By Andreea Calude 15/02/2019

If language is about getting a message across and about getting things done, then there is nothing that does it better than a verb. The more I study verbs, the more I feel this humble grammatical object is key to understanding so much about how we communicate and how our minds work.

All you need is VERBS

If actions speak louder than words, then verbs speak the loudest. And if you are going to get on with doing something you better know who is doing it (the subject) and who is in the firing line – or who is undergoing the consequences of the event (the object).

One set of verbs which are especially interesting are verbs of eating and drinking. Why are these verbs so special? Because most languages in the world seem to have them, though albeit some languages only have one verb to cover both meanings (something like “consume”), for example, Walpiri (an Austronesian language) and Kalam (a Papuan language), while others have separate verbs, like English, one for solids (eating) and one for liquids (drinking).

This week, a bright young scholar from the University of Auckland, Tana Wu, successfully defended her PhD thesis which investigated verbs of EATING (eat, devour, feast) and DRINKING (drink, sip, gulp) in Modern Mongolian (her native tongue). She writes, among other things, that in Mongolian, like in English, some food items are for “eating” (the Mongolian verb ide-) and some for “drinking” (the Mongolian verb uuɣu-). But unlike English, some things can be coded as either – you can either eat or drink milk (ok, milk is very rich in nutrients, so it is not a big stretch of the imagination to see the link with food given that for the first six months to a year of our lives, many of us live exclusively on milk), you can either eat or drink honey (maybe it depends on whether it is solid or liquid), and you can either eat or drink eggs. Now I don’t know about you, but frankly, eggs are strictly for eating in my world. But that might say more about my culinary comfort zone than anything else (I know people who drink eggs in certain cocktails).

After sifting a large collection of written Modern Mongolian, Dr. Wu has also found that the Mongolian verb ide- (eat) is used to form many different metaphorical interpretations (“to eat prepared meals with one’s mouth wide open and sitting comfortably” meaning to be idle and behave in a gluttonous and lazy manner, “to scold as if to eat people” meaning to behave very aggressively, or “to eat from the cauldron” meaning getting an equal share regardless of the work done towards it). Metaphors based on EATING are not uncommon in English either (I devoured that novel, I hunger for him, she ate her heart out). Interestingly, in agreement with previous work, she finds that the verb ‘eat’ is more frequently used than the verb ‘drink’ (somewhat odd given that we can survive longer without food than we can without drink). There appears to be something core and vitally important for us humans about EAT (even compared to DRINK).

Eating your cake, in the bath, with chopsticks

There is still more to verbs of EATING than meets the eye (or mouth for that matter). Grammatically-speaking, the verb eat in English is pretty flexible, as it can occur together with the food being eaten, coded as a direct object, as in I enjoy eating chocolate cake (we call this a transitive construction), or it can be used without the food, I can simply say: I ate at the new restaurant (this is an intransitive use because there is no direct object, there is an object present, at the new restaurant, but this is not a direct object, it is coded by means of a preposition, and is thus called an oblique object, denoting a location). Not all verbs have the flexibility of dropping direct objects as they please however, nor can they all take direct objects in the first place (I can’t say I slept him because ‘sleep’ is necessarily intransitive, and I can’t say I bought yesterday because ‘bought’ is necessarily transitive) but interestingly, EAT, as a verb tends to exhibit this privilege in many languages (Modern Mongolian being among these).

