Ergativity and objects in Spanish

Jon Aske aske at EARTHLINK.NET
Sat Feb 14 17:52:57 UTC 1998

Hi, Diego, and company,

Some further comments on all these matters, which I hope those who are not
familiar with the Spanish data are being able to follow (I am including
translations of Diego's examples).

About the correlation between S and O and postverbal position and A and
preverbal position in Spanish, I repeat I think this is a rather weak
correlation.   In my experience, overt (full nominal) objects (O's) tend to
be foci, as do about half of overt intransitive subjects (S's).   Not so
much overt A's, however.  This explains the fact that overt S's are
postverbal more often than overt A's are, since foci are predominantly
postverbal in Spanish.

Let us not forget that word order is not a mechanism for coding grammatical
relations in Spanish at all. And let us not forget that:

a) Very salient foci (i.e. emphatic or contrastive ones), be they subjects
or objects or what have you, are typically placed preverbally (as in
so-called "OV languages"), cf. Silva-Corvalán's (1984) well-known example:
*Efortil me dieron a mi!* "Efortil{Foc} they gave me," "Efortil is what they
gave me" (the clitic *me* is like part of the verb for information structure
purposes, so the focus counts as being immediately preverbal).

b) Subjects (and all other settings) may also be postverbal, not because
they are foci, but because they are topics in an assertion with a very
salient foci (cf. exclamations, e.g. *Siempre viene Juan los viernes!* "Juan
ALWAYS comes on Fridays"; *Cuando viene Juan?* "when does Juan come).  These
"antitopics" do not receive an information accent, such as foci and
left-dislocated topics do.

About the so-called (don't blame me) "personal A":

>         What constitutes more "natural" strategies is a highly complicated
> matter in Spanish. 

No doubt about it.

>         (1) La amenaza de confiscarles los indios...
[the threat of confiscating the Indians from them]

(For those who are not familiar with the language, the interesting thing
here is that there is no (so-called personal) "a" before "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.
[the very sporadic arrival of ships to the Honduran harbors didn't only
affect [a] (the) exports, but also the imports, of European products]

(The interesting thing here is that the (inanimate) object of affect has the

Surely these are interesting cases in that they don't follow the traditional
rule, according to which human direct objects bear the A and non-human
objects don't.

It seems to me that the traditional rule works for 95% of the cases (in
writing perhaps a bit less, since writing tends to be more conservative),
and that most of the exceptions can be seen as extensions of the rule (such
as pets being treated as humans, for example). That still leaves examples
such as the ones above, which, I repeat, are very interesting.

The lack of A in the first example (treating the object's referent as an
object, or merchandise) may be due, not so much to the presence of a covert
human dative (a clitic, not a full nominal), but to the desire to avoid
ambiguity, since without context, the sentence:
La amenaza de confiscarles A los indios...
could mean either (1) the threat of confiscating the Indians from them or
(2) the threat of confiscating from the Indians 
  (of course a racist
attitude towards Indians could have something to do with it too).

But I think there is another reason for not using the A in the first
example, which would also be a reason for using the A in the second example,
namely the fact that confiscar (confiscate) typically takes an inanimate
direct object (merchandise) and that afectar (affect) typically takes a
human direct object, and thus the absence vs. presence of the A is somewhat
automatic (grammaticalized).

The possibility of dropping the A in the first example would be due to the
fact that the object of confiscate is typically some type of merchandise and
merchandise is not marked with A, be it human or not.  (But if it wasn't
Indians but, say, relatives, the personal A would not have been ommitted.)

The addition of the A in the second example, which by the way doesn't sound
all that great to my non Costa Rican ears, I can only see as an extension of
the prototypical case in which the affected party is human.

Just some thoughts.  Let me know what you think

Best, Jon

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