The caritive

An e-mail announcement from Sonya Oskolskaya (СА Оскольская) on 10/21:

The Institute for Linguistic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences is pleased to announce the conference “Caritive Constructions in the Languages of the World”, to be held in Saint Petersburg, Russia on April 21–23, 2020.

The conference aims to bring together studies on caritive (a.k.a. abessive or privative) constructions in different languages.

The working definition of caritive employed by the organizers is as follows:

Caritive describes non-involvement of a participant (Absentee) in a situation, with the non-involvement predication semantically modifying the situation or a participant of another situation.


Jill went to the party without Jack.
Jack entered a room without windows.
– I saw a beardless man.

— (image link)

Submissions may address any issues related to caritive constructions: pragmatic, semantic, syntactic, morphological, or lexical, synchronic or diachronic, language-particular as well as cross-linguistic. We are especially interested in papers concerning the expression of caritive semantics in the languages that do not have a dedicated caritive marker.

Technical terminology. The call for papers uses three names for the topic of the conference. All three begin as names for bits of semantic content:

OED (added 1972) on the etymology of the adj. caritive: < Latin carit– participial stem of carēre to lack + –ive suffix [that is, a caritive element expresses that something is lacking]

NOAD on the adj. privative: (of an action or state) marked by the absence, removal, or loss of some quality or attribute that is normally present

abessive < Lat. abesse ‘to be away/absent’

The terms are then available as names for morphological cases, for inflectional forms, as in the OED entry for caritive:

Grammar. Applied to the case used (in Caucasian languages, etc.) to express the lack of something…

[1st cite:] 1860 Trans. Philol. Soc. 1857 38  Cases are genitive, dative and the like all the world over… The extent to which they are also caritive, adessive and the like has yet to be investigated.

(Two matters I’ll defer for a moment: one, the distinction, clearly referenced in the 1860 cite above, between two types of morphological cases, grammatical and semantic (or local); and two, the involvement of expectation in the semantics of caritives, privatives, and abessives.)

A common conceptual and terminological move at this point is to generalize notions of (and labels for) morphological cases to all morphosyntactic, rather than lexical, expressions of the grammatical categories — in the case at hand, to extend caritive etc. to refer to marking of these categories by derivational morphology (like the English suffix –less) or an adposition (like the English P without), or more generally, by any systematic choices of morphosyntactic constructions (vs. the choice of particular verbs, as in the choice in English between not have, lack or be lacking, and be missing).

This is the usage of the conference announcement above.

Two kinds of cases. The 1860 cite presumes a distinction between grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive etc.) marking syntactic functions like Subject, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Adnominal Modifier, etc.) and semantic (or local) cases, with more concrete semantics (especially of location or motion). (From a historical point of view, the grammatical cases originate as local cases which are then reinterpreted as markers of syntactic function, and they generally continue to have local uses: the German dative is also a locational case and the accusative also a motional case, for instance.)

I generally prefer the label semantic for case uses opposed to uses marking syntactic functions, because though such uses are often concrete — locational or motional (abessive for location away from some place, parallel to ablative for motion away from some place) — they can be more abstract, as with abessive used for a case conveying that something is absent, lacking, or missing.

Expectation semantics. Caritive / privative / abessive constructions cover a range of meanings that are, or at least can be, discriminated by lexical means: the range from neutrally not having something through lacking something expected to being missing something crucial. Compare:

Bruno doesn’t have a tuxedo. (Some men have tuxedos, many do not; but there’s no expectation that, outside of certain special contexts, a man would or would not have one.)

Bruno  lacks / is lacking  an Adam’s apple. (Most men have an Adam’s apple, but a significant minority — I am among them — do not; there is, however, an expectation that a man would have one, so that its absence is a notable deficiency.) (NOAD on the verb lack: “[with object] be without or deficient in: the novel lacks imagination“.)

Bruno is missing a/his nose. (A nose is part of the basic anatomical package for human beings, so that its absence is a crucial defect. Bruno here doesn’t have a nose, he’s lacking one, and in fact he is missing one, and this is beyond just expectation: I don’t have an Adam’s apple, I am lacking one, but (in my variety of English) it would be inappropriate to say that I am missing one.)

Recently on this blog, discussions of two lexical items whose semantics involves expectation: complimentary ‘for free’ and unaccompanied ‘without musical accompaniment’. See my 10/17/19 posting “Complimentary bread”:

what’s crucial here is (sociocultural) expectations: in certain contexts, other things being equal, we expect bread to come for free and coffee not, so free coffee merits comment [as being complimentary; cf. complimentary bread]. Compare the situation in my 10/13/19 posting  “Unaccompanied”: being musically unaccompanied is not merely lacking an accompaniment, but lacking an expected one. [It’s not merely negative, but privative.]

Closely related to caritive expressions are exception phrases (EPs), in except, excluding, other than, … In the treatment of EPs by Iván García (now at the Univ. of Salford) in his 2009 Stanford PhD dissertation, Generality and Exception: A Study in the Semantics of Exceptives, they “are sanctioned by statements that express generality claims” — which are frequently about the expected state of affairs. All the men had tuxedos except Bruno suggests, but does not presuppose or entail, that the men were expected to have tuxedos.

2 Responses to “The caritive”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    (by request)

    There’s a privative type of denominal verb, contrasted with a provisional type. To seed a pepper means to remove seeds; to seed a lawn means to provide seeds. To top a tree means to remove the top; to top a cake means to provide a topping.

    Most of the true privatives are involved with food production from plants and animals: milk a cow, core an apple, peel a banana, skin a deer. The provisionals (roof a house, fence a yard, water a horse, oil a crankshaft) are more common.

    Naturally, I made up a linguistics problem about it:

  2. Miren Lourdes Oñederra Says:

    In some Basque varieties “osatu” ‘to make sth. complete’, also ‘to recover (from an illness)’, etc. means to castrate an animal.

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