Ergativity and objects in Spanish

Diego Quesada dquesada at CHASS.UTORONTO.CA
Sat Feb 14 04:33:42 UTC 1998

I apologize too for arriving "a la hora latina" at the discussion. My
comments are rather general and are not intended as taking sides but
rather as summarizing and bringing additinal aspects to the discussion.

RE: Ergativity correlations:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Clancy's original proposal is crystal
clear and should come as no surprise, given well-established 'findings' in
the literature on ergativity such as DuBois (1987) and Durie (1988, I
guess, anyway, his article in Lingua). According to Clancy, the fact that
unmarked transitive clauses in Spanish tend to be of the SVO (or AVO) type
plus the fact that unmarked transitive ones tend to be VS should speak for
a discourse-based (in the sense that the distribution of such orders is
pragmatically determined) tendency to syntactically treat O (transitive
object) and S (intransitive subject) similarly, that is both in postverbal
position. I see no tragedy in that PROVIDED -ojo- PROVIDED, one can with a
comfortable degree of certainty establish that there is indeed a tendency
for intransitive sentences to be VS in most contexts (not just with full
subject NPs, discourse-initially, which I'm afraid is the case) as well as
for transitive clauses to be SVO. I have no text counts to make any
claims, but I suspect such counts would yield a "tie" rather than a "win"
to the claimed unmarked status of such orders, again PROVIDED we can all
agree on a language-specific definition of unmarked orders in this

RE: Objects

> Ricardo wrote:

> The deletion of the preposition "a" is simply not the most common strategy
> in Spanish.
> The Speaker can either keep both "a"s or use other strategies. Let me give
> more natural examples for that type of structure. Instead of *Juan presenta
> Luisa a Marta* I would say
> 1) "Juan le presento´ a Luisa a Marta"
> I should stress that for most dialects of Spanish the clitic "le" is
> required. Ambiguity is noramlly resolved by the assuming normal DO, IO word
> order. Now it is true that double "a" is commonly avoided, however the
> deletion of the Direct Object "a" is not the first strategy at all. In fact
> the most transparent way to disambiguate would be 2:
> 2) Juan presento´ a Luisa con Marta "Juan introduced Luisa with Marta"
> where the IO becomes an Oblique and the DO preserves the "a" preposition.
> Given that in Spanish you can either keep both "a" prepositions, demote the
> IO to an oblique or, in a less natural manner, delete the DO "a" the
> strength of the argument should be taken with a grain of salt.

        What constitutes more "natural" strategies is a highly complicated
matter in Spanish. What I would like to stress is the fact that
presence/absence of 'a' is not a matter of "strategies" (for what?),
nor is there a preference to either keep or delete 'a', but
-as already latent in Ricardo's posting- is determined by the
identifiability of the referents (needless to say, even less to whether
they are "personal" objects or not, an outdated view that unexplicably has
lots of followers). That is, the role of 'a' in Spanish is one of
reference and as such belongs in the function of agreement and not in the
one of case; 'a' is not a marker of dependency relations. I have argued
for that in a paper (1995) in Orbis 38. I found these sentences while
reading a History of Central America on the way home tonight:

        (1) La amenaza de confiscarles los indios...

        (2) La llegada tan esporadica de los barcos a los puertos de
            Honduras no solo afecto a las exportaciones, sino tambien
            a la importacion de productos europeos.

        Source: Fonseca, Elizabeth. (1933). "Economia y sociedad en
                        Centroamerica". In Pinto, Julio (ed.). El Periodo
                        Colonial. Historia General de Centroamerica. Vol
                        2. Madrid: FLACSO.

The text is written by native speakers. From the examples we can
corroborate that:
a.      'le' is an obligatory cross-referencing mechanism;
b.      'le' has shifted from the case (dependency) function to that of
        agreement (reference);
c.      the use of 'a' as reference -not case- marker is still dependent
        on several factors, that is, it has not been syntacticized yet as
        much as 'le', some of which are the inherent features of the
        objects, discourse relevance of the referents it "agrees" with,
        etc. As such, its use is intermittent.
d.      there is no way to tell whether in (1) the absence of 'a' is the
        result of a strategy from the writer to avoid 'a' doubling, even
        less possible is it to say that the absence of 'a' in (1) is a
        "less natural manner". (1) sounds perfectly unmarked and natural
        to my Costa Rican native competence.

Unless one would take the rather racist and odd view that 'indios' does
not refer to referents which are human, topical, but which in the case of
(1) compete for topicality with the referents of 'le' [los encomenderos],
there is no way to account for the absence of 'a' in (1). The
desambiguation approach as insinuated above by Ricardo -which I must admit
is a bit 'foggy'- falls short there.

> Finally, I am not clear about what Clancy Clements  means by the relevance
> of  LEISMO to this specific topic and how that would constitute an argument
> for an ergative interpretation of intransitives. I would be very interested
> to know his reasoning on this topic.
> Ricardo Maldonado

        I second Ricardo's plea for clarification there too.

Diego Quesada
University of Toronto

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