Reflexive causatives in Hindi
A potential grammaticalisation in the works

One of the first unfamiliar distinctions that a learner of Sanskrit will encounter is parasmaipada vs. ātmanepada verbs. They have two different sets of morphological endings—a pain on top of the different endings for the 10 root classes—but often no obvious difference in meaning. Does it actually matter whether I use parasmaipada or ātmanepada forms? Why not stick to one to halve the number of endings I need to learn?

The learner will be taught that prescriptively, parasmaipada (or active-voice) verbs refer to actions done for the benefit of others, while ātmanepada (or middle-voice1) verbs are for actions done for oneself. Take the root पच् pac “cook”: if I say पचे pacē you better get your own meal because this is ātmanepada, cooking for myself. If I say पचामि pacāmi then feel free to take this food. But in reality, Sanskrit texts don’t strictly make this distinction. Many verbs will prefer one or the other for no apparent reason, and there is diachronic change in the preference towards one or the other with not clear driving factor. Perhaps this distinction was not bearing enough functional load to remain necessary over time, but awareness of the two forms, especially after Sanskrit became a formally learned language rather than an uncodified mothertongue, meant that they continued competing throughout Sanskrit’s history.

Beyond the situation in Sanskrit, the similarity of the forms between the two voices meant that by Middle Indo-Aryan, the distinction had collapsed phonologically and did not survive (to my knowledge) to the present day in any Indo-Aryan language.

Recently though, I noted a similar feature in Hindi, which I don’t think is really a purely morphological distinction yet like in Sanskrit, but the parallel is too interesting to dismiss. I’ll call it the reflexive causative.

टीका लगवाओ ṭīkā lagvāo

With the continuing spread of coronavirus in India as in much of the world, the government has been pushing people to get vaccinated. One tool to do that is advertising campaigns. There was a nice video from this kind of drive that I saw the other day:

टीका लगवाया क्या?

ṭīkā lag-vā-yā kyā?

vaccine.M.SG apply-CAUS.IND-M.SG what?

“Did you get vaccinated?”

One of the things that struck me in that title2 is that the verb, despite being an indirect causative (or double causative) that can take 4 core arguments, has only 1 argument, ṭīkā “vaccine/vaccination”, indicated explicitly at all.

A digression into how Hindi’s causatives work…

Hindi, like other Indo-Aryan languages, has up to a four-way morphological gradation of transitivity/causativity on verbs. Basically, for every verb, we have up to four forms that vary in terms of how many entities are involved in that action. The obvious participants are the subject (thing doing the action) and object (action being done to it), but there are some less obvious ones that show up in this gradation. An example will show this better.

दिख- dikʰ- “[Subj] is seen”
देख- dekʰ- “[Subj] sees [Obj]”
दिखा- dikʰā- “[Subj] shows [Obj] to [IObj]”
दिखवा- dikʰvā- “[Subj] makes [Inst] show [Obj] to [IObj]”

The main action in all of these is SEE, but who and what is involved, who causes the seeing, etc. varies based on what transitivity/causativity class we choose. The names of the classes, respectively, are intransitive, transitive, direct causative, and indirect causative. In the maximal case, the indirect causative, we can make up sentences like this:

मैंने दुकानवाले से अपने दोस्त को मिठाइयाँ दिखवाईं।

ma͠i-ne dukān-vāl-e se apn-e dost ko miṭʰāi-yā̃ dikʰ-vā-ī̃

1SG.ERG store-NMZ-OBL.SG by own-OBL.SG friend DAT sweet-NOM.PL see-IND.CAUS-F.PL

“I made the storekeeper show my friend the sweets.”

Back to the point. What did I find weird here? Well, we have the kind of verb that takes the maximal number of arguments, an indirect causative with 4 arguments! But here there’s just one argument. The other arguments must be implied. Well, let’s think about it. Clearly, you take the initiative in getting yourself vaccinated, someone else (like a nurse) applies the vaccine, and the vaccine is the thing applied. So we can fill the following slots:

With this verb, when we don’t specify the arguments besides the object (the vaccine), the subject and indirect object are implied to be the same! Meanwhile, the instrument is unspecified, there is no restriction on who it could be.

Now, the importance of the start of this post should be clearer. This is sort of like a Sanskrit ātmanepada verb. When we don’t say the arguments, it is implied that we are applying this action to ourselves. It is easy to find examples of टीका लगवाना ṭīkā lagvānā being used this way.

१८२ नागरिकों ने स्थानीय केन्द्रों पर पहुंचकर टीका लगवाया।

“182 citizens reached the local centres and got [themselves] vaccinated.”

बूथ पर लोगों ने रजिस्ट्रेशन कराने के बाद टीका लगवाया।

“After getting registered at the booth, people got [themselves] vaccinated.”

So is this a new kind of language change going on in Hindi? Are we reviving the ātmanepada category? I don’t actually think so. I’m having a hard time thinking of other verbs that automatically assume the subject = indirect object in this way. If you say मैंने खाना खिलवाया “I made [someone] feed [someone else]” that kind of implication does not take place. So I’m curious what’s going on here.3

Maybe it’s dialectal?

This is not the first time I’ve thought about reflexive causatives in Hindi. There was a conversation I had on a Wiktionary talk page with Itsmeyash31, who was working with me in cleaning up the code for generating Hindi conjugation tables there. He claimed his dialect of Hindi, from the “eastern” area (so somewhere in Uttar Pradesh) frequently used reflexive direct causatives. So verbs like मरा- marā- “to get killed” could imply the subject being the object.

I don’t think the examples he presented totally sounded grammatical for my Delhi Hindi dialect.

  1. तुम बेचाओगे। (tum becāoge.) — You will get (yourself) sold.

  2. वो चीज़ें आज ही बेचाएँगी। (vo cīzẽ āj hī becāeŋgī.) — Those things will get sold today itself.

  3. तुम पलटाओगे। (tum palṭāoge.) — You will get (yourself) flipped over. / You will get (someone/something) flipped over.

  4. तुम पिटाओगे। (tum piṭāoge.) — You will get (yourself) beaten.

I can think of sentences like तू लुटवाएगा “you’ll get us scammed”, तू मरवाएगा “you’ll get us killed” which imply the object, but it’s not the same, since these are with indirect causative, which just sounds more natural here to me. Ultimately, I think the issue comes down we don’t have data about this kind of usage so we can’t really say whether it’s dialectal, restricted to particular verbs only, restricted to spoken colloquial language, etc.

But anyways, I hope you found that interesting and learned a bit about Hindi verbs behaving weirdly.


  1. There are also passive-voice verbs, but they do not neatly fit in this paradigm since they’re derived with the suffix -ya- and then the person/number endings, and they are not really in competition like the active- and middle-voice forms are.
  2. As a linguist, it’s inevitably a really trivial thing that seems interesting to me.
  3. If I knew, I’d probably just write a paper.