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Language and Linguistics Compass 5/6 (2011): 413–423, 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2011.00279.

The Grammar of Eating and Drinking Verbs

Åshild Næss*
University of Zürich

Verbs referring to acts of eating and drinking show a crosslinguistic tendency to behave in ways
which distinguish them from other verbs in a language. Specifically, they tend to pattern like
intransitive verbs in certain respects, even though they appear to conform to the definition of
‘prototypical transitive verbs’. The explanations which have been suggested for this behaviour fall
into two main categories: those referring to telicity or Aktionsart, and those referring to the fact
that such verbs describe acts which have ‘affected agents’, i.e. they have an effect on their agent as
well as on their patient participant. The latter observation has further led to reexaminations of the
notion of transitivity in general.

1. Introduction
Across languages, verbs meaning ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ often show grammatical behaviour differ-
ent from that of other two-participant verbs. Specifically, eating and drinking verbs tend to
show ‘intransitive’ properties such as being able to occur without a direct object, taking
case-marking patterns more characteristic of intransitive than transitive verbs, occurring in
causative constructions otherwise reserved for intransitive verbs, and so forth. This paper
will illustrate the kinds of behaviour found with ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ verbs across languages
and review the main explanations which have been proposed to account for this.

2. ‘Eat and Drink’ Verbs and the Transitive Prototype

The discussion in this paper takes as its starting point the notion of transitivity as a proto-
type concept. This idea was first articulated by Hopper and Thompson (1980), who
showed that there is a cluster of semantic properties which influence the formal encoding
of clauses crosslinguistically. The parameter of making reference to one vs. two partici-
pants, traditionally considered to be the basis of the distinction between intransitive and
transitive verbs or clauses, is only one of these properties, which in Hopper and Thomp-
son’s analysis also include kinesis (whether the clause refers to an action or a non-action),
aspect (telic vs. atelic), punctuality (punctual vs. non-punctual), volitionality (volitional
vs. non-volitional), affirmation (affirmative vs. negative), mode (realis vs. irrealis), agency
(A high in potency vs. A low in potency), affectedness of O (O totally affected vs. O not
affected) and individuation of O (O highly individuated vs. O non-individuated). Hopper
and Thompson show that for any of these parameters, languages can be found which
encode a clause with a ‘high’ value differently from a clause with a ‘low’ value. While
the relevance and independence of some of Hopper and Thompson’s original parameters
have been discussed, there is wide agreement that a cluster of semantic parameters
along these lines can be taken to represent the ‘semantic transitive prototype’ crosslinguis-
tically. In other words, clauses which have high values for all or most of the features

