March 21, 2008

Broken transitivity

I noticed something about the verbs แตก /tɛɛk/ and หัก /hak/, which both mean 'break'. It's about transitivity.

For those of you who need a simple refresher course, a transitive verb is one which requires a direct object. You have to do it to something. For example, I can lift a box, but I can't just lift (unless it's understood from the context, but that's different).

An intransitive verb is one which does not require a direct object (but you may be able to specify an indirect object using a preposition). For example, I can complain, I can complain to you, but I can't complain you.

Etymologically, หัก is transitive (e.g. I broke the lamp), while แตก is intransitive (e.g. the lamp broke). English uses the same verb in both senses. The English verb is ambitransitive, in linguistics-speak. Thai often has two words where English has just one. Where English has he boiled water vs. the water boiled, Thai has เขาต้มน้ำ vs. น้ำเดือด, (ต้ม /tom/ is transitive and เดือด /dʉat/ is intransitive).

However, หัก has come to be used quite commonly as an intransitive verb. While you can still หัก something, more often you ทำ X หัก ('cause X to break'). This matches the usage of แตก--typically, you ทำ X แตก (also 'cause X to break'). The most common transitive uses of หัก still around are figurative, like หักหลัง, to betray, literally to break (someone's) back; also หักคอ, หักใจ, หักอก, etc. หักอก /hak ok/ is interesting because หักอก means 'break (someone's) heart', while อกหัก /ok hak/ is just as common, meaning ('heartbroken'). This would've been a good one for my Semantic Switcheroo post. Google even turns up a small number of hits for ทำอกหัก 'cause (someone's) heart to break', too. It would appear that หัก is flirting with becoming entirely intransitive.

On the flip side, the traditionally intransitive verb แตก
has developed some transitive senses. One in particular seems to be influenced from English. แตกแบงค์ /tɛɛk bɛŋ/ means to 'break a bill', one of the extremely vital services that 7-Eleven provides in Thailand. If you're about to get into a taxi and all you have is a 1000 baht bill (or even a 500 baht bill), you'd better go แตก that แบงค์ at Seven first. In a similar vein, I've also seen แตกวง /tɛɛk woŋ/ meaning 'to break up (a band)', as in 'Aerosmith ทำท่าจะแตกวง' Aerosmith is acting like they're going to break up. The intransitive form is วงแตก /woŋ tɛɛk/, as in 'Potato วงแตกแล้ว' The band Potato broke up.

These are limited uses of แตก as a transitive verb (there are possibly more, like แตกแถว and แตกฝูง, meaning to be different from the pack, or non-conformist), but they're very interesting developments nonetheless.

A kind of transitivity switcheroo.


  1. Do you have any thoughts regarding the transitive/intransitive difference between รวม and ร่วม? Richard W at one time indicated that the usage difference between the two involved transitivity. Thanks.

  2. My taxi usually cost around 70 baht, but if I try to pay with a 100 baht note, more often than not the driver pretends to look for change and tells me that he doesn't have any.

  3. @Bui: I read through that thread on thai-language, but I'm not convinced that's exactly what's going on with ร่วม/รวม. Let me think on it some more.

    @Anonymous: I'm pretty sure that move is in the Taxi Driving for Dummies handbook. At least other professions don't try to pull that. "Sorry, our restaurant doesn't have change..." :P

  4. >>> Where English has "he boiled water vs. the water boiled," Thai has เขาต้มน้ำ vs. น้ำเดือด, (ต้ม is transitive; เดือด is intransitive).

    Thanks for pointing that out: I was unaware of the เดือด usage.

    But the adjective "boiled" is still
    ต้ม, right?

    On a lighter note, I once heard this: หักอกดีกว่าอกหัก

    And in response to: เคยอกหักไหมครับ -


    (In both cases, I assumed it was joking wordplay...Hmm...)

  5. Rikker: good on ya for the English grammar terms that I need to dust off again. Is "intransitive" the same as "passive" (as we'd refer to those kinds of construction in Spanish)?

    That idea is prompting the urge to ramble on here, please forgive:

    One thing I find fascinating about language study is how the structure will often reflect larger cultural norms of societies. For instance, in English, there seems to be more implied personal responsibility in actions: you dropped the glass. In Spanish, however, people never say that; instead, "the glass fell from me (my hand)." The passive is used with an astonishing degree, as if nobody is responsible for anything they do.

    This is taken to extremes, as the killer will not say in the police station that he actually shot the victim, but rather: "the bullets escaped from me." Very convenient.

    I think that may be because in old Spain, and by extension its various colonies, paternalism was the order of life: most people had two lords; the Christian one, and the feudal one who basically owned you. Many people really didn't have much say in their lives, or at least they did find it convenient to go along with the notion linguistically...

