), where ab eo may not be regarded as an argument. In my interpretation ab eo is an argument and corresponds to the R, so id ab eo flagitabatur is a three-place construction. More in general, what is relevant to my analysis is the possibility (rare, but documented, as in (15a)) that the object is passivized instead of the person, i.e. the possibility of different kinds of alignment with verbs conceptually presupposing both a R and a T. On the passivization of the two arguments of ditransitive verbs, especially verba rogandi, see also Giusti and Iovino (this volume).

8 We may consider this phenomenon as an alignment split, since the construction in (18) – docere aliquem de aliqua re – is associated with a specific lexical feature: it is found when doceo has a shift in meaning, corresponding to ‘inform’ rather than to ‘teach’.

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Maria Napoli

Assistant Professor, University of Eastern Piedmont

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