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characterising the transitive prototype will be encoded as formally transitive in all lan-
guages, by whichever formal criteria characterise transitive clauses in any given language.
Languages will differ, however, in how far a clause may deviate from the semantic transi-
tive prototype and still be encoded formally as a transitive clause.
From this perspective, it is possible to distinguish between ‘two-participant verbs’ on
the one hand, and ‘transitive verbs’ on the other hand. Two-participant verbs are any
verbs which refer to an action necessarily involving two participants; thus ‘eat’ and ‘drink’
are two-participant verbs, involving someone eating or drinking, and something eaten or
drunk. By ‘transitive verbs’ we will understand verbs which pattern morphosyntactically
in the same way as those verbs in a language which conform to the transitive prototype.
The problem with ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ verbs, then, is the following: they are two-participant
verbs, but not necessarily transitive verbs, since they often occur in clauses which are not
identical to those found with prototypical transitive verbs. In order to explain this dispar-
ity it is necessary to identify the properties which distinguish ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ verbs from
prototypical transitive verbs. This in turn has led to a re-examination of the properties
assumed to define transitive verbs across languages.
Types of ‘intransitive behaviour’ exhibited by eating and drinking verbs include (but
are not restricted to) the following:
The ability to occur both with and without an overt direct object, even when most
transitive verbs in the language do not allow their objects to be omitted, as in English
and many other languages (I’m eating the apple ⁄ I’m eating);
Case-marking of the object with a marker otherwise used for oblique arguments, and not
appearing on direct objects of prototypical transitive verbs, as in Bororo (Macro-Ge,
(1) a. E-re karo bowi je
1PL-NEUTRAL fish cut
‘He cut the fish’
b. Okoage-re karo-ji fish-OBL
‘He ate fish.’ (Crowell 1979:23, 30)
Use of ‘eat’ in antipassive constructions, even when no clear ‘antipassive’ reading is
intended, in Kalkatungu (Pama-Nyungan, Australia):
(2) Ati-ntuNu Nai maanti-n1a wakari-t1uNu ar: i-li-›in
meat-CAUS I sate-PAST fish-CAUS eat-ANTIP-PAST
‘I’m full because I ate the fish’ (Blake 1979:47)
Occurrence in causative constructions otherwise reserved for intransitive verbs (cf. Sec-
tion 4 below), as in Berber (Afro-Asiatic), where other transitive verbs like wt ‘hit’ cannot
appear in the causative construction seen with ‘eat’ below:
(3) a. y-ttcu wqqzin aysum
3M.SG-eat dog:CST meat
‘The dog ate the meat’
b. y-ss-ttc wryaz aysum
3M.SG-TRANS-eat:PER man:CST meat
‘The man fed meat to the dog’ (Guerssel 1986 cited in Amberber 2009:50–1)

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Eating and Drinking Verbs 415

3. Semantic Aspects of Eating and Drinking Verbs

Eating and drinking are perhaps the most fundamental of human activities, in the sense
that they are a prerequisite for sustaining life; they are universal and performed in much
the same way across all human societies. This is not to say that all languages structure this
semantic domain in exactly the same way. Indeed, Wierzbicka (2009) argues that while
eating and drinking are universal human activities, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are not universal
human concepts. There are languages, such as Kalam (Trans-New Guinea, Papua New
Guinea) or Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan, Australia), which have a single lexeme covering
both the senses denoted by English eat and drink. In Wierzbicka’s view, this implies that
speakers of these languages have a single, unitary conceptual category covering both
the concepts referred to by English eat and drink. We also find languages like Manambu
(Sepik, Papua New Guinea), where a single verb covers what in English would be trans-
lated as eat, drink and smoke (Aikhenvald 2009).
Regarding where such conceptual differences come from, Wierzbicka notes that there
may be cultural factors involved, but that even languages spoken in communities which
are geographically and culturally close to each other may differ from each other in this
respect: Warlpiri does not make a lexical distinction between ‘eat’ and ‘drink’, but
Arrernte, which is spoken in an area close to that of Warlpiri, and Pitjantjatjara, which is
closely related to Warlpiri, both do (though see Wierzbicka 2009:85–7 for a discussion of
the precise meaning of the verb glossed ‘drink’ in Arrernte).
At the other end of the spectrum, we find languages such as those of the Athapaskan
family, where systems of ‘classificatory verbs’ distinguish between the consumption of a
range of different types of object; Navajo, for example, has different verb stems for eating
hard, compact things, leafy things, meat, marrow, or mushy things, among several others
(Rice 2009:120).
It is, of course, debatable to what extent such lexical differences can be assumed to
correspond directly to conceptual differences in speakers of different languages; the fact
that a particular concept is not lexicalised in a language is not necessarily evidence that
the concept itself does not exist among the language’s speakers. At any rate, it is clear that
there are many different ways of lexicalising the semantic domain of consumption of food
and drink.
In addition to varying considerably in the semantic distinctions made, verbs of eating
and drinking are a rich source of metaphors crosslinguistically. The complex semantic
properties of eating and drinking verbs, involving both a destructive effect on an object, a
physical effect on the agent, and a sensory experience – usually pleasant – on the part of
the agent, allow for an array of semantic extensions. These include, for example, expres-
sions of absorption or internalisation in languages like Korean and Mandarin; expressions
of enjoyment or satisfaction as in Mandarin chi haŏhuà ‘eat good words’ = ‘savour praise’
or English eat up the adoration; expressions of adversativity as in Hausa yaa ci ⁄ shaa dukàa ‘he
ate ⁄ drank a beating’ = ‘he was severely beaten’ or Korean yok-ul mek-ess-ta (criticism-ACC
eat-PST-IND) ‘be criticised’; expressions of destruction or overpowering as in Amharic
b llahut ‘I defeated him’ (lit. I ate him), among others (Newman 2009).

