Alignment, Subjecthood and Transitivity Prominence in Indo-European

This project investigates the historical interrelationship between alignment, subjecthood, and transitivity prominence across the Indo-European linguistic family. It focuses on how the formal expression and grammatical behaviour of subjects, objects, and verbal predicates differs across languages. This can be illustrated by the English sentences I kill him, I run vs. he kills me, he runs. These sentences illustrate that the pronoun forms I and he are used to express the logical subject or agent (A) of kill and the subject (S) of run, while other forms, me and him, are needed to express the logical object or patient (P) of kill. Moreover, the verbs kill and run have different forms when the logical subject is in the first or third person, as illustrated by the forms kill/kills and run/runs. In English, then, (some) pronouns have the same expression in A and S function, and a different form in P function. This grammatical pattern illustrates nominative-accusative alignment and is found in many languages across the world. Nouns show a different pattern than these personal pronouns in English. This is shown by sentences like the man kills the dogs, the dogs kill the man, the man runs, the dogs run. Here, we see that identical forms are used in A, S and P function but that the singular and plural forms differ in verb agreement. This grammatical pattern illustrates neutral alignment, which is also very common. This situation, where (some) pronouns follow one alignment pattern, while (some) nouns follow another frequently occurs and is often referred to as split alignment.

Subjecthood is a more abstract notion, involving features on different levels of grammar, in particular syntax. For example, in English only the subject can be antecedent to reflexives, as illustrated by he told them about himself/*themselves. Moreover, only subjects (A/S) can be omitted in control infinitives, as illustrated by he promised to kill her or he promised to go, where the implicit subject of to help and to go is the same as the subject of promised. While these constructions are clear-cut subject features in English, they do not necessarily count as subject features in all languages. Interestingly, even genetically related languages show variation in this respect, as, for instance, control infinitives are restricted to subjects in Latin but not in Vedic Sanskrit.

All languages show variation in subject and object marking, as illustrated by English he loves me and he looks at me. The verb love shows the same formal marking of subject and object as the verb kill, while the verb look obligatorily selects a prepositional phrase to be grammatical, cf. *he looks her. Some two-argument verbs, that is, verbs that require a subject and an object to be grammatical, such as kill, break, build, characteristically describe a situation where the first argument causes a change of state in the second argument. Verbs of this type are regarded as prototypically transitive and are taken to play a central role in the organisation of the verbal lexicon. Many two-argument verbs follow the same coding pattern as prototypically transitive verbs, which can be defined as canonical. However, it is often the case that a verb that follows the canonical, transitive coding pattern in one language, such as help in English (cf. he helps him vs. he kills me), shows a non-canonical coding pattern in another, as illustrated by German helfen ‘help’ (er hilft mir vs, er tötet mich). This illustrates that languages differ with regard to which and how many verbs that show the canonical, transitive coding pattern.  Transitivity prominence is defined as the relative portion of verbs showing canonical, transitive coding in a language. It provides a measure for comparing the uniformity of the verbal lexicon in different languages.
The results will contribute to clarifying how closely related grammatical domains interact in shaping grammatical structure.

Eystein Dahl

Eystein Dahl is Principal Investigator of the ASTRAPIE project. During the project period he is affiliated with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Faculty of Modern Languages and Literatures.

He holds a PhD from the University of Oslo (2008), and obtained his habilitation degree (general and historical linguistics) as associate professor in 2013 and as full professor in 2019, both from the Italian Ministry of Universities and Education (MIUR). During his PhD track, he was a visiting doctoral student at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Eva Tichy), at Stanford University (Paul Kiparsky) and at Università degli studi di Pisa (Romano Lazzeroni (†)) and Scuola Normale Superiore (Pier Marco Bertinetto). During the years 2009-2013 he was a postdoctoral fellow in the project Indo-European Case and Argument Structure in Typological Perspective (IECASTP) led by Jóhanna Barðdal and hosted by the University of Bergen. He has since held positions as Head of Department at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway and as visiting professor in Comparative and Historical Linguistics at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt a.M. His research interests include comparative-historical morphosyntax, Indo-European linguistics, general linguistics, quantitative corpus linguistics, computational linguistics and comparative Semitic philology.

Projekt finansowany z grantu NCN 2022/47/P/HS2/02564
Okres realizacji projektu: 2023-2025