verbs and definite objects

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Nov 3 09:04:06 UTC 1999

 Edith Moravcsik analyzes the Hungarian situation as follows:

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

But given that the actual exponents are cumulative, an equally plausible
analysis would be the following, where the relevant difference is
between object agreement and no object agreement:

    I hit-S1SUBJ.S3OBJ the girl.
     I hit-S1SUBJ        a girl.
     I hit-S1SUBJ.S3OBJ the boy.
     I hit-S1SUBJ        a boy.

Why do I prefer this analysis to Edith's?

(1) One doesn't have to assume a semantically arbitrary category of
definiteness. Note that if definiteness agreement can have arbitrary
exceptions in the way Edith suggests, it is doubtful that one can
compare "definiteness agreement" in one language with "definiteness
agreement" in another one. (Probably nobody would say that the Masculine
in German is in some sense the same category as the Masculine in

(2) Cumulative markers combining subject and object agreement are well
attested elsewhere, as are separate markers of subject and object
agreement. However, I know of no language with a separate marker of
definiteness agreement that is not cumulated with something else, and I
feel that this is not an accident.

(3) Hungarian actually does have one form which undoubtedly shows
combined subject/object agreement:

kér-lek (ask-S1SUBJ.S2OBJ) 'I ask you'

This form would be isolated on the definiteness-agreement view, but it
is not on the view that the "definiteness agreement" forms are actually
3rd-person agreement forms.

It is true that there are still lots of gaps in the paradigm (e.g. there
is no single-word form for 'you ask me'), but some related Finno-Ugrian
languages have a more complete subject-object paradigm.

I guess the general point is that I prefer the object-agreement analysis
because it makes Hungarian look less unusual, more like other languages
I know. I must confess that this is a general attitude that I cannot
justify further. I can see very well why one would like to see Hungarian
as a very special language. Quite generally, our differences in analyses
seem to be based such ill-understood gut feelings...


Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Inselstr. 22
D-04103 Leipzig (Tel. (MPI) +49-341-9952 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616)

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