4. ‘Ingestive Verbs’
An early account of eating and drinking verbs is found in Masica (1976), who describes
the behaviour in Hindi of what he calls ‘ingestive verbs’: ‘a small set of verbs … having
in common a semantic feature of taking something into the body or mind (literally or

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figuratively)’ (Masica 1976:46, emphasis in original). This group includes in Hindi not
only ‘eat’ and ‘drink’, but also verbs meaning ‘hear’, ‘understand’, ‘learn’, ‘read’ and ‘see’;
they pattern together formally by the way they behave under causativisation. Hindi has
two causative suffixes, one ‘direct’ (-aa) and one ‘indirect’ (-waa). With intransitive verbs,
there is a semantic difference between the two, in that the -aa suffix usually introduces a
direct causee (gir- ‘fall’, giraa ‘drop’), whereas the -waa suffix introduces an indirect causee
(calwaa ‘have someone drive’). With transitive verbs, both suffixes usually give the same
reading, namely indirect causation. But the ingestive verbs, like the intransitives, show a
semantic difference, as in khaa ‘eat’, khilaa ‘feed’, khilwaa ‘have someone fed’. (For other
languages where eating and drinking verbs pattern like intransitives with respect to causat-
ivisation, see Amberber 2009).
Masica describes these verbs as ‘occupying a halfway station between intransitives and
transitives, since the object in question can frequently be dispensed with in favour of
concentration on the activity as such’ and suggests that they may be called ‘semitransi-
tives’ (Masica 1976:48, 58). He notes, however, that the Hindi verbs for ‘eat’ and ‘drink’
do not actually tend to occur without an object in the way that their English counterparts
do; an object such as ‘food’ is normally required. In other words, like their English coun-
terparts, the Hindi verbs for ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ show behaviour which deviates from that of
most other two-participant verbs, but not in exactly the same way as in English.
Whether the term ‘ingestive verb’ was actually intended as defining a coherent cate-
gory of language in general, or just as a convenient descriptive cover term for the rele-
vant group of Hindi verbs, is not entirely clear. Klaiman (1981) criticises it in the former
perspective, giving several reasons why the category is problematic. Firstly, it is difficult
to establish a fixed class of verbs appropriately characterised by the semantic feature
‘ingestive’. In languages closely related to Hindi, some verbs, like Bengali par¢ – ‘study’,
can show either the ‘transitive’ or the ‘ingestive’ pattern of causativisation depending on
the intended reading – ‘make someone read’ for the transitive pattern, ‘teach’ for the
ingestive pattern. Such verbs seem to be ambiguous between an ‘ingestive’ and a ‘nonin-
gestive’ reading. Secondly, not all verbs showing the patterning in question seem to have
‘ingestive’ semantics; for example, Hindi pahan- ‘wear, put on’ takes the causative pat-
terning described above, but does not refer to the ingesting of anything. Finally, the
notion of ‘ingestivity’ does not in itself explain why ‘ingestive’ verbs should show formal
similarities with intransitive verbs in certain constructions. Klaiman proposes to replace
the term with a distinction between ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ verbs, where affective verbs
refer to actions primarily bearing on or affecting the subject, whereas effective verbs refer
to actions primarily bearing on or affecting some entity other than the subject. Acts of
‘taking something into the body or mind’ could be naturally construed as having a pri-
mary effect on the subject, and so count as affective. Since intransitive verbs have only
one argument, the subject, the event they describe by default bears on or affects the sub-
ject rather than some other participant; that is, by Klaiman’s account, all intransitive verbs
are basically affective. This is taken to explain the causative patterns described above: they
are common to affective verbs in general, whether transitive or intransitive. The notion
of ‘affectedness of the agent’ and its relevance for eating and drinking verbs is discussed
further in Section 6 below.