In Chinese, the verb chi (eat) is even more flexible as it can be used with a direct object that can encode not just food items, but other types of meanings too, that is, entities not interpreted as being consumed. For instance, according to a 2013 study by Liu, Xu and Panther, chi can be used as follows (from their Table 1, page 38):

  1. chi mifan [literally: to eat white rice] – expressing the food consumed (what we call a Patient role in semantics)
  2. chi laoxiang [literally: to eat one’s folks] – expressing the source of the food (a Source role)
  3. chi lixi [literally: to eat bank interest] – expressing the means used to obtain the food (a Means role)
  4. chi shitang [literally: to eat the cafeteria] – expressing the place where food was consumed (a Locative role)
  5. chi kuaizi [literally: to eat chopsticks] – expressing the instrument used to consume the food (an Instrument role)

So if the grammar is coding “one’s folks” in example (2) as a direct object, much like it would “rice” (apples or chocolate cake), how does one arrive at the correct interpretation of “one’s folks” as being the source of the food rather than the entity being consumed? By inference, of course. It is not acceptable in our society to eat humans, therefore a different reading is called for. The same applies for (3), (4) and (5). Chinese speakers keep inferring until a sensible interpretation presents itself.

It turns out that arriving at different interpretations takes more or less cognitive power (more thinking) depending on the semantics of the object (as Source, Means, Instrument or Location). But here is the best part: these varying amounts of processing time are similar across speakers. As you might have guessed, the object coding a food item (chi+ apple say) – the Patient role –  is the fastest object to parse because that is the default expectation, the most frequent use, so the brain is queued to expect it. In their neuroscience lab, Liu, Xu and Panther tested participants hooked to FMRI machines and found that there is, in fact, a universal hierarchy of the speeds at which different objects are interpreted by Chinese speakers:


Patient >>> Source >>> Means >>> Locative >>> Instrument

[quickest] ……………………………………………..[slowest]


Patient objects of EAT are processed faster than Source objects of EAT, which are (only just) faster than Means objects, which are faster than Locative objects, which in turn, are faster than Instrument objects. So “eating your folks” is going to be understood quicker than “eating the chopsticks”. Good to know!

Our hard-working brain

These experiments support the idea that our brains pay (implicit) attention to language use and store, not just word meanings and word connotations (even though technically, inebriated and pissed are synonyms, they carry different connotations and are used in different contexts), but also frequencies of use: Chinese speakers ‘know’ that ‘eat’ will occur more often with direct objects denoting food, than say, with direct objects describing the place the food was obtained from.

But we likely store even more information about the words that we hear. Just this week, a team of researchers from the University of Canterbury, NZ and the US have published a paper in PLOS ONE extending their previous work which argues that we even store social information about the speakers who use particular types of words (are the speakers old or young, are they male or female?), and we thus go on to associate some words with particular social profiles.

In a project I was involved with a few years ago, we found that certain events are consistently coded in several different languages as being caused by an external causer whereas others are more likely to be expressed as though happening without a cause, spontaneously, “just cause”. We found that we tend to talk more about someone breaking something more than about something breaking by itself, and more about something boiling (of its own accord) than of someone boiling something – even though in principle we could talk about either. In our sample of languages (English, Romanian, Maltese, German, Russian, Swahili, Japanese and Turkish), verbs like break, close and split were consistently expressed with their causer, whereas verbs like freeze, boil and dry were consistently expressed as a spontaneous event. The question is why these verbs, in these ways? We do not know, but the neat thing is that it appears to be a general human tendency, regardless (perhaps) of language. More information for our brains to handle.

So next time you think you have a bad memory, just think how hard your brain is working and have a bite to eat (as long as it’s not your chopsticks)!


References (alphabetical order)

Haspelmath, M., Calude, A., Spagnol, M., Narrog, H., & Bamyaci, E. (2014). Coding causal–noncausal verb alternations: A form–frequency correspondence explanation. Journal of Linguistics, 50(3), 587-625.

Hay, J., Walker, A., Sanchez, K., & Thompson, K. (2019). Abstract social categories facilitate access to socially skewed words. PloS one, 14(2).

Liu, Y., Xu, X., & Panther, K. U. (2013). An ERP approach to thematic hierarchies regarding grammatical objects of the Chinese verb Chi (eat). Language Sciences, 40, 36-44.

Wu, Tana. (2019). Eating and Drinking Expressions in Mongolian: a Corpus-based study. PhD Dissertation. University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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