[Lingtyp] Verbs of success with dative subject

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Sat Jan 5 07:12:59 UTC 2019

I think that Ilja Serz(ant is right: A term like "dative experiencer" 
would be better for constructions like:

à Sasha tout lui réussissait (French, cited by Jocelyne Fernandez-Vest)
to Sasha all to-her succeeded

Calling the dative experiencer (à Sasha) a "non-canonical (dative) 
subject" here (maybe on the basis of its pre-verbal position) is 
confusing, because there are no limits to what could be called a 
"non-canonical subject" -- one might propose, for example, to call 
inanimate objects in Spanish non-canonical subjects because they are 
subject-like in that they lack an object-marking preposition.

Spike says that the question "what is a non-canonical subject in 
theory?" is ultimately necessary, but I don't think so. An explanatory 
theory might not make use of the notion "subject" at all (and instead 
rely on more fine-grained parameters), let alone the notion of 
"non-canonical subject".

What we do need is a general definition of the *term* subject", because 
we use it all the time anyway and it would be best if we used it 
uniformly. Nobody disputes that the transitive A-argument and the 
intransitive S-argument are subjects, so I think it's best to say that 
"subject" is "A or S" (as in Dixon 1994). Since A, S and P are defined 
in terms of their coding properties (Haspelmath 2011), this means that a 
dative-marked argument is never a subject (since A/S are by definition 
nominative/absolutive- or ergative-marked).

It is interesting, of course, that some non-A/S arguments share some 
behavioural properties with A/S arguments, but behavioural properties 
are extremely diverse and are not a good basis for terminology. 
Pre-verbal order is extremely common when an argument is the only 
animate argument of a predicate, so dative experiencers will very often 
be subject-like in this regard -- but do we want to call this a "subject 
property" in view of the fact that inanimate S-arguments often occur in 
a later position? It seems that word order is more driven by animacy and 
specificity than by semantic/syntactic role. It seems best to define 
subject/S/A by argument coding (flagging and indexing), not by 
behavioural properties.


On 04.01.19 17:22, Spike Gildea wrote:
> 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 & 
> Eyth?órsson 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.
> Best,
> Spike
> *References*
> 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 Serz(ant 
>> <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?
>> Best,
>> Ilja
>> 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!
>>> Best,
>>> Spike
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> Lingtyp mailing list
>>> Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
>>> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp
>> -- 
>> Ilja A. Serz(ant, 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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Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10	
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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