5. Aktionsart Accounts
A number of linguists have attempted to explain the ability of verbs like ‘eat’ and ‘drink’
to occur in both transitive and intransitive constructions in terms of telicity or ‘Aktionsart’;

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that is, whether or not a verb describes an event which has a defined endpoint. Thus
Mittwoch (1982) describes the difference between eating and eating something as that of an
‘activity’ versus an ‘accomplishment’, a distinction stemming from Vendler (1967). Both
activities and accomplishments are expressed through ‘process verbs’, defined as verbs
which can be modified by the adverbs quickly and slowly. When a process verb lacks an
object, or has an unquantified object, it describes an activity; when it has a quantified
object, it describes an accomplishment.
A similar analysis is developed by Tenny (1994), who characterises objects as ‘measur-
ing arguments’: the effect of an act on its object delimits or ‘measures out’ the event, in
the sense that the act is brought to an end once the effect on the object is fully achieved.
On Tenny’s analysis, the telicity of the verb ‘eat’ depends on the ‘delimitedness’ or
‘non-delimitedness’ of its measuring argument, that is, its object:
If Chuck eats an apple, he finishes eating when the apple is gone, but if he eats ice cream, he
continues eating for an indefinite period of time, because there is an indefinite quantity of ice
cream. (He may even continue eating ice cream forever, if he is in a world that never runs out
of ice cream). (Tenny 1994:24)
Van Valin and LaPolla (1997) characterise the verb ‘eat’ as ‘not inherently telic’ (112).
They provide an analysis within the framework of Role and Reference Grammar
(RRG), which assumes the four basic classes of state, activity, accomplishment and
achievement verbs. ‘Eat’ and similar verbs are analysed within this framework as activ-
ity verbs with derived accomplishment uses. That is, ‘eat’ has the basic lexical structure
of an activity verb: do’(x, [eat (x,y)]). When the verb is used as an active accomplish-
ment, a modifier representing the result of the activity is added, giving the logical
structure do’(x, [eat (x,y)]) & BECOME consumed’(y) (Van Valin and LaPolla
1997:111ff, 180).
The RRG analysis assumes a special status for the second argument of two-place
activity verbs. Such arguments are non-referential and express ‘an intrinsic facet of the
meaning of the verb’ rather than referring to any specific participant in the event; Van
Valin and LaPolla label them inherent arguments. A further characteristic of inherent
arguments is that, since they are non-referential, they have no semantic macrorole. In
RRG, semantic macroroles are defined as generalised semantic roles each subsuming a
number of specific argument types such as agent, effector and instrument. Transitive verbs
are characterised by having two macroroles in their logical structure: an ‘AGENT-type
role’ called actor and a ‘PATIENT-type role’ called undergoer. However, the second
argument of activity verbs are not undergoers and so do not represent a macrorole:
if [an argument] does not refer to any specific participant in a state of affairs, it cannot be an
undergoer, because undergoer arguments refer to the participants which are viewed as primarily
affected in the state of affairs; accordingly, undergoers must be referential. (Van Valin and
LaPolla 1997:149)
Inherent arguments are omissible, and this gives rise to the possibility of using verb like
‘eat’ in an intransitive frame.
There are a number of problems with such an analysis, of which two will be pointed
out here. Firstly, it is not clear that ‘inherent arguments’ constitute a well-defined cate-
gory. They are supposed to be characterised firstly, by being freely omissible ‘in English
and many other languages’ (Van Valin and LaPolla 1997:123); and secondly, when they
are omitted, they cannot be interpreted as having a discourse referent: that is, if asked
Where is my sandwich?, one cannot respond Bill ate.

