Transitive Verbs

A transitive verb is one that “looks forward” in the sense that it signifies an action that is done to someone or something. An example of a transitive verb in English is “to fell”. In English you can say:

“She felled the tree.”

But unlike “She died” we cannot say:

*“She felled.”

Actually, verbs like “to fell” are a bit of a rarity in English. As you can see, it cannot be intransitive. But most verbs in English can be either transitive or intransitive, and what’s more they look the same whether they are transitive or intransitive. Take, for example, the verb “to stop”. You can say:

“The bus stopped.”

Here the verb “to stop” is intransitive because it is simply signifying an action and it is “looking back” at the doer of the action, the bus. But “to stop” can also be used transitively.

“He thought he could get away with it, but I stopped him.”

In the latter sentence the verb “to stop” is looking forward, indicating that something was done to “him”. So far so good. Now let’s turn to transitive verbs in Indonesian.

Transitive verbs in Indonesian differ from intransitive verbs and auxiliary verbs in several respects. One important difference is that transitive verbs have “endings” that change according to the grammatical role the verb is called upon to play in a sentence. Intransitive and auxiliary verbs, on the other hand, don’t change their form (except for some variation in form between formal and informal usage as mentioned above, a variation that is stylistic rather than grammatical).

If a verb has a me- prefix this indicates two things. First, as mentioned above, the verb is transitive. So it has a receiver (often called the goal). The receiver is on the receiving end of the action expressed in the verb. Second, there is an emphasis, or focus, in the sentence on the doer of the action, often called by grammarians the actor. What this means is, in a subtle way, the doer of the action is in clear focus in the mind of the speaker, whereas the receiver of the action is a bit vague. Take this example.

Pak Sukamtono memukul anjing.
Mr Sukamtono hit the dog.

In this sentence it is clear who the doer of the action is. In the context of the “text” from which this sentence has been lifted, we can assume that there has been previous mention of Pak Sukamtono. The speaker knows who he is. He is in sharp, unambiguous focus. But the receiver of the action (anjing) is not so clear. Yes, we know it is a dog, but one dog? … or dogs in general? … or any old dog? … or a particular dog? It is not so clear.

So this sentence has a focus on the hitter of the dog, the doer of the action. The grammar of Indonesian requires this “actor focus” to be expressed by attaching a meprefix to the front of the base form of the transitive verb.

The transitive verb here is -pukul (to hit). In its actor focus form this verb assumes the formmemukul. You will see that the me- prefix seems to “fuse” with the base word pukul, melting the /p/ of -pukul and turning it into a nasal sound, an /m/. This nasal sound takes a variety of forms, but grammarians usually represent it generically with a capital “N” (standing for “nasalised assimilation”). So in grammatical descriptions the me- prefix, when it is written on its own, is usually written meN-, where /N/ could be any one of four nasalised consonant sounds, /m/, /n/, /ny/ and /ng/, depending on the first sound in the base form of the verb.

You have already met and used some actor focus transitive verbs. Study these examples. The transitive verb is in italics.

Saya suka menonton televisi.
I like watching television

Dia akan mengambil uang di bank.
She’s going to get some money at the bank.

Saya selalu membeli surat kabar.
I always buy a newspaper.

Kami tidak melihat Anda di pasar.
We didn’t see you at the market.

Katanya, Pak Hasan sudah menulis buku.
I’ve heard that Mr Hasan has written a book.

Anda harus dapat memakai kata kerja dengan baik.
You’ve got to be able to use verbs properly.

Sebaiknya mencuci pakaian sebelum siang hari.
It’s best to wash clothes before the middle of the day.

The verbs in these sentences consist of a prefix and a base word. The prefix fuses, or “assimilates”, to the base word in some way. So the verbs can be analysed as follows.

menonton consists of meN- + –tonton

mengambil consists of meN- + –ambil

membeli consists of meN- + –beli

melihat consists of meN- + –lihat

menulis consists of meN- + –tulis

memakai consists of meN- + –pakai

mencuci consists of meN- + cuci

Some base words that begin with “m” often (or in some cases always) drop the initial meN- prefix when they function as a transitive verb. The most common of these are:

minta, minum, makan, mohon, mulai, masak

Biasanya mereka makan nasi goreng pada pagi hari. (not memakan)
They usually have fried rice for breakfast.

Boleh saya minta teh? (usually minta but sometimes meminta)
Could you give me some tea? (Literally: “May I request tea?”)

Apakah Anda mau minum kopi? (not meminum)
Would you like to drink coffee?

Dia mulai perjalanannya di Padang. (also fairly commonly memulai)
She began her journey in Padang.

Mereka tidak mau mohon maaf. (usually mohon but sometimes memohon)
They didn’t want to apologise. (Literally: “to ask for forgiveness”)

Dia masak ayam dan sayur-sayuran. (usually masak but sometimes memasak)
She cooked chicken and vegetables.


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