[Lingtyp] Verbs of success with dative subject

Spike Gildea spike at uoregon.edu
Fri Jan 4 16:22:40 UTC 2019

First, I thank everyone for sharing  examples of dative subjects with predicates of success. Alongside the expected examples in Indo-European languages of the Slavic, Romance, Germanic, and Indic families, examples were proposed from Causasian languages in general (with Akhvakh as an example), North Saami and Finnish (Uralic), Hebrew (Semitic), and Japhug (Tibeto-Burman) — while there are at least examples outside of IE, this is not a particularly robust cross-linguistic attestation of the phenomenon. I originally posted the query because I am aware of no examples in the non-canonical case-marking languages of South America, and it is interesting that nobody has mentioned examples from the language families of North America or Austronesia
that are known for semantic alignment.

Second, with regard to Ilja’s query, there is a long tradition of disputing the use of the term “subject” for apparent primary arguments that do not bear the canonical case-marking of subjects in a given language, in particular for analyses of "dative subjects". Much of Jóhanna’s own work (particularly Eythorsson & Barðdal 2005, Barðdal & Eyth̩órsson 2012) participates in this dispute, in that she has consistently used a range of syntactic tests to distinguish dative subjects from non-subject dative experiencers, such as order, raising, reflexivization (both long-distance and clause-bound), control infinitives, and conjunction reduction. The disputes arise from the fact that these syntactic tests do not give consistent results, even in closely related Germanic languages like Icelandic, where all such tests show that the only distinction between nominative subjects and non-canonical subjects is case-marking and verb agreement, and German (which is more akin to the range of other European languages), where only a subset of the tests syntactically align potential dative subjects with nominative subjects. It is true that different theoretical perspectives interpret this phenomenon differently, and in particular, some prefer to privilege the term “subject” as a theoretical label that should not be assigned on the basis of some (non-specific) subset of “subject tests”.

In this query, I was hoping to finesse the (ultimately necessary) question of “what is a non-canonical subject in theory?” and its operational correlate “which criteria should count most in identifying them?” That is, I hoped just to use the term “dative subject” as a shorthand by which colleagues might recognize constructions in individual languages that show a combination of properties that would then constitute potentially interesting cases for follow-up. I could re-formulate the query in more precise terms as follows: we are looking for indications of languages for which (i) predicates of success mark the “succeeder” as a dative (or other non-canonical case that could be used to mark recipients or benefactives), and (ii) the syntactic properties associated with this dative “succeeder” are distinct from clear “indirect object” dative arguments in that they share one or more syntactic properties with canonical subjects.


Barðdal, Jóhanna & Thórhallur Eythórsson. 2012. ‘Hungering and lusting for women and fleshly delicacies’: Reconstructing grammatical relations for Proto-Germanic. Transactions of the Philological Society 110(3): 363–393.
Eythórsson, Thórhallur & Jóhanna Barðdal. 2005. Oblique Subjects: A Common Germanic Inheritance. Language 81(4): 824–881.

On Jan 3, 2019, at 11:34 PM, Ilja Seržant <ilja.serzants at uni-leipzig.de<mailto:ilja.serzants at uni-leipzig.de>> wrote:

Dear all,

I apologize for a side remark. But do we call any kind of argumental and non-argumental animate (experiencer) dative NP a non-canonical subject? :-) Does it really make sense to use the notion of subject that way? Woudn't be a term like "dative experiencer" or "dative/recipient-like experiencer" be more adequate for a cross-linguistic comparison?



Am 21.12.2018 um 17:00 schrieb Spike Gildea:
Dear colleagues,

I forward a query from my colleague, Jóhanna Barðdal, who is looking for examples of predicates of "success” with non canonical subject marking, in particular those that take a dative subject.

We are working on Indo-European verbs/predicates with the meanings 'succeed', 'be successful', 'make progress', 'turn out well', 'go well'. The last one in the sense "he is doing well in his dance class" or even "he is doing well in life”.

Thank you in advance for indications of other places in the world where we might find such predicates taking a dative subject!


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Ilja A. Seržant, postdoc
Project "Grammatical Universals"
Universität Leipzig (IPF 141199)
Nikolaistraße 6-10
04109 Leipzig

URL: http://home.uni-leipzig.de/serzant/

Tel.: + 49 341 97 37713
Room 5.22

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