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It's interesting that English uses the verb "to drink" intransitively exclusively when talking about alcohol, as in:

I drink a lot.

But transitively when talking about anything else, as in:

I drink water.

I want to know if many languages make this distinction, or have a separate verb entirely for drinking alcohol to drinking non-alcohol? I realise that "many" and "other languages" are vague terms, but I'm just looking for a general indication as to whether this is a common phenomenon, or isolated to English.

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  • In Russian and Latin it is used the same way as in English: one word for drinking a liquid and for alcoholism. I suspect, this confusion is of PIE age, although in PIE was used the root currently used in Russian and Latin rather than English (but reflected in English as "potable"). – Anixx Dec 15 '14 at 6:16
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I do not believe that your observation about English is correct. The verb to drink when talking about alcohol is not instransitive, because it can take a direct object. Its meaning is context-dependent. Imagine you are talking about a toddler who “drinks a lot”, or about Lawrence of Arabia who came to an oasis and “drank a lot”, or about an athlete who takes good care of their body and “drinks a lot”. Chances are good that nobody would think of alcohol.

As per your question about languages having a specific word for drinking alcohol: I do not know such a language. It would not surprise me, though. I know about German that has two different words for ‘to drink’. They are differentiated by the nature of their prototypical subjects: The word trinken is prototypically used for humans, while the word saufen is prototypically used for animals.

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  • Thanks for the correction. I hadn't thought of it like that. – Lou Dec 15 '14 at 11:44
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    This English verb clearly has at least two senses, one meaning drinking generally and one meaning drinking alcohol specifically as in "No thanks, I don't drink". – hippietrail Dec 15 '14 at 15:08
  • @mach German saufen can also mean to drink (substantial quantities of) alcohol, ie to booze – Mario Elocio Dec 16 '14 at 0:33
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I guess that if a specific verb for “drinking alcohol” existed, it would be difficult to exclude from that the meaning of “getting drunk”, for the very nature of alcohol. Are there languages that have the subtlety to distinguish “drinking in moderation” from “getting drunk” using different verbs?
I know that some Romance languages have a verb for “getting drunk” distinct from “drinking water or other liquids”: in Spanish is emborracharse, in French se souler, in Italian ubriacarsi or inebriarsi. Whereas in Mexico, Nahuatl speakers use tlahuana for “drinking pulque”, an alcoholic beverage, and coni or tlai for drinking all the other liquids.

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The use of the verb “to drink” specifically to mean “to drink wine or another alcoholic beverage” is indeed very widespread. It is not (as Anixx appears to suggest) restricted to Indo-European. In Arabic too šariba means “drink” (in general) and “drink wine”; from the same root you have šarāb “beverage, wine” and šarrāb “drunkard”.

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The verb 'to drink' is polysemous in English with the senses being at least

  1. to consume any liquid; in this sense, the verb can be used both transitively (I drink water) and intransitively (when somebody's thirsty, they drink). This sense is also available in any tense/aspect ('I drink water every day' and 'I'm drinking water right now.')

  2. to consume alcohol; in this sense the verb can only be intransitive and used in habitual aspect only ('He drinks' vs. '*He's drinking right now')

These different senses will be differentiated in English by context. There are also other words that refer to drinking that add some additional meanings (e.g. quaff).

Other languages will differentiate between these different senses lexically and others will do both.

For instance, Czech has two sense of the word drink: 'Franta pije vodu' vs. 'Franta pije'. But it also has the verb 'chlastat' that only means 'to drink alcohol excessively'. 'Chlastat' is lower register so the neutral 'pít' would be used in more formal situations.

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  • "can only be intransitive and used in habitual aspect" - Not so concerning aspect: Bob drank too much yesterday, Carl drank moderately at the party, etc. – Luís Henrique Nov 18 '17 at 0:31
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Esperanto does so:

drinki means "to drink alcohol" while

trinki means "to drink" with no associations to alcohol

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Spanish is another language in which the intransitive use of the verb to drink, Spanish beber, automatically means 'drink alcohol to excess', as in (1). That happens unless the speaker uses it in the imperative form and the verb is not really used intransitively, as the context supplies the understood direct object, as in (2).

(1) ¡Pobre mujer! Su marido bebe. [Poor woman! Her husband is a drunkard]

(2) Toma, bebe despacio. [Here you are, drink slowly][Offering a glass of cold water]

Of course, we also have certain other intransitive verbs used in a colloquial register that specifically mean 'drink alcohol [to excess]', such as soplar, pimplar, trasegar, etc.

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Yes.

For example saying something like "Han dricker lite för mycket" in Swedish could mean that "He drinks a little bit too much alcohol"

But you can also say "Han dricker mycket vatten" meaning "He drinks a lot of water".

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