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The first of these criteria does not appear to hold for all supposedly inherent argu-
ments. For example, a verb like chop would appear to fulfil the criteria for a two-place
activity verb, in that its second argument may be non-referential: chop wood does not nec-
essarily refer to any specific affected patient, any more than eat pizza does. Nevertheless,
English chop does not readily omit its object, suggesting that non-referentiality is not a
sufficient criterion for omissibility in English.
The second criterion, by contrast, is not delimited to second arguments of activity
verbs, but is rather characteristic of the phenomenon known as indefinite object dele-
tion: wherever an object can be omitted with the implication that its referent is indefi-
nite and non-recoverable, the same pattern occurs, regardless of the semantics of the
verb itself. For example the English verb murder would seem clearly to involve an
undergoer macrorole and to represent an achievement rather than an activity. Yet, in
contexts where the object of murder may be omitted, it is subject to exactly the same
restrictions as that of eat: one can say John murdered for the money, but not What happened
to Mary? Her husband murdered for the money, on the reading that Mary was the victim
of the murder.
A more general problem which holds for all accounts based on the notion of telicity
or the activity ⁄ accomplishment distinction is that even in its intransitive use, eat may have
a telic reading. If the reason why ‘eat’ has an intransitive use is that it is, or may be con-
strued as, atelic, we would expect the intransitive use to necessarily have an atelic reading.
However, this is not the case; while intransitive ‘eat’ clauses may combine with adverbs
of duration and so be understood as atelic (We ate all evening), they can also take adverbs
of completion, giving a telic reading: I ate in five minutes (before rushing off to work). It
appears, then, that atelicity does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the intransitive
behaviour of ‘eat’ verbs.

6. The ‘Affected Agent’ Account

An approach which in a sense harks back to the ‘ingestive verb’ hypothesis is that which
focuses on the semantics of verbs like ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ as crucially involving an effect not
only on their patient, the object eaten or drunk, but also on their agent. The term
‘affected agent’ is evoked in Saksena (1980, 1982) to account for essentially the same data
as that discussed by Masica, namely Hindi causatives.
In addition to the choice of causative suffix on the verb, Hindi has a choice of two
case postpositions which may mark the causee argument in a causative construction: the
dative ⁄ accusative koo, and the instrumental see. Most verbs allow only one or the other,
though for a small group of verbs there is a choice; ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are among the verbs
which take the marker koo on the causee when causativised. The verbs which take koo
causatives, says Saksena, refer to activities which
are not only directed at their objects (…) but also towards their agents … In other words, these
agents have some of the properties that one typically expects of patients. These agents are not
only do-ers (performers of activities) but also do-ees (recipients of the same activities). (Saksena
Haspelmath (1994) similarly notes that affected-agent verbs in Hindi-Urdu are excep-
tional in being able to form ‘agent-oriented’ active resultative participles (‘the eaten boy’
with the meaning ‘the boy who ate’), and ascribes this to the effect on the agent, which
makes it possible for the agent to be ‘characterised by the resulting state’ (Haspelmath

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Eating and Drinking Verbs 419

While Saksena’s analysis is developed principally to account for case-marking patterns

