What’s Raining?

Let’s say we’re having soup for dinner, and I want to make sure it’s ready. I might taste a little and say, “Yes, it’s hot.” Someone who comes in at that moment and doesn’t know what’s going on could ask, “What’s hot?”, and I could answer, “The soup”. Now let’s say that I’ve come in from outside and someone asks me what the weather is like and I say, “It’s hot”. If someone then asks “What’s hot?”, I couldn’t say that there’s a specific thing that’s hot. It’s hot in general. Likewise, if I say, “It’s raining”, I don’t mean that some specific thing is raining.

These sentences are examples of what are called ambient statements—statements about the environment or the weather. Ambient statements often use an ambient verb, such as “to rain”, and it’s convenient to suppose that all ambient statements implicitly use something like an ambient verb—instead of saying “It’s cold” with an adjective we could say “It’s freezing” with a verb. Ambient verbs, according to Robert Longacre, are one of twelve different types of verbs, and all verbs fit into one or another of these types. In this essay I will discuss the various types of verbs in Longacre’s system.

With some exceptions, ambient statements use verbs or adjectives without any nouns. “It’s raining” is just a verb, “It’s hot” is just the verb “to be” with an adjective. Even the word “it” isn’t really a pronoun. If I say, “I’ve been heating the soup, and now it’s hot”, the pronoun “it” has an antecedent—the soup. But in “It’s raining”, the “it” doesn’t have an antecedent—there’s no noun that “it” replaces. Even if I say “I saw a big cloud overhead, and now it’s raining”, the “it” doesn’t refer to that particular cloud. I can say, “I saw three clouds over head, and now it’s raining”; if the “it” were a pronoun, it would have to be plural—“I saw three clouds overhead, and now they are raining”—but no one would say that. The word “it” in “It’s raining” is just a filler. English grammar requires every full sentence to have something in the subject slot. If there is no noun to go there, or no pronoun standing in for a noun, you have to fill the subject slot with an empty “it”. In Latin, which does not require the subject slot to be filled, you can use the single word “pluit”, which translates “it’s raining”, all by itself. (Compare the French “Il pluet”, which does have a filler in the subject slot.)

Although most weather verbs don’t require a subject, some of them allow a subject, at least in some situations. In ancient Greece it was possible to say “Zeus is raining”, because Zeus was in charge of the weather and in a sense he was the weather. In English I can say “God made it rain”, but “God rained” feels very odd. I don’t know if this is a question of grammar or theology. But I can say “God thundered to show his approval”.

Most ambient verbs don’t need or won’t take a direct object. I don’t usually say “It’s raining rain”, though if I’m describing a parade I could say “It was raining confetti”. The object “confetti” isn’t a Patient, because it isn’t affected by the action; Longacre would count it as “Range”.

Ambient verbs come in four different aspects. These aspects are State, Process, Action Process, and Action. It’s not easy to say just what an aspect is, though examples will make the concept reasonably clear. Aspect has something to do with the way the verb manifests itself. A verb in the State aspect describes a general persisting condition rather than a particular moment or an action which takes place in a particular moment; a verb in the Process aspect describes some change; verbs in the Action Process and Action aspects are thought of as the action of an agent. (We will find that all twelve verb types come in all four aspects—well, almost.) Here are examples of the four aspects of ambient verbs:

Ambient State: It’s hot.
Ambient Process: It’s getting hotter.
Ambient Action Process: God made it rain.
Ambient Action: It’s raining.

Ambient State, Process, and Action verbs don’t usually take any nouns at all; Ambient Action Process verbs take an agent; none of these has a Patient or an Experiencer.

The twelve verb types, as we will see, are generally distinguished from one another by the cases of the nouns that are required by each verb type. Since there are twelve verb types and each type can appear in each of the four aspects, we can build a four-by-twelve grid with forty-eight possible boxes—but Longacre’s system leaves a few case frames empty and a few are subdivided. Each box can be called a case frame.

So far we have examined the four aspects of one type, that is four case frames. Verbs of three of these boxes don’t require any nouns in any case (though we have seen that there may be an optional noun, such as the Range noun in “It’s raining confetti”). The Ambient Action Process box requires just an Agent.

If you add a noun in the Experiencer case, you get a second type of verb. Longacre calls these, reasonably enough, Ambient Experiential verbs. This type also appears in the four aspects.

Experiential State: John is hot.
Experiential Process: John is getting hot.
Experiential Action Process: John warmed himself at the fire.
Experiential Action: It’s raining on John. John got caught in the rain.

All of these have an Experiencer; in all the examples above, the Experiencer is John. The Action Process verb also has an Agent, and the Agent and the Experiencer are the same.

Verbs in Longacre’s third type, Experiential verbs, all have an Experiencer, but the verbs are psychological or affective (roughly speaking) rather than ambient. In the following examples of Experiential verbs I have added a notation of the noun cases for each aspect, including an obligatory Experiencer and an optional Instrument—Instrument is a general category that includes the objects or situations that create the Experiencer’s affect.

Experiential State: Mary is nervous (about the interview). E(I)
Experiential Process: John is becoming discouraged (about his work). E(I)
Experiential Action Process: John amused me (with his small talk). AE(I)
Experiential Action: John felt the fabric (with both hands). AE(R)(I)

In the Experiential Action Process case frame, the Agent and the Experiencer may be coreferential (“John amused himself with his game of solitaire”) or not (“John amused me with his small talk”). I’m not sure if they have to be coreferential in the Action frame—further examples might be needed. In “John felt the fabric” I think “fabric” would be Range rather than Patient.