    I have a curiosity about the lack of the subjunctive in Thai. This is difficult for me, because you can't speak Spanish without using that mood, and all its conjugations, all the time (which is why most foreign learners never really get Spanish down completely.) In English, the native speakers routinely violate the few subjunctive cases, e.g., by saying "if I was you" - instead of "if I were you..."

    You cannot make that violation in Spanish, and my mind still works in the subjunctive most times. I can find it hard to express some ideas in Thai for the lack of it.

    Since Thai doesn't seem to have a clear subjunctive mood, could it have to do with the Asian sense of predestiny: there's not much sense in talking about what might have happened, because it didn't happen, and that is the way it is...

    Or maybe I'm just letting my own imagination run too wild here?


  6. Oops, I'm even forgetting my Spanish terms: the passive construction is also referred to as "reflexive verbs" - which essentially mean actions that happen to me/you/he/she/they. In any case, that still has the effect of implying no responsibility in the matter: I did not actually drop that glass...

  7. active - passive

    This terms can easily mixed up, thus, here short definitions (as I do not speak Spanish, examples in Italian provided if/where required).

    Transitive: (a verb) requiring an accusative object (Jim boils water.)
    Intransitvie: (a verb) not requiring an accusative object (The water is boiling. ... whom/what?)

    Active: Jim boils water.
    passive: The water is boilde by Jim.

    Reflexive are verbs like the Italian andarsene (to go away), or, to make it easier, amarse.

    Amarse would work as follows:

    (Io) mi amo. (I love "myself".)
    (Tu) ti ami. (You love "yourself".)
    (Lui) si ama. (He loves "hisself".)

    I'm not sure whether reflexive verbs exist in English, transitiv/intransitiv, active and passive, however, as a matter of course.

  8. As you say, there are exceptions:



  9. เดือดร้อน isn't an exception, because ร้อน isn't the object of the verb เดือด. You're not boiling the heat. Rather, the thing described as เดือด is also ร้อน--because เดือดร้อน is a semantic double, in which two words with similar meanings (in this case 'boiling' and 'hot') are paired to create a new meaning.

    As you're no doubt familiar, เดือดร้อน means to be in trouble, so a new idiomatic meaning is created. This is one type of "elaborate expression" in Thai (a term coined by Mary Haas).

    Other similar examples to เดือดร้อน would be สวยงาม, โง่เขลา, สูงลิ่ว. Often these are also alliterative, like เก่าแก่, เฉลียวฉลาด, เย่อหยิ่ง, ต่ำต้อย,พรรคพวก, among others. They may also rhyme as in แตกแยก, เปรียบเทียบ, แน่แท้, เดินเหิน, etc.

  10. Thank you. I should have looked at your post more carefully. I stand corrected.

  11. Re: Bui said...
    Do you have any thoughts regarding the transitive/intransitive difference between รวม and ร่วม? Richard W at one time indicated that the usage difference between the two involved transitivity. Thanks.
    As a verb
    รวม = to gather, to amass, to collect, to put together, to mix together, to include
    รวม - think of รวบรวม
    EX: เราต้องรวมกำลังกันไปโจมตีข้าศึก

    ร่วม = to join in, to participate in, to cooperate in
    ร่วม - think of ร่วมมือ
    EX: ร่วมแรงร่วมใจกันทำบุญ

    รวม and ร่วม are tricky as modifiers.
    วงจรรวม - integrated circuit
    ภาพรวม - overall picture

    อยู่รวมกัน - to live/be together as a group
    อยู่ร่วมกัน - to cohabit

    In my opinion, in these last two cases above, the individual parts seem intact in รวม(although living together, each one still retain his individualistic character); while in ร่วม, one cedes some individual character (husband and wife as one unit, indicating a more collective character.

  12. You got the idea of non/transitivity correct for "หัก" and "แตก". Though I must make a point here that these two words differ in terms of meanings themselves too. This is to say, "แตก" is usually used for objects that can be...shattered e.g. glasses, windows, and some cases "heart" (like heart broken". Whilst, "หัก" is usually used with other materials, say the chair is broken (เก้าอี้หัก). I don't know much about transitivity but I think when speaking or writing in Thai, to turn a process transitive, we probably prefix "ทำ/ทำให้" in front of the process e.g. ฉันทำแก้วแตก". Actually, I'm wondering if there is a use of Systemic Functional Linguistics in Thailand? Or are there books on this and its frameworks/analyses? If anyone knows, please post links to the books/articles. That'd be much appreciated.
    Thank you