in Hindi causatives, she notes that only causatives where the causee is an affected agent
can undergo indefinite object deletion in Hindi. In other words, affectedness of the agent
is associated not only with specific case-marking patterns, but also with the possibility of
intransitive behaviour.
Wierzbicka (1982) discusses constructions of the type have a drink, have a swim, and
accounts for their distribution to a large extent in terms of affectedness of the agent par-
ticipant. The kinds of verbs which can occur in this construction are constrained by a
number of principles, of which the most central is that they describe actions undertaken
primarily for the purpose of achieving some effect on their agent:
the have a V frame specifically excludes a goal different from the agent himself; if the agent does
something in order to affect some other object, then the have a V frame cannot be used … Fur-
thermore, the action described in the have a V frame is viewed not only as lacking an external
goal, but also has having a potential INTERNAL goal. (Wierzbicka 1982:758)
Wierzbicka links this affected-agent semantics explicitly to reduced formal transitivity:
‘have works as a detransitiviser: the object is de-emphasised, the predication concerning
the object is backgrounded, and at the same time the emphasis on the agent increases’
(Wierzbicka 1982:291).
Næss (2007) similarly argues that the affected-agent semantics of verbs of eating and
drinking is responsible for their intransitive-like behaviour. The usual definition of a transi-
tive situation is that it involves a volitional, controlling agent which performs an act that has
an effect on a patient. From such a perspective, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ verbs should behave like
other transitive verbs, as they describe (normally) volitional acts which have a clear and irre-
versible effect on their patient. In order to explain why agent affectedness correlates with
reduced transitivity, Næss claims that it is a crucial property of transitive constructions that
their arguments are maximally distinct – not just as physical entities, but in terms of the role
they play in an event. Thus a prototypical transitive construction has one single controlling
participant and one single affected participant. Verbs of eating and drinking deviate from this
pattern because both the agent and the patient are affected – they are therefore not maxi-
mally distinct, meaning that such verbs are not prototypically transitive. As a result, such
verbs may be predicted to deviate from the encoding found with prototypical transitive
verbs in various ways, and particularly in ways which emphasise the effect on the agent over
that on the patient, such as the demotion or omission of the patient object.
Næss further argues that the affectedness of the agent accounts for the possibility of
using intransitive eat with a telic reading, discussed above; the effect on the agent can
function to ‘measure out’ the event just as the effect on the patient can, and it is the
effect on the agent – going from hungry to full – that delimits the event in cases such as
I ate in five minutes. In other words, Tenny’s statement that an agent might in principle
‘continue eating ice cream forever’, referred to in Section 5 above, is in fact incorrect,
because acts of eating and drinking are not only delimited by their object, by also by
their effect on the agent; in the real world it is physically impossible to ‘continue eating
forever’. That is, ‘eat’ differs from prototypical transitive verbs in having two potential
‘measuring arguments’ – the agent and the patient.
It should be noted that any property capable of imposing a limit on an event may serve as
an explanation for patterns like eat for an hour vs. eat in five minutes. Thus, an inherently atelic
predicate like run might be construed as delimited, e.g. in the context of a race, where it is
understood that there is a set distance to be run; in such a context a sentence like I ran in ten
minutes is perfectly acceptable. The affectedness of the agent, then, is one possible way in

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which an event may be delimited, giving rise to the possibility of telic uses of intransitive
‘eat’; it is not necessarily the only possible explanation. This may be perceived as a potential
weakness of the affected-agent account in general: how to disentangle the formal effects of
agent affectedness from the effects of any other semantic or pragmatic properties that may be
relevant. It should also be noted that ‘affectedness’ is not necessarily a well-defined property,
and that a more detailed account is needed of exactly which kinds of effects on an agent are
relevant to the formal encoding of clauses, and whether all predicates with affected agents
pattern in the same way – cf. also Section 8 below.

