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English and Spanish each have one main verb for "to like".

In English "to like", the grammatical subject must be the one doing the appreciating:

I like her.

But with Spanish "gustar", the person appreciating must be the grammatical object:

Ella me gusta.

Spanish has a few other common verbs which also are opposite the English such as "encantar" vs "to love".

But my questions is simply whether there is a term to describe such verbs which have the subject and object the other way around.

Something like "valence" or "mode" or "directionality". Is there a term for this?

(I'm having trouble wording both the question title and the question body so please jump in and improve it, or leave constructive comments which I'll use to improve the question. Or just let me know if it's not even comprehensible in its current form.)


In support of user Arne's answer below, I just stumbled across this in the Wikipedia page for "Standard Average European":

4. a preponderance of generalizing predicates to encode experiencers, i.e. experiencers appear as surface subjects in nominative case, e.g. English I like music instead of Music pleases me);

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    Typo in the title: the Spanish phrase is "(tú) me gustas" (the "tú" is optional). – grautur Sep 13 '11 at 23:29
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    Thanks @grautur for the accent fix. I know the tú is optional but that's not the issue of the question and mentioning it would only make it harder to read. – hippietrail Sep 13 '11 at 23:34
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    Yep, I agree about making it harder to read (the optionality was just a side note :)). The main typo I actually meant to point out was the missing s at the end of gustas. – grautur Sep 13 '11 at 23:41
  • The term for these kinds of verbs is "psych-verb"; they are an area of inter- and intra-linguistic variation in the expression of argument structure, as the answers below illustrate. There are more than just these two types. Belletti and Rizzi ("Psych-verbs and θ-theory" Natl. Lang. and Ling. Theory 1986) find three types in Italian, for example. – Aaron Sep 14 '11 at 4:56
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    Note that English like used to be used like Spanish gustar. So this flip happened inside of English. – Adam Bittlingmayer Oct 13 '16 at 18:51
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To generalize Arne's and Evpok's answers, a simple way to look at cases like these is to recognize two distinct mechanisms going on in all sentences:

  • Thematic role assignment
  • Case assignment (along with word order)

Under the conventional analysis, the relationship between the two is prescribed by the verb and the resulting pattern is what we store in our lexicon.

To take your example in the semantic "like" relationship, there is a liker and a likee (there are more general semantic terms for themes if you care to look them up). The lexicon entry for like may look like this:

like: assigns a liker role, giving it subject marking, and a likee role, giving it object marking. Describes a state in which the liker likes the likee.

While the Spanish one looks like this:

gusta: assigns a liker role, giving it object marking, and a likee role, giving it subject marking. Describes a state in which the liker likes the likee.

Then, the language's own grammar applies things like word order on top of this (SVO for English; a similar model for Spanish with pronominalization/movement).

Wikipedia's starter reading on the topic: Theta role.

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The english verb "like" is often referred to as "subject experiencer verb": On a semantic level, the subject "experiences" the emotion referred to by the verb, and the source for the feeling is expressed in the object.

An object experiencer equivalent to "like" is "please":

(1) I like her
(2) She pleases me

I'm not aware of a cover term for subject vs. object experiencer verbs, though.

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  • Yes I thought about including "to please" as an example from within English too. – hippietrail Sep 13 '11 at 22:13
  • These are also known as "psych-verbs". – Alan H. Sep 13 '11 at 23:05
  • @Alan H. Is this choice of which gets to be subject and object something that only ever happens with verbs that express a mental state or event? – hippietrail Sep 13 '11 at 23:37
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    Well, in English and many languages you don't have a choice. "I fear snakes" and "Snakes fear me" are not the same. As far as verbs which can do this within a particular language, change of state verbs can alternate in this way. E.g., "I broke the window." vs "The window broke." You might want to check out Beth Levin's book "English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation". – Alan H. Sep 13 '11 at 23:55
  • @Alan H.: Yes "choice" was not a good word, something like "variation" is better for what I was trying to say. In that each verb/language long ago made its choice which way things must be. Also to me your window example looks like a transitive/intransitive distinction (I know there's more to it) and not the same kind of thing. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 7:50
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I don't think there is a specific word for it, but you may want to have a look at the notion of Theta roles, your point being only an example of verbs having different theta structures in different languages.

