Summary -grammatical coding of proper names

Lukas Denk Lukas.Denk at STUD.UNI-REGENSBURG.DE
Thu Dec 5 23:17:07 UTC 2013

Hello everyone,

I'm really overwhelmed by your interesting findings concerning special
grammatical treatment of proper names and I want to thank the contributors.
Even though I haven't yet checked the literature in deep, I'd like to give a
short summary of the replies: 

C(ommon)N(oun)s, P(roper)N(ame)s

- Dieri (South Australia) exhibits special case declension patterns for PNs
(Peter Austin, 8)
- Articles and (female) PNs seem to have an interesting correlation in some
German variations (Greville Corbett, 7)
- Noun classes or agreement-patterns in Bantu languages, and as an instance,
Kirundi, are sensitive to the category of PNs (Mark Van de Velde, 6)
- Amazonian languages Banawá and Suruwahá show special phonological treatment
of PNs and hypocoristics (concerning syllable structure) (Dan Everett, 5)
- Paul Hopper has already done work on the distinction between PNs, lexical
nouns and pronouns in discourse, specifically regarding the S, A and P argument
function. (4)
- In Adyghe and Kabardian (NW-Caucasian), PNs do not overtly mark S, A and P
(and other grammatical functions), in contrast to definite/specific CNs and
demonstrative pronouns. (Peter Arkadiev, 3)
- Meryam Mir, a Papuan language exhibits different alignment systems, with
pronouns being marked NOM-ACC, CNs ERG-ABS, and PNs tripartite. (Matthew Dryer,
- As to Araki (Vanuatu), PNs have a special transitivity and possession marking
treatment. PNs (including person and place names) receive always systematic
treatment X, CNs oscillate between X and Y, whereas treatment X is assigned to
those CNs which are "more salient", "more highly individuated", "definite" and
specific" (Alex Francois, 1)

Including my own findings, the treatment of proper names in Mapudungun (South
America) is astonishingly similar to the latter, mentioned by Alex. That means,
where PNs receive always the mark -fi (in object function), CN sometimes do,
sometimes not, depending on their definite, specific, saliency or anaphoric
status. The paper (my bachelor thesis) hasn't been reviewed yet, but if anybody
is interested in, I'd gladly send it to you (no guarantee!).

Please comment if something is wrong, and if you want to add something, make
sure that you attach the existing summary to it.

Thanks for your big help,

With best regards,

dear Lukas,

Thanks for an interesting query.
You may find something in my grammar of Araki, an Oceanic language of Vanuatu.
Here's the reference, including a link to a scan of the book:
François, Alexandre. 2002. Araki: A disappearing language of Vanuatu. Pacific
Linguistics, 522. Canberra: Australian National University. 375 pp.
​[access to a Pdf]​

Also on the language Araki, I recently wrote an article on the morphosyntax of
ditransitive verbs:
 François, Alexandre. 2012. Ditransitive alignment and referential hierarchies
in Araki. In Eva van Lier (ed), Referential Hierarchies in Three-participant
Constructions. Special issue of Linguistic Discovery, 10: 3 (Nov_2012).  
​[access to a Pdf]​

In both these documents, if you do a search on the string "proper noun", you
will find various places showing that proper nouns have special treatment with
respect to transitivity marking, possession marking, etc. This special
treatment often means being cross-referenced by morphology normally used for
highly salient human individuals. In a way this is not so spectacular for
personal proper nouns, because a person designated with their name is
presumably "salient" & highly individuated anyway;  but it is at least nice to
see this degree of saliency made formally explicit in the language, contrasting
proper nouns with common nouns.

NB:  as you will see, proper nouns don't always have a separate treatment from
common nouns:  rather, proper nouns receive systematic treatment X whereas
common nouns typically oscillate between two treatments X and Y (where X is the
treatment highly individuated, definite and specific referents…)

And then, what is perhaps more original is that the proper nouns referring to
places (i.e. toponyms) behave the same, as highly individuated "human" nouns,
by contrast with common nouns referring to places.  

See pp.97, 136, 141 of the grammar;   or ex(44) vs (45) in the paper.

I hope this is useful.

good luck,

A language that treats proper nouns differently from common nouns is 
Meryam Mir, an Eastern Trans-Fly language spoken on islands between the 
mainlands of Australia and Papua New Guinea but which belong politically 
to Australia.

Meryam Mir is interesting in that it exhibits four different systems of 
alignment within the same language.  The case system for pronouns is 
nominative-accusative, the case system for common nouns is 
ergative-absolutive, and the case system for proper nouns is tripartite, 
with an accusative case that does not occur with common nouns.

In addition, the head marking system on verbs can be described as split 

Piper, N. (1989). A sketch grammar of Meryam Mer. Australian National 

(A version Piper’s thesis has recently been published by Lincom Europa; 
I do not know if it differs from the thesis.)

Matthew Dryer, Professor
Department of Linguistics
616 Baldy Hall
University at Buffalo (SUNY)
Buffalo NY 14260
Phone: 716-645-0122
    FAX: 716-645-3825
dryer at
Dear Lukas,

in Circassian languages (Adyghe and Kabardian) proper names do not normally
assume overt case-marking for S, A, P (and other grammatical functions), in
contrast to both definite/specific common names and demonstrative pronouns,
which are overtly case-marked in all these functions. This is described, inter
alia, in the following book:
Kumakhov, Mukhadin & Vamling, Karina (2009). Circassian Clause Structure.
Malmö: Malmö University.
The book, as far as I know, is freely available in electronic form.
With best wishes,

Peter Arkadiev

Some time ago I wrote a paper on discourse features of proper names,
comparing them to lexical nouns and pronouns. It can be downloaded from my pages (see below). This paper might be of interest to your
project, as it deals specifically with the S, A, and P coding of names.

Paul Hopper

I assume Lukas is not interested in hypocoristics and distinct phonological
treatment of proper names?

Certainly these are part of the grammar, though not necessarily the


Dear Lukas,
In several Bantu languages Proper Names are distinguished from Common
Nouns by their agreement properties. When I presented my research on this
topic in Regensburg, my latest article was already submitted, but it took
some time to appear (see the attachment).
Will you post a summary of the replies on the list?
All the best,

Van de Velde, Mark (2009). Agreement as a grammatical criterion for proper
name status in Kirundi. In: Onoma 44: 219-241. (written in 2011, appeared
in January 2012)
Dear Lukas

I saw your query on the Linguistic Typology list.

Prof Damaris Nübling (nuebling at has interesting work on the use of
articles with proper names (particularly of females), in different areas of
Germany. There's more going on than you might imagine.

Best wishes
Greville Corbett

Dear LukAustralia where personal names have special case declensions. The details are
in my grammar of Diyari, available on


On 3 December 2013 09:56, Lukas Denk <Lukas.Denk at> wrote:
Hello everyone,

We are looking for peculiarities of the grammatical coding of proper names
compared to common nouns (and pronouns) in the languages of the world.  In
particular we are interested in proper names in S, A and P function and how
they differ with regard to word order, case marking and agreement from the
treatment of common nouns in a particular language. Are there such differences
also in European languages?

This is follow up research of a paper that we gave at the last ALT conference
in Leipzig on the morphosyntactic coding of proper names and the Animacy

I would thank you for any examples you can give,

Best wishes,
Lukas Denk (University of Regensburg)

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