Ergativity and objects in Spanish

Jon Aske aske at EARTHLINK.NET
Sun Feb 15 15:59:31 UTC 1998


Thanks for bringing up that reference.  Sasse and Matras (1995) is a very
interesting collection of studies, in particular Sasse's two articles in
that volume, as is Sasse's wonderful 1987 article on thetic sentences ("The
thetic/categorical distinction revisited," Linguistics 25, 1987).

My major problem with the approach followed in those studies, besides the
fact that they don't look at actual spoken data, but rather data from
different written genres, is that they use a structural property--postverbal
position of the subject--to categorize assertions.  As I have argued before,
I believe that there are two rather different reasons why a subject might be
postverbal in these "VO languages", namely

(1) when the subject is the focus.  Then it receives the information accent
associated with the assertion.  But we must remember too that not all foci
are postverbal: more salient ones are often preverbal in these languages,
e.g. JUAN vino! "Juan (is who) came"; Un LIbro trajo! "a book (is what) he
brought"). (Beware: these sentences typically need context and sound a bit
odd out of the blue and when used to elicit acceptability judgements)


(2) when the subject is an accessible (anti)topic, and then it doesn't
receive an information accent.  This type of "postposing" can be seen in the
so-called right-dislocation construction in English (which doesn't really
dislocate the subject, as Ziv 1994 for instance has successfully argued,
"Left and right dislocations: Discourse functions and anaphora"), but it is
much more common in less rigid VO languages.

The motivation for this type of postposing, I believe, is the presence of a
very salient focus in the assertion, which is why this "strategy" is
associated with exclamations and other types of emphatic assertions, as well
as content questions, and so on.  This "strategy" seems to easily acquire
additional "rhetorical" uses, which are to some extent conventionalized,
thus I found that it is very common in Mexican newspaper headlines, but not
in Spanish newspaper headlines; also, this type of inversion is more common
in conversation and in some conversational styles than others, not
surprisingly since it is related to "focus emphasis", and thus an "optional"
"operation".  (These sentences too, and emphatic assertions in general,
sometimes sound odd out of context when used to elicit acceptability

(Note too that this type of postposing extends to settings of all types,
such as locatives, temporals, conditionals, etc, not just to topics (which I
believe are just a specialized type of setting).  Thus, e.g., "Come here
[when I call you]!"  What will you do [if I don't go]?)

The first type of subject postposing (focus subject) is much more common
with intransitive (and monovalent) predicates than with transitive (and
polyvalent) predicates for the simple reason that in these situations there
are less candidates for the focus role and thus the subject is more likely
to be the focus (I believe all assertions have a focus constituent, which
receives the "comment"'s information accent, and that not all assertions
have a topic, though most do).

The second type of subject postposing (antitopic subject) I believe happens
equally with polyvalent/transitive predicates as with
monovalent/intransitive ones.

I should also mention that I don't think that all clauses which have a
postverbal focus subject are thetic, since in many cases another argument of
the verb fills the topic role, something which Sasse does not mention (cf.,
e.g., Spanish: "Y cuando llego, lo vio mi PAdre" And when he arrived my
father saw him...).

Anyway, for this reason I believe that there may be problems using Sasse's
group's data for our purposes, even though it is undoubtedly very
interesting and Sasse's original study was definitely ground-breaking.
Also, as I just mentioned, the use of topic inversion varies a great deal
from genre to genre and style to style, which means we have to be very
careful about not comparing apples with oranges when we compare languages.

Best, Jon

> -----Original Message-----
> From: FUNKNET -- Discussion of issues in Functional Linguistics
> [mailto:FUNKNET at LISTSERV.RICE.EDU]On Behalf Of A.M. Bolkestein
> Sent: Sunday, February 15, 1998 6:57 AM
> Subject: Re: Ergativity and objects in Spanish
> There is a special issue of the journal STUF (Sprachtypologische
> Universalien Forschung) edited by Hans Juergen Sasse and Yaron Matras
> (1995) on
> VS order in a number of European languages (among other classical Latin
> (by me), Italian (by Giuliano Bernini) , modern Greek (by Hans Juergen
> Sasse), data from early Romance languages, among other, I believe,
> early Spanish data (Rosanna Sornicola). There are statistical data in
> some of these articles, and , among other, attention for both semantic
> parameters (valency) and discourse conditions. Why not have  a look at it?
> It is I believe directly relevant.
> Machtelt Bolkestein
> Dept. of Classics, University of Amsterdam
> Oude Turfmarkt 129
> NL-1012 GC Amsterdam
> Fax: ++31.20.5252544
> E-mail: a.m.bolkestein at

Jon Aske
or mailto://
Department of Foreign Languages
Salem State College
Salem, Massachusetts 01970
Beltz guztiak ez dira ikatz ** "Not everything that's black is
coal.". --Basque Proverb

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