7. ‘Specialised Readings’
Many authors have noted that in English, and in many other languages where ‘eat’ and
‘drink’ may occur either with or without a direct object, the objectless construction has a
particular reading which is not inherent to the verb itself. As Fillmore (1986:96) puts it,
‘EAT is used to mean something like ‘‘eat a meal’’ – not merely ‘‘eat something’’, and
DRINK is used to mean ‘‘drink alcoholic beverages’’ ’. Huddleston and Pullum (2002)
refer to such constructions in English as ‘specific category indefinites’, contrasting with
‘normal category indefinites’ where the understood object is taken to belong to the ‘typi-
cal, unexceptional category for the verb in question’ (Huddleston and Pullum 2002:304).
A potential objection to such an account is the problem of making a principled distinc-
tion between the two types – how can you tell whether an absent object is meant to be
interpreted as being of a ‘specific category’ rather than being ‘typical, unexceptional’?
The reasons for this kind of ‘semantic specialisation’ have been subject to much discus-
sion. Rice (1988) suggests that ‘drink’ takes alcohol as its ‘prototypical complement’, in
the sense of an NP which is routinely evoked as the understood object when a certain
verb is used without an overt object noun phrase. This may be problematic in that it is
not clear why alcoholic drinks should be seen as ‘prototypical’; most acts of drinking by
most people involve objects other than alcohol. If the only evidence for seeing ‘alcohol’
as the prototypical object of ‘drink’ is that ‘drink’ under object omission is read as mean-
ing ‘drink alcohol’, then the argument is clearly circular: the object is omissible because it
is prototypical, and it is prototypical because it is omissible. Still, there may be something
to the idea of alcoholic beverages as being highly typical objects of English drink;
Newman and Rice (2006) find that in the British National Corpus, around half of the 20
most frequent object nouns with drink were names for various types of alcoholic beverage
(though the most frequent object nouns were tea and coffee).
An alternative explanation which has been proposed starts from the affected agent anal-
ysis described above, and argues that the function of object omission with verbs of eating
and drinking is to highlight the effect of action on the agent, by removing the other
affected argument, the object. For ‘drink’ this leads to an ‘alcohol’ reading because the
consumption of alcohol is a culturally salient activity, and, more importantly, because
drinking alcohol is associated with a very specific and often directly observable effect on
the agent, that of intoxication. For ‘eat’, the intended effect of eating is said to be that of
becoming full, and the amount of food required to achieve this is conventionally referred
to as ‘a meal’ – hence the ‘eat a meal’ reading of objectless ‘eat’ (Næss 2007:141–4).

8. Eating, Drinking and Beyond

We have looked at ways in which verbs of eating and drinking pattern differently from
other two-participant verbs across languages, and at properties of such verbs which may

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Eating and Drinking Verbs 421

be understood as explaining these patterns. The final question to be examined is whether

‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are unique in showing these properties, or whether these verbs are part
of a larger semantic class showing the same properties. That is, are acts of eating or drink-
ing so special that they are encoded in a special way, or are the properties which make
them special also shared by other kinds of acts?
It is difficult to find systematic crosslinguistic data on which other verbs might pattern
similarly to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ – often, in descriptive grammars, a construction is illustrated
with ‘eat’ or ‘drink’, with no listing of which other verbs might occur in the same con-
struction. As noted above, Masica includes experiencer verbs such as ‘hear’ and ‘see’, and
verbs of cognitive activity such as ‘understand’ and ‘learn’, in his class of ‘ingestives’.
Experiencers can be understood as being semantically similar to affected agents in that
they are both to some extent actively involved in the event – their cognitive and sensory
apparatus has to be engaged to some extent – and register an effect of the event. If affect-
edness of the agent is indeed the relevant property characteristic of eat and drink verbs,
they might be expected to pattern similarly to experiencer verbs.
At least some languages where ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ may occur without an overt object also
allow this for certain experiencer verbs, such as ita ‘see’, rongu ‘hear’, ma.rombang ‘forget’,
hambur ‘understand’ and others in Kambera (Austronesian, Indonesia; Klamer 1998:147)
or tangerr- ‘see’, uyangte ‘peer into’ in Yup’ik (Eskimo-Aleut, Alaska; Woodbury
1981:288). The Kambera verbs patterning in this way also include a number of others,
such as napa ‘wait, wait for’, njàrang ‘be lost, lose’ and others, for which a semantic gener-
alisation seems harder to make.
Huddleston and Pullum (2002) include in the list of verbs allowing ‘specific category
indefinites’, in addition to eat and drink, bake, wash, and expect (as in She is expecting again).
Of these, wash in its intransitive sense has a reflexive meaning, referring to an act per-
formed on the agent’s own body; it thus shares the property of agent affectedness with
verbs of eating and drinking. Bake, on the other hand, is a so-called effected-object verb,
i.e. a verb whose object is brought into existence by the verbal action rather than simply
affected by it.
Effected-object verbs share the property of often having an intransitive as well as a
transitive use with affected-agent verbs, and many approaches lump together ‘verbs of
consumption and creation’ into a single category expected to pattern identically (e.g.
Van Valin and LaPolla 1997:111). However, the semantic properties that set these
two groups of verbs apart from other two-participant verbs are different: Verbs of eat-
ing and drinking have an effect on their agent, meaning that the object can be left
out if the effect one wishes to focus on is that on the agent. Verbs of creation, on
the other hand, have non-referential objects – the objects do not exist until the ver-
bal action has been brought to completion – and it is this non-referentiality which
most plausibly accounts for the omissibility of effected objects in languages like Eng-
lish (Hopper 1985; Næss 2007:127). One might propose a shared property of low
distinctness of the object; with affected-agent verbs, the object is low in distinctness
because it shares its defining semantic property, affectedness, with the agent, and with
effected-object verbs it is low in distinctness because it is non-referential (Næss
2007:128). It should be noted, however, that not all languages treat affected-agent
verbs and effected-object verbs the same way as far as object omissibility is concerned.
Kambera includes some effected-object verbs in the set of verb occurring either with
or without an object, e.g. tinung ‘weave’, pa.banjar ‘talk, talk about’; Turkish, on the
other hand can omit the object of affected-agent verbs but not of effected-object
verbs (Næss 2007:139–40).

