Alternatives to independent verbs for encoding desiderative meaning

Constructed Languages Asked on August 20, 2021

English uses an independent verb to encode desiderative meaning, namely want. It normally takes an infinitival complement, although I can take a direct object as well if the subject of the infinitival clause is not the same as want‘s subject.

I want to swim tomorrow.


I want you to swim tomorrow.

However, there are some limits to its flexibility in English. It cannot take a dependent clause headed by that.

*I want that I find a yellow pencil soon.

Some languages use a verb similar to want in English, and others use dedicated verb morphology to encode the same meaning. I can’t think of any natural languages that use a strategy for encoding the meaning of want (Y) to X that isn’t one of those two.

What are some alternative constructions for expressing desiderative meaning, particularly those unattested in natural languages?

One Answer

Quite a few languages have desiderative as an affix within the verbal system (whether it is analysed as an affix or a full mood being irrelevant here). Japanese and Sanskrit do, for example. It is fairly common (as one would expect) for agglutinating or polysynthetic languages to have one such as Quechua, Finno-Ugric or Turkic languages. It is by no mean universal for these languages: while Hungarian has such a suffix Finnish (and I believe Estonian) lacks it.

Desiderative construction otherwise tend (again not unexpectedly) to be mediated via an auxiliary verb (in Nahuatl, that verb is one of a couple that can be directly integrated into other verbs).

Note that desiderative applies (typically) only to the subject. That is, a form like "I want X to Y" is not a desiderative per se. More accurately, in most language with derivational desiderative affixes, these affixes do not have a "separate" argument structure the way an auxiliary verb an have, so they cannot insert an additional argument. Indeed in Nahuatl, that is exactly what you'll see:

Ticchīhuaznequi (You want to do it)

Ticnequi nicchīhuaz (You want me to do it)

I have not found an easy way to search for information about the three-argument version ("I want X to Y") cross-linguistically, but I'd wager it tends to be formed with some form of Optative or Subjunctive structure.

Correct answer by Circeus on August 20, 2021

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