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  • I'm also happy with terms that cover the concept from an angle other than how I worded it. – hippietrail Sep 13 '11 at 22:17
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In fact there is such a term, but as far as I know it might only be used in Kartvelian linguistics!

The similarities are very striking due to a couple of coincidences that I'm assuming don't reveal anything deeper in Universal Grammar, but you never know...

The Georgian language in fact has a whole class of verbs that reveal the exact same thing, despite being utterly unrelated to Spanish:

Georgian "class IV" verbs are described with the two terms indirect verbs or inversion verbs:

  • This class of verb is known as indirect or 'inverted' as it marks the logical subject with the indirect object marker set (m- set) and the direct object with the subject marker set (v- set). Nouns are declined in agreement: the logical subject is in the dative, and object in the nominative (or sometimes genitive, as in gogo-s (dat.) dzaghl-is (gen.) e-shin-i-a - the girl is afraid of the dog).
  • Verbs in this class denote feelings, sensations and endurant states of being (see also stative verbs), including verbs such as q'av - to have (X, animate), kv - to have (X, inanimate) q'var - to love and nd - to want.
  • Class 4 verbs also include 'desideratives' (verbs of desiring), created using the circumfix e- --- -eb (compare tsek'v-av-s 'he dances' and e-tsek'v-eb-a 'he feels like dancing').

So as you see the similarity is in:

.. marks the logical subject with the indirect object marker ... and the direct object with the subject marker ...


The coincidences are:

  1. That some verbs with similar meanings in Spanish and Georgian are subject to this effect
    "to like" - მოსწონს moscons - gustar
    "to love" - უყვარს uqvars - amar
  2. That the first person singular pronoun ends up being the same in both languages
    "I like Tbilisi" - მე მომწონს თბილისი me momcons t'bilisi - Me gusta Tiflis
    "I love Tbilisi" - მე მიყვარს თბილისი me miqvars t'bilisi - Me encanta Tiflis
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Paul Postal once claimed that the two usages are related by a transformation Psych-movement.

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John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford) expounds this:

The Power of Babel (2003), p. 125 Bottom.

  Another example is how languages mark subjects when the topic has to do with experience rather than action. When we learn Spanish, one construction we have to pause to wrap our heads around is that I like books is Me gustan los libros “the books please me” rather than what we would “ expect,” “Yo gusto los libros.” In Spanish, you say not that you like something but that it “ pleases to you,” and thus “ to me please the books.” This is not a mere random quirk— it follows from a distinction in types of object that English just happens not to mark explicitly very much.
  We get a handle on the distinction in question with the gustar case: technically speaking, books in I like books is an “ object.” But book is an object in a different way in I like books than in, say, I read books. To like a book is not really to do anything to it-in contrast with reading a book, you can like a book without touching it; if you say you like a book, then you are actually describing a sentiment, not an action. It is not accidental that Spanish has the “ to me” construction with like, a verb describing a kind of experience, and not with, say, drive.

What Language Is (2011), p. 24 Middle.

  For an English speaker, for example, something always a nuisance in Spanish is how to say like. It comes out as that some-thing "pleases to you": I like apples is Me gustan las manzanas, "to-me please the apples." It's a very specified thing about Span-ish, attending to the technicality that while to eat something is to do something to it, to like it is to experience it—i.e., for some- thing to happen to you. The way an English speaker would like it to go is something like Yo gusto las manzanas, to bring it into line with our way of rendering liking, a less specified way of put- ting it. It's a typical Spanish-class mistake. But because a stu- dent has a teacher coaxing him out of it, Yo gusto las manzanas goes by the wayside pretty fast for someone in a Spanish class.

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