I'm developing my first conlang (no name yet) for a story and came up with an interesting idea: all verbs are intransitive, and objects are added with prepositions. So, a sentence like "I eat fish" would be translated literally as "I eat with a fish."
Sentences with more than one object would be stuck together in whatever way makes sense, yielding sentences like "I gave from money to the man," and "I roasted with an apple and a fire."
How naturalistic would this be? The language is spoken by a remote people so I don't care how rare it is, just that it's possible at all.

3 Answers 3


I'm reminded of how every so often a conlanger will have the bright idea that "hey, what if there was a language with no verbs?" And yet, the grammatical relationships that are mediated by verbs still need to be expressed, so they inevitably end up "inventing" a new part of speech... that does exactly what verbs do... but they're too emotionally invested how creative and quirky having a "verbless" language makes them sound, to call a spade a spade and admit that they have verbs.

In your case, there isn't really a reason to do this whole song and dance about how these oblique arguments (instrumental as in "with a fish", genitive "from money", etc.) obviate the need for direct objects. If they're consistently being used where languages would normally put a direct object, for arguments that for all intents and purposes act like direct objects, then let's call a spade a spade - you have direct objects. And therefore transitive verbs.

Synchronically, your direct object case effectively just has a bunch of allomorphy. Diachronically, patientive cases often evolve from these kinds of oblique cases, so I would think I was just looking at an intermediate stage where the patientive case was in the middle of evolving. In either case "I have no transitive verbs" ends up being an unhelpful way of describing an otherwise unremarkable phenomenon.


Although I am not aware of any natural language that goes without the notion of transitivity, I think it is worth a try. For a broader point of view, you may want to study morphosyntactic alignment to see what natural languages do with transitive verbs, there is definetely more than the boring nominative-accusative system of Standard Average European languages.

I also want to bring the logical languages to your attention with Lojban as their most popular representative. Here each "verb" has a well-defined predicate structure but no place in this predicate structure can be identified as the direct object.


Let's consider a nonce version of English in which objects are prepositional phrases. This alone will not make the verbs intransitive.

For the verbs to qualify as intransitive, those prepositional phrases have to be adjuncts. In other words, you have to be able to omit them from sentences without making the sentences ungrammatical.

Let's assume that "throw" in your conlang can be modified by an adverbial prepositional phrase meaning "of a baseball."

We know that "Jeff threw of a baseball." means "Jeff threw a baseball." But what does "Jeff threw," mean? It has to have a reading, or the verb "throw" can't be intransitive because it must take an object. Making the object a prepositional phrase is no different in this connection than giving the object an equivalent case-affix.

One way around this is to make all your verbs ambitransitive, as "eat," "write," "read," "sing," and "speak" are in real English. Objects can be omitted from sentences with ambitransitive verbs if the objects don't denote anything important and the action denoted by the verb is the focus. So, for example, "Jane is eating," doesn't need an object if it answers the question "What is Jane doing?" rather than the question "What is Jane eating?"

If all of your verbs are ambitransitive, you could have a sentence like "Jane is throwing" that answers the question "What is Jane doing?"

The problem with this scheme is that some verbs aren't sufficiently descriptive to tell the listener what she wants to know about the states or events that the speaker is talking about. For example, we could say "Alvin is kicking," but, in most contexts, we couldn't do so without prompting a response such as "What do you mean 'he's kicking? Kicking WHAT?" So too with other verbs in sentences like "Don closed," "Mary opened," and "Morey picked up."

I'm out of time and don't see an obvious alternative to my own failed scheme, but I hope to read more about how you plan to address the issues raised by your scheme.

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