Longacre’s fourth verb type he calls Factual Knowledge. He considers these a subtype of Experiential verbs, but I’m not sure just why. All of these include a noun of what is known. The thing known is not affected by being known, so it is not a Patient; in Longacre’s system the thing known is in the Range case.

Factual Knowledge State: Susan knows algebra. ER
Factual Knowledge Process: I’ve forgotten all my French. ER
Factual Knowledge Action Process: Mr. Smith taught Jim algebra. AER
Factual Knowledge Action: John is studying algebra. A/E R

In the Action Process frame, the Experiencer (“Jim”) may be (must be?) different from the Agent (“Mr. Smith”); in the Action frame, the Agent and the Experiencer may be (must be?) the same.

A complete account of all the aspects of all the types of verbs gets too long and detailed for this blog, so I will summarize the remaining case frames.

Longacre’s fifth type is Desire/Cognition; it includes sentences such as “Mary wants a new car”. The distinguishing feature of this type is the addition of a noun in the Goal case: thus “a new car” is the goal of Mary’s desire. His sixth type (which he considers a subtype of Desire/Cognition) is Sensation, which includes sentences such as “Tom heard the owl”. Verbs of this type require an Experiencer (Tom experiences the sound of the owl) and also a Source (the owl is the source of the sound that Tom hears).

The seventh type is Physical Verbs, such as “The dish broke” or “Tom broke the dish with a hammer”. These (mostly) require a Patient (the dish); they may or may not have an Agent (Tom) and an Instrument (the hammer). Longacre divides the Action aspect of Physical verbs into three subcategories, which include sentences such as “The tape recorder is functioning well”; “Stephen ran the marathon” or “Stephen made a table”; and “John kicked the boulder” or “John rubbed his chin”. These deserve more discussion, but not here.

The eighth type is verbs of Measure, such as “This hat costs five dollar”; all of these, of course, include a noun of Measure. The ninth type is Locative verbs, such as “The key is under the rug”; these include a noun in the Locative case or some equivalent construction, such as a prepositional phrase of location. The tenth type, a subtype of the ninth, is Motion, Propulsion, and Locomotion, such as “Tom threw the ball across the room”, where “across the room” is Path.

The eleventh type is Direct Possession. In sentences of this type, the owner is the Goal—thus in the sentence “Tom has a new book” Tom is the Goal. In “Tom grabbed the book from John”, Tom is both the Agent and the Goal, the book is the Patient, and John is the Source. The twelfth type, a subtype of the eleventh, is Indirect Possession; in the (rather unlikely) sentence “George grabbed the book for Susan from John with tongs”. “George” is both Agent and Path, “the book” is Patient, “Susan” is Goal, “John” is Source, and “tongs” is Instrument.

Here, then, is the full list of Longacre’s twelve verb types:

Ambient Experiential
Factual Knowledge
Propulsion, Locomotion
Direct Possession;
Indirect Possession.

Longacre implicitly claims that every verb fits into one or another of these twelve types; these are the twelve fundamental ways we talk about the world. He also implies that these deep cases are universal—that is, that they appear in every language—whereas the surface cases vary from language to language. But different languages will express these deep cases in different ways; even in a single language they may be expressed in different ways.

The system I have outlined should be taken as a whole: the ten nuclear noun cases (and perhaps the peripheral cases as well); the four verb aspects; the twelve verb types; and the forty-eight cases frames which derive from all of these. If all this is a universal deep system of language, the implication is that this is the way we talk about the world; perhaps the way we think about the world and understand the world; and perhaps what the world is, at least insofar as we understand it. As Longacre says, “To assemble and compare the case frames of a language is to evolve a semantic typology or classification of its verbs. Such a classification, if well done, should serve several purposes. It is like an index of man, his interactions with his environment, his emotions, and his activities….” (Here, by the way, I think Longacre fudges the question of universality: he talks of “the case frames of a language, as if different languages could have different case frames, but then when he talks about “the index of man” and so on, he seems to be speaking about universals.)

I find Longacre’s system tremendously interesting, but I regard it as the beginning of a conversation rather than the conclusion. Every part of the system seems to me at least potentially leaky. Why should we accept just these ten cases and not others? Why should we accept just these twelve verb types and not others? I am not sure, for instance, that I see in his system a comfortable place for a sentence as basic as “George is tall”. The verb here isn’t a Physical verb in the State aspect—that case frame requires a Patient, as in “The dish is broken”, but “George” doesn’t seem to me to be a Patient. Perhaps the verb Measure verb in the State aspect, but then what about “George is clumsy”? Or what about “George is President”? Some linguists add a case called Theme for nouns in sentences like these. Are there other problematic sentences? Furthermore, it’s important, I think, to examine the contribution of surface structure. Consider, for instance, “Snow fell in the mountains, but not in the plains” versus “It was snowing in the mountains, but not in the plains”—do these different surface structures express the same deep cases? Do the different surface structures express shades of meaning not covered by the general categories of Longacre’s system?

This post concludes, for now, my series of posts on cases. As always, I welcome questions, comments, and other contributions to the discussion. Next time, a new topic….

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