LOT Winter School 2019

Competing motivations and competing explanations in the typology of constituent order and grammatical relations

Eva Schultze-Berndt


Professor of Linguistics

Linguistics and English Language

School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

The University of Manchester

Oxford Road

M13 9PL

Manchester, UK


Course title: Competing motivations and competing explanations in the typology of constituent order and grammatical relations

Level: intermediate

Course description:

While there is by now a great number of phenomena that have received attention from a cross-linguistic perspective – ranging from phonotactics to evidentiality – the classical typological topics of constituent order and marking of grammatical relations (“alignment typology”) continue to be popular areas for research and give rise to a lively debate, which is informed by the availability of data from corpora of naturalistic speech for an ever growing number of languages. The use of corpus data has lead to a greater awareness of the relevance of information packaging in discourse and information structure for both constituent order and alignment typology.

This course presupposes some familiarity with cross-linguistic variability in the domains of constituent order and grammatical relations (e.g. ergative languages, differential object marking), and with the notion of implicational universals.

The main focus of the course will be the critical evaluation of different kinds of explanation that have been proposed for observed cross-linguistically recurring patterns (universals). These include functional explanations in terms of ease of processing, preferred argument structure in discourse, frequency and economy, diachronic explanations in terms of processes of language change, and also structural explanations in terms of a preference for a uniform head-dependent order or uniform branching structure in a given language.

We will also critically reflect on the data which inform both the cross-linguistic generalisations themselves and the explanations, by examining spontaneous spoken discourse and descriptions in reference grammars, and comparing these with the categorisation of languages in the online World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS; Dryer & Haspelmath [eds] 2013).

For a hands-on approach to this, participants are asked to select a short (ca. 2 minutes / 2-4 pages) transcribed spontaneous spoken text (dialogue or narrative) – ideally with an accompanying audio file – in a language of your choice that you study or speak (this could be Dutch, French, English etc.). If possible also find a reference grammar of a language which is represented constituent order chapters in the World Atlas of Language Structures. The syllabus below provides details of the analyses suggested in preparation for each class, where participants’ findings will be discussed.

Participants are encouraged to get in touch with me prior to the class with any questions and with some information about their linguistic background, the language(s) spoken and/or studied, and any specific interests.

Day-to-day program:

Monday: Classical constituent order typology, and structural explanations

In this first class we will briefly review the universals of constituent order proposed by Greenberg (1966) and the first set of explanations proposed for these universals in terms of uniform head-dependent ordering and uniform branching direction (Dryer 1992). We will also discuss the criteria that have been used for establishing dominant constituent orders for a given language, and problems that arise for this type of categorisation.

Task: For the language of your chosen reference grammar, compare the descriptions in the grammar with the categorisation of the language in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) for the following features:

  • constituent order of subject, object and verb (features 81, 82 and 83, corresponding to Chapters by Dryer 2013a, b, c),
  • order of adposition and noun phrase (feature 85; Dryer 2013d)
  • order of possessor (“genitive”) and head noun (feature 86, Dryer 2013e)
  • order of demonstrative, adjective and noun (features 87 and 88; Dryer 2013f,g)
  • newly introduced discourse referents
  • continuing discourse referents
  • sentence topics
  • focal parts of the clause

Is it clear from the descriptions that for each of these constructions, a dominant order can be established using the criteria set out in Dryer (2013h)?

Tuesday: External explanations for patterns of constituent order

In this class we will discuss external (i.e. non-structural) explanations that have been proposed for cross-linguistic preferences and implicational universals of constituent order: Iconicity (applied to constituent order: the idea that the order within an expression reflects the order in its cognitive representation); Diachrony (the claim that correlations of constituent order reflect diachronic links between constructions); and Processing (the proposal that particular constituent orders and combinations of orders are preferred because they pose an advantage for the online processing of linguistic information).

Task: For your selected spoken text, identify all examples of non-pronominal subjects and objects, and their order with respect to the verb and to each other. Also identify all examples of noun phrases illustrating the order of possessor and head noun, and the order of demonstrative, adjective, and noun, and all examples of adpositional phrases. Note the total numbers for each of these constructions, any variability in order, and any uncertainties or difficulties.

Wednesday: Information structure and constituent order

This class introduces some basic notions of information structure and discusses the evidence that at least at main clause level, constituent order is strongly influenced by the demands of information packaging for common ground management. We will also briefly review the proposed dichotomy between subject-prominent and topic-prominent languages (Li & Thompson 1976) and discuss the difficulties, in some types of information structure constellation, to identify subjects and objects (Lambrecht 2000).

Task: For your selected spoken text, try to assign the information structure categories of topic and focus, and the accessibility categories of “given” and “new”, to constituents in the text, following the definitions in Krifka & Musan (2012). Also try to identify any “all-new” sentence-focus constructions, using the criteria in Lambrecht (2000).

Thursday: Alignment typology and split alignment

In this class we turn to alignment typology, i.e. the marking of grammatical relations by constituent order, case marking (“flagging”), or verb agreement (“indexing”). Our particular focus will be split alignment, i.e. the observation that in some languages argument marking is not determined by the case role of the argument alone, and so-called “optional” (fluid, or variable) alignment. We will review proposed universals of split alignment and the factors that have been proposed as triggering splits – including (most recently) information structure. We will also evaluate the proposed functional explanations of these universals that are based on iconicity, frequency and economy.

Task: For the language of your chosen reference grammar, consult the discussions of argument structure and argument marking. How straightforward is the categorisation in terms of the “standard” alignment systems? Is there split alignment, and if yes, are the factors that trigger the split clearly identified? If the language happens to feature in the small samples used in the relevant WALS chapters (Comrie 2013a, b; Siewierska 2013), compare your categorisation to that in the WALS.

Friday: Preferred argument structure and competing motivations

In this class we will discuss in more detail the notion of competing motivations, using Du Bois’ (1985) classic proposal as a starting point. Following up on the Thursday class, we will also review proposals according to which different alignment patterns have their source in preferences of employing certain arguments in particular discourse functions. We will wrap up by considering the language-specific and potentially universal factors shaping the marking of grammatical relations cross-linguistically.

Task: Establish the alignment pattern(s) for the language of your selected spoken text. Are there any splits? Also try to quantify the distribution of intransitive and transitive subjects and objects regarding

Do the patterns you find correspond to the predictions of Preferred Argument Structure (Du Bois 1987, critically reviewed in Haig & Schnell 2016)?

Reading list

WALS in the references stands for: Dryer, Matthew S. & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Note that all articles from WALS are very short overview articles; each is combined with a map showing the distribution of the relevant features.

For constituent order typology:

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966 [1963]. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of language: report of a conference held at Dobbs Ferry, New York, April 13-15, 1961,73-113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Song, Jae Jung. 2011. Word Order Typology. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, 253-279. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

plus the following articles from WALS

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013a. Order of Subject, Object and Verb. WALS Ch. 81. (http://wals.info/chapter/81)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013b. Order of Subject and Verb. WALS Ch. 82. (http://wals.info/chapter/82)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013c. Order of Object and Verb. WALS Ch. 83. (http://wals.info/chapter/83)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013d. Order of Adposition and Noun Phrase. WALS Ch. 85. (http://wals.info/chapter/85)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013e. Order of Genitive and Noun. WALS Ch. 86. (http://wals.info/chapter/86)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013f. Order of Adjective and Noun. WALS Ch. 87. (http://wals.info/chapter/87)

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013g. Order of Demonstrative and Noun. WALS Ch. 88 (http://wals.info/chapter/88)

For alignment typology:

Song, Jae Jung 2001. Linguistic typology: Morphology and syntax. Harlow and London: Pearson Education. Chapter 3 “Case marking” (pp. 138–181).

plus the following articles from WALS

Comrie, Bernard. 2013a. Alignment of Case Marking of full Noun Phrases. WALS Ch. 98. (http://wals.info/chapter/98).

Comrie, Bernard. 2013b. Alignment of Case Marking of Pronouns. WALS Ch. 99. (http://wals.info/chapter/99).

Siewierska, Anna. 2013. Alignment of Verbal Person Marking. In WALS Ch. 100. (http://wals.info/chapter/100)

Course readings:

Lecture 1:

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013h. Determining Dominant Word Order. In M.S. Dryer & M. Haspelmath (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter S6. (https://wals.info/chapter/s6).

Dryer, Matthew S. 1992. The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language, 68(1): 81-138.

Lecture 2:

Moravcsik, Edith A. 2011. Explaining Language Universals. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology (pp. 69-89). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, John. 2007. Processing typology and why psychologists need to know about it. New Ideas in Psychology, 25: 87–107.

Lecture 3:

Krifka, Manfred, Renate Musan. 2012. Information Structure: Overview and linguistic issues. In M. Krifka & R. Musan (eds.), The Expression of Information Structure, 1-44. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lambrecht, Knud. 2000. When subjects behave like objects: an analysis of the merging of S and O in sentence-focus constructions across languages. Studies in Language, 24(3): 611-682.

Lecture 4:

Aissen, Judith. 2003. Differential Object Marking: Iconicity vs. Economy. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 21(3): 435-483.

Iemmolo, Giorgio. 2010. Topicality and differential object marking: Evidence from Romance and beyond. Studies in Language, 34: 239–272.

Lecture 5:

Du Bois, John. 1985. Competing Motivations. In J. Haiman (ed.), Iconicity in Syntax, 343-365. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Haig, Geoffrey & Stefan Schnell. 2016. The discourse basis of ergativity revisited. Language 92: 591-618.

Further readings:

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2014. Competing motivation models and diachrony: What evidence for what motivation? In B. MacWhinney, A. Malchukov & E. A. Moravcsik (eds.), Competing motivations in Grammar and Usage, 282-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Hoop, Helen, & Peter de Swart. 2009. Cross-linguistic Variation in Differential Subject Marking. In H. De Hoop & P. de Swart (eds.), Differential Subject Marking (pp. 1-16). Dordrecht: Springer.

Du Bois, John W. 1987. The discourse basis of ergativity. Language, 63(4): 805-855.

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013i. On the six-way word order typology, again. Studies in Language, 37(2): 267-301.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries. Cognitive Linguistics, 19(1): 1–33.

LaPolla, Randy & Dory Poa. 2006. On describing word order. In Felix Ameka, Alan Dench & Nicholas Evans (eds), Catching language. The standing challenge of grammar writing, 269-295. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Li, Charles N. & Sandra A. Thompson. 1976. Subject and topic: A new Typology of Language. In C. N. Li (ed.), Subject and Topic, 457-489. New York: Academic Press.

Koizumi, M., Y. Yasugi, K. Tamaoka, S. Kiyama, J. Kim, J. E. A. Sian, & L. P. O. G. Mátzar. 2014. On the (non) universality of the preference for subject-object word order in sentence comprehension: a sentence-processing study in Kaqchikel Maya. Language, 90(3): 722-736.

Malchukov, Andrej L. 2008. Animacy and asymmetries in differential case marking. Lingua, 118: 203-221.

McGregor, William B. 2010. Optional ergative case marking systems in a typological-semiotic perspective. Lingua, 120(7): 1610-1636.