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Language and Linguistics Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
422 Åshild Næss

The properties that make verbs of eating and drinking pattern in particular ways across
language, then, are shared to various extents with other classes of verbs. The property of
affecting an initiating entity is also found in verbs of experience, as well as in reflexive
and middle constructions (Kemmer 1993; Næss 2007:72–5). The result of this property,
namely that the two arguments of such verbs are seen as less than fully distinct, is shared
by other kinds of verbs such as effected-object verbs. The grammatical properties of eat-
ing and drinking verbs may therefore be shared in different languages by constructions
deemed to be to some extent semantically similar; the exact classes of verbs involved
across languages, and the properties which allow for their similar treatment, is a matter
for future research.

Short Biography
Åshild Næss’ work in linguistic typology focuses on the crosslinguistic concept of transi-
tivity, and on its grammatical reflexes, including in particular patterns of case-marking.
Her 2007 book Prototypical Transitivity (John Benjamins) discusses the idea of a transitive
prototype from a crosslinguistic perspective and argues that it should be understood in
terms of an iconic relationship between the expression of participants as independent syn-
tactic arguments and their relative independence from each other and from the general
background. She has also done descriptive work on the Vaeakau-Taumako and Äiwoo
languages in the Reef Islands in the southwest Pacific; her work on the latter language
led to the recategorization of the so-called Reef-Santa Cruz languages as belonging to a
previously unrecognized first-order subgroup of Oceanic, whereas earlier they were
thought to be of mixed Austronesian-Papuan origin. A reference grammar of Vaeakau-
Taumako, co-authored with Even Hovdhaugen, is due to appear in the Mouton Gram-
mar Library series. Næss holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Nijmegen and
has worked on research projects in Nijmegen and Oslo; she is currently a Visiting Profes-
sor at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

* Correspondence address: Åshild Næss, Martin Skatvedts vei 1, 0950 Oslo, Norway. E-mail:

Abbreviations used in glosses: ACC, accusative; ANTIP, antipassive; CAUS, causative; CST, construct state;
DAT, dative; IND, indicative; M, masculine; OBL, oblique; PER, perfective; PL, plural; PST, past; SG, singular;
TRANS, transitive.

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Language and Linguistics Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd