Are we making progress in understanding differential object marking?

The topic of differential object marking (DOM), or more broadly differential argument marking, continues to be popular in different circles. The journal Linguistics had a special issue in 2014 with 11 papers, there is a recent LangSci volume on the diachrony of differential argument marking (coedited by my Leipzig colleague Ilja A. Serzant, and there is also a steady stream of MGG papers on the topic – e.g. by Laura Kalin (dealing with Senaya Neo-Aramaic), by Theodore Levin (dealing with Palauan), by Coppe van Urk (dealing with Fijian), and by Pilipp Weisser & Laura Kalin on coordination and differential object case-marking.

The term differential object marking was coined by Bossong (1982; 1985), and his findings and ideas were beautifully summarized in his 1991 paper.

Basically, Bossong claims that the explanation for the universal tendencies of differential object marking (favouring overt coding of animate, definite and otherwise referentially prominent object arguments) lies in the interaction of the semantic-syntactic role (“slot”) and the referential prominence of the filler (“the specific semantic nature of the NP”; see Bossong’s §2). This explanation is very similar to the explanations given by authors such as Silverstein (1976), Moravcsik (1978), Comrie (1978), Dixon (1979), which all appeal to the special, unexpected nature of referentially prominent objects in one way or another. In a recent (still unpublished) paper (Haspelmath 2019), I have proposed that this generalization, as well as quite a few other generalizations about split and alternating argument coding, can be explained by frequency-induced predictability, like many other grammatical patterns. This basically follows the explanations advanced in much earlier work since the 1970s (and in fact since the 19th century, cf. Filimonova 2005).

In view of the widespread consensus that the DOM tendencies can be explained functionally, it may seem surprising there is a substantial amount of generative work that simply ignores these explanations (e.g. Torrego 1998; Baker & Vinokurova 2010; Ormazabal & Romero 2013). This seems to be based on the tacit assumption that every fact of every language needs to be explained with reference to UG – which in turn is based on the misunderstanding that description and explanation must be the same thing in linguistics. Bossong (1991) emphasizes that to the extent that the patterns of individual languages reflect universal tendencies, they should be explained in general terms – but he also says:

“First of all, typological comparison has to make clear that the phenomenon under study is not isolated but typologically related to other phenomena in many distant and different languages. Only then does it make sense to look for causal explanations” (Bossong 1991: 164).

So the explanation comes after the comparison and the establishment of universal tendencies, not at the same time as the description. Explanation may be in terms of UG if other (more likely) explanations fail, but there is no reason why language-particular descriptions should be in terms of UG vocabulary. To be sure, we need some kind of UG to acquire a language, but we are of course perfectly capable of creating language-particular grammars on the basis of language-particular categories.

So what do we learn from the recent MGG papers on DOM? I may find time to discuss some of the others later, but here I will only deal with T. Levin (2018). The author argues that DOM in Palauan should be explained as a “last-resort licensing” phenomenon, not as a “morphological” phenomenon (where the different object nominals have the same syntactic features but have different exponents), and not as due to movement either (as in the increasingly popular dependent-case approach). Here is an example (with the accusative preposition er, which only appears on human or singular specific nouns):

A Sally a menguiu er se el hong.
DET Sally TOP read.IPFV ACC that L book
‘Sally is reading that book.’ (Levin’s (3a))

The main argument against the dependent-case approach is that Accusative marking is limited to imperfective constructions in Palauan, while perfective constructions show no object flagging (only object indexing), even though there is no reason to think that the object does not move in perfective clauses. The main argument against the “morphological” account is that it is non-restrictive: It makes it appear completely accidental that DOM is found only in imperfective clauses – whereas this follows from Levin’s analysis, because only imperfective constructions have an extra AspectP that prevents licensing of the object in the usual way. (I did not understand how it is motivated that there is an extra phrase in imperfectives – this seems to be largely theory-internal.)

Here I have three critical questions:

(1) How sure are we that it is NOT an accident that imperfective constructions show special flagging and agreement patterns in a number of languages? As T. Levin notes, progressives (and other imperfectives) often derive from nominalizations, and this of course makes them prone to inherit special argument-marking patterns. Why should this be built into synchronic grammars? And note that perfectives may also arise from special nominalized constructions, as recently emphasized by Anderson (2016) (and briefly discussed earlier on this blog). It is particularly well-known that Russian lost the old Slavic past tense and, as a result, lacks person indexing on its past-tense forms. This is generally seen as an accident, so why couldn’t the Palauan argument-marking split be equally accidental?

(Recall that if this is an accident, then the “boring” morphological account could be right; and in the spirit of Bossong and the other functionalists, one could then attribute the observed regularity to functional-adaptive forces, rather than building oit into the formal analysis.)

(2) T. Levin actually adopts the “morphological” analysis himself – for one idiosyncratic aspect of Palauan DOM. The object-marking preposition is not found on plural object nominals. There is no explanation for this – hence this has to be encoded by “brute force”. But if brute force is available anyway (and not, for example, excluded by learnability considerations which are often invoked by Chomskyans), why not use it everywhere? It seems to me that the main justification for this is that otherwise the paper would be too short and too boring (because the basic generalization, that the Accusative marking is found only in imperfective clauses when the object is human or specific and singular, is very easy, and thus very elegant, to state).

(3) The paper has the highly general title “On the nature of differential object marking”, but in concluding section, T. Levin suddenly retreats to a very modest position:

“Of course, just because the present analysis is correct for Palauan does not mean that every language with a DOM system must be analyzed in similar terms. Additional research is needed to determine if other languages can and should be accorded similar analyses or if DOM is better understood as an umbrella term for a number of phenomena.”

But if there is no universal claim, is this still a paper about the “nature” of DOM (rather than merely a paper about a Palauan pattern that could alternatively be analyzed in much more elegant terms)? Moreover, if there is no universal claim, does the argument against the “morphological” analysis (that it is non-restrictive) still go through? It seems to me that in the concluding section, it turns out that T. Levin’s proposal is not restrictive either.

Thus, I do not see a serious competitor here for Bossong’s explanation of the differential object marking universals in terms of the interaction of the semantic role and the referential prominence of the filler nominal (what I call “role-reference associations”). It seems that T. Levin’s paper (like most other papers by MGG authors) has not heeded Bossong’s advice that explanations of universals must come after the empirical establishment of the universals. These authors typically look at a single language and propose an analysis of it in universal terms, hoping that it will somehow extend to other languages, and that the whole enterprise will eventually converge on a single set of natural kinds.


Is iconicity a better explanation for inalienable adpossessive marking after all?

Many languages have different adpossessive (= adnominal possessive) constructions for inalienable possessed nouns (= body-part or kinship nouns) and all other nouns. For example, Maltese has id Pietru ‘Pietru’s hand’ with no marker when a body-part is possessed, but il-ktieb ta’ Pietru [the-book of Pietru] with a possessive preposition when an alienable noun is possessed. Continue reading

More on universals of case-marking from the perspective of nanosyntax: Van Baal & Don (2018)

In a recent blogpost, I promised that I’d pay more attention to the nanosyntactic approach if the authors look at more representative samples of the world’s languages, and it turns out that this is not difficult, because the fair open-access journal Glossa regularly publishes papers in this vein. A recent paper is van Baal & Don (2018), on universals of possessive pronouns, based on a sample of 50 languages. Continue reading

Coexpression patterns of complementizers, nanosyntax, and productivity

Since the 1980s, typologists have often summarized coexpression patterns (or “polysemy patterns”, or “syncretism patterns”) by semantic maps, as illustrated here for case expression (Narrog & Ito 2007: 282):

(For general introductions to semantic maps, see Haspelmath 2003; Georgakopoulos & Polis 2018). The claims about possible coexpression pattern that a semantic map makes Continue reading

Should descriptive grammars be “typologically informed”, and what does this mean?

A recent issue of the journal “Linguistic Typology” contains a number of articles on the usefulness of typology, among others one by Nikolaus Himmelmann on the usefulness of typology for language documentation (2016). Himmelmann bluntly criticizes the theoretical stance of separating description from comparison: Continue reading

Why is configuration expressed by adpositions, and direction by case? A discussion of Lestrade et al. (2011)

Complex spatial flags often consist of two or even three elements, of which typically one corresponds to the configuration (‘inside’, ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘next to’, etc.), and one to the direction (‘to’, ‘at’, ‘from’, ‘via’), as illustrated by English, Finnish and Lezgian below. These sorts of phenomena are the topic of an interesting typological paper by Lestrade, de Schepper and Zwarts (2011). Continue reading

Stephen Anderson on “diachronic explanation” (of what?)

In a number of publications over the years, Stephen Anderson has advanced the idea that phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena should often be explained diachronically, rather than with reference to the innate Language Faculty (a.k.a. Universal Grammar) (cf. Anderson 2005; 2008; 2016). For someone who has been a very prominent generative phonologist and morphologist (cf. Anderson 1974; 1992), this is remarkable. In the generative meaninstream, very few linguists have even entertained the possibility that core properties of grammars (such as distinctive features and alternations in phonology, or case-marking rules in syntax) might be explained by anything other than UG. The notion that “linguistic theory” (= what generative linguists are engaged in) consists in elucidating the constraints of our cognitive apparatus on possible mental grammars is still widely taken for granted. Thus, Anderson’s arguments are interesting Continue reading

Strong evidence that the roots of binding constraints are pragmatic from Cole et al. (2015)

Cole, Hermon, and Yanti’s (2015) new paper is an extremely important contribution that is likely to have a powerful impact on debates that focus on where grammatical constraints in languages come from. The authors compare Traditional Jambi Malay (TJM) with a dialect of Jambi Malay spoken in Jambi City (JCM). TJM is an example of a language in which the longer forms involve the addition of an intensifier or emphatic, which serves to indicate the pragmatically marked nature of the coreference (König & Siemund 2000; Levinson 2000). Continue reading

Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading

How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading

The necessity of grammatical structures

A great deal of digital ink has proliferated (I won’t say has been ‘spilled’ because that would imply it was done in waste) about the question of linguistic complexity, and whether it is possible to show in a meaningful way that some languages are more or less complex than others. After reading DeGraff’s (2001) and others’ commentary on McWhorter’s (2001) well-known article, ‘The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars’, I have recently come to reject the question as having any meaning, except perhaps in the impressionistic sense of complexity as being ‘harder for adult language learners to acquire’. At the very least, I have yet to see a precise formulation of complexity that I am convinced captures the idea that linguists are attempting to pin down, and since I myself have no alternative definition to offer, I shall refrain from using the concept until such a definition presents itself. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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The limits of curiosity

Talmy Givón in “Beyond structuralism: Should we set a priori limits on our curiosity?” (Studies in Language 37.2, 2013, pp. 413-423), answers the rhetorical question of his subtitle with an emphatic ‘no’. In addition to a proponent, he is an avid practitioner of unrestrained curiosity, a curiosity that leads him to a curious presentation of intellectual history.

The rise of structuralism in the social sciences in the early 20th century, with its two towering figures, F. de Saussure and L. Bloomfield, owes its intellectual roots … to a radical brand of empiricism — Logical Positivism — that rose at the end of the 19th century … In the intellectual climate fostered by Logical Positivism, Saussure (1915) elaborated the three reigning dogmas of structuralism (Givón 2013: 415-417)

The normal practice of historians is to presuppose that causes are antecedent to their effects, this limitation to curiosity it seems is not necessary within Givón’s teleological Weltanschauung. Continue reading

Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath’s (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading