Are argument nominals “appositional” when the verb carries person indexes? Remarks on Siewierska (2001)

An important paper on grammatical theory that has received little attention is Anna Siewierska’s (2001) paper On the argument status of cross-referencing forms(published in the little-known journal Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses). It inspired me greatly in thinking about person indexes (cf. Haspelmath 2013), the “pronominal argument hypothesis” (Jelinek 1984; LeSourd 2006), and the peculiarities of “head-marking constructions” (Van Valin 2013).

Siewierska’s (2004) book on person forms (i.e. independent personal pronouns and person indexes) contains a lucid discussion of the issues as they have been discussed in the literature (in Chapter 4 on “person agreement”; see also Corbett 2006: §3.8). However, the main topic of the 2001 paper, the role of allegedly “appositional nominals”, does not resurface in the 2004 book, so I will talk about it briefly in this blogpost.

The issue of “pro-drop”  structures, where an argument is present notionally but is present only as a verbal affix, can be illustrated by the English vs. Tauya contrast (Siewierska 2001: 216; Tauya data from MacDonald 1990):

In English, there has to be a subject nominal (despite the presence of the person suffix -s in bring-s), but in Tauya (New Guinea), it is sufficient to have a subject suffix (-a ‘s/he’) and an object prefix (nen- ‘them’).

But what is the “status” of the argument nominals in such “pro-drop” constructions (e.g. ‘woman’ and ‘men’ in the Tauya example)? This question is no longer as hotly debated as it was two or three decades ago, but it is still very relevant for the actual practice of describing languages and talking about them. It has long been thought that in Tauya-like languages, the person affixes are the “real arguments”, while the nominals are “in apposition” (Boas 1911: 30 said about Chinook that the nouns appear “merely as appositions to pronouns”). This widespread idea of an appositional relationship is the focus of Siewierska’s (2001) paper, and it was this paper that I realized how shaky the loose notion of “apposition” was, leading me to propose that the argument nominals should be called conominals (Haspelmath 2013), using a completely novel term.

First, Siewierska rejects Dik’s (1997) criterion of optionality, because the vast majority of the world’s languages show optional subject conominals, and all show optional object conominals (this was already observed in Siewierska 1999). Languages with gramm-indexing constructions, such as English (he bring-s/*bring-s), are extremely rare and hardly found outside of the Germanic languages. Thus, almost all languages with person indexing (and these constitute about three quarters of the world’s languages, according to Siewierska’s WALS chapter on verbal person marking) would have “appositional” subjects, according to Dik’s criterion.

What might be other criteria for “apposition” status? Siewierska discusses two concrete proposals: De Groot & Limburg (1986), who liken conominals to nonrestrictive appositions to personal pronouns (e.g. She, the doctor, told me, the patient, what to do), and Bresnan & Mchombo (1987) (and also Baker 1996), who see conominals as similar or identical to dislocands (nominals in peripheral position in dislocation constructions, e.g. Your brother, I saw him yesterday). For this blogpost, I leave pronoun appositions aside and focus on dislocands, whose general properties Siewierska explores. She notes that in general, dislocated nominals are definite or at least specific, so that indefinite and nonspecific nominals are excluded (*An old friend, I saw her yesterday; *Nobody, I would talk to them).

However, it is not generally the case that conominals in person-indexing constructions must be definite or specific – they might as well be indefinite and nonspecific, at least when they are subjects (objects are often differentially indexed, as noted e.g. by Haig 2018; see this earlier blogpost). There are also other expected properties of conominals, having to do with coreference and cross-over constructions, which seem to be found rarely in languages with person indexing (though Baker 1996 claims that Mohawk conominals do behave much like dislocands; Siewierska accepts the possibility that in some languages, they may have dislocand-like properties).

Siewierska concludes that conominals are generally in argument position, and when a conominal is present, the person index has agreement function; when the conominal is absent, by contrast, the person index has anaphoric function. Thus, the person indexes of Tauya are “ambiguous agreement markers” (they have a dual nature), not “pronominal arguments”. If one allows only three logical possibilities (person-forms as arguments; nominals as arguments; either as arguments), this is a reasonable conclusion, though in Haspelmath (2013: §5.4), I proposed a fourth possibility (that both are arguments; I called this the double-expression view and contrasted it with Siewierska’s dual-nature view. (I do not feel strongly about this difference, as it does not seem to have any clear consequences and may be primarily terminological.)

In some of the later literature, the unclear notion of “apposition” is still preserved (e.g. Van Valin 2013: 91), and one can tell that Siewierska’s (2001) paper has not been very influential. But there are other issues that she does not discuss in her paper, especially the extent to which the person forms are “referential”. This does not always seem to be the case, as noted by Van Valin (2013) (discussed in this earlier blogpost); and Siewierska (2004: 125) had observed it earlier herself. Hengeveld (2012) is another more recent contribution to the discussion. Like Van Valin, he is interested in the “referential” nature of person indexes, and he observes that in his Functional Discourse Grammar framwork, it is actually not problematic to formulate a rule of agreement with an element of the “Contextual Component”. For Turkish, he spells out how this would work, and he adopts an analysis in terms of “virtual agreement”, though he regards Chickasaw and Chinook as showing “appositional referential markers”. Thus, instead of Siewierska’s three types (called gramm-indexes, cross-indexes and pro-indexes in Haspelmath 2013), he has four types, breaking up cross-indexes into two subtypes (“referential cross-indexes” and “agreement cross-indexes”, so to speak). Hengeveld’s (2012) paper arose from discussions with Anna Siewierska, who died in 2011. The issues she raised on the basis of her rich cross-linguistic data are still highly relevant, and at least from my perspective, her work from two decades ago has been a major advance in our understanding of the worldwide picture of argument marking. That argument marking is best thought of in terms of flagging and indexing, not in terms of “case” and “agreement”, is now widely accepted (e.g. Haspelmath 2019; Creissels 2022).


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Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2022, January 20). Are argument nominals “appositional” when the verb carries person indexes? Remarks on Siewierska (2001). Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved May 31, 2024, from

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