verbs and definite objects

Edith A Moravcsik edith at CSD.UWM.EDU
Tue Nov 2 14:46:49 UTC 1999

This is regarding Dunstan Brown's query re languages where the
verb agrees with the direct object in definiteness.

Andrew Spencer's helpful formula made it easy to see what we are looking
for: a situation where the inflection of the verb co-varies with the
(in)definiteness of its direct object; as below:


     I hit-DEFOBJ   the girl.
     I hit-INDEFOBJ a girl.
     I hit-DEFOBJ   the boy.
     I hit-INDEFOBJ a boy.

This is different from what we are NOT looking for: verb inflection
co-varying with some property of direct objects just in case the object is
definite, such as below:


     I hit-FEMOBJ   the girl.
     I hit          a girl.
     I hit-MASCOBJ  the boy.
     I hit          a boy.

In Construction B, the verb does not agree with the direct object in
definiteness; instead, it agrees with the object in gender in case
the object is definite and not when it is indefinite. - Or, on second
thought, I'd say the verb does not agree with the object ONLY in
definiteness but ALSO in gender. This second statement is better since the
lack of gender affix on the verb can be taken to mark the indefiniteness
of the object.

But if Construction A is the correct schema of the situation we are
looking for, I don't quite see why Hungarian - and several other
languages of the same sort as pointed out by Martin Haspelmath - would not
qualify. Here is what Hungarian does:

     I hit-S1SUBJ.DEFOBJ the girl.
     I hit-S1SUBJ        a girl.
     I hit-S1SUBJ.DEFOBJ the boy.
     I hit-S1SUBJ        a boy.

In other words, the Hungarian schema differs from Construction A only in
that   (a) the verb also agrees with the subject (in number and person),
           which is something you would expect if there is verb-object
       (b) subject agreement (in person and number) and object agreement
           (in definiteness) are expressed by a single affixal exponent.

The Hungarian schema is thus different from Construction B since no
characteristic of the object other than definiteness (such as gender or
number) influences verb inflection.

It is true, as Martin Haspelmath pointed out, that in Hungarian, first
and second person pronoun objects do not call for the "definite
conjugation"; instead, they occur with the indefinite one. However, I
do not really see how this fact is relevant to deciding whether
in Hungarian the verb agrees in definiteness with the direct object or
not. What this curious fact about first and second person pronouns shows
is just that the notion of "definiteness" that conditions verb inflection
is not a purely semantic notion; just like other similar grammatical
features like gender or number, it frays at the edges. That is to say,
just as the grammatical concept "masculine" may not include all nouns
with male reference and may include not only such; and the grammatical
feature "plural" may not include all semantically plural nouns and may
include not only such, the definiteness feature that determines verb
inflection in Hungarian is also a grammatical, rather than semantic, one:
not all semantically definite objects count as "definite" for purposes of
selecting verb inflection (such as first and second persons do not) and
not only semantically definite noun phrases take the definite conjugation
(e.g. "a book of yours" counts as "definite"). As far as I can see, this
fact is still consistent with the assertion that in Hungarian, the verb
agrees with its direct object in (the grammatical feature of)

Is this correct?

Edith Moravcsik

			 Edith A. Moravcsik
			 Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics
			 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
		         Milwaukee, WI 53201-0413

			 E-mail: edith at
		         Telephone: (414) 229-6794 /office/
				    (414) 332-0141 /home/
		         Fax: (414) 229-2741


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