The objective conjugation in Hungarian: agreement without phi-features

Abstract

Verbal agreement is normally in person, number and gender, but Hungarian verbs agree with their objects in definiteness instead: a Hungarian verb appears in the objective conjugation when it governs a definite object. The sensitivity of the objective conjugation suffixes to the definiteness of the object has been attributed to the supposition that they function as incorporated object pronouns (Szamosi 1974; den Dikken 2006), but we argue instead that they are agreement markers registering the object’s formal, not semantic, definiteness. Evidence comes from anaphoric binding, null anaphora (pro-drop), extraction islands, and the insensitivity of the objective conjugation to any of the factors known to condition the use of affixal and clitic pronominals. We propose that the objective conjugation is triggered by a formal definiteness feature and offer a grammar that determines, for a given complement of a verb, whether it triggers the objective conjugation on the verb. Although the objective conjugation suffixes are not pronominal, they are thought to derive historically from incorporated pronouns (Hajdú 1972), and we suggest that while referentiality and ϕ-features were largely lost, an association with topicality led to a formal condition of object definiteness. The result is an agreement marker that lacks ϕ-features.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    These include, among many others, Navajo (Jelinek 1984; Speas 1990; Bresnan 2001; Hale 2003), Warlpiri (Jelinek 1984; Austin and Bresnan 1996; Legate 2002), Chicheŵa (Bresnan and Mchombo 1987), Mohawk (Baker 1996), Bininj Gun-Wok (Evans 1999), and Central Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo (Mithun 2003).

  2. 2.

    We use in (short for ‘indefinite object’ or ‘intransitive’) for subjective in the glosses, and def for objective. The terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are used here following Hungarian grammatical tradition, in which the terms alanyi ‘subjective’ and tárgyas ‘objective’ are used. These paradigms can also be labeled ‘indefinite’ and ‘definite’, or ‘indeterminative’ and ‘determinative’.

  3. 3.

    Coppock (2012, to appear) argues that accusative case, rather than objecthood, is relevant for determining which element the verb agrees with.

  4. 4.

    The a variant is used preceding a consonant; the az variant is used preceding a vowel.

  5. 5.

    Valamennyi can also be used with the subjective conjugation, with an indefinite meaning (É. Kiss 2000: 146), as in Ismerek valamennyi verset ‘I know[in] some poems’.

  6. 6.

    Example (23) is Kiss’s (1987) (26a).

  7. 7.

    Some scholars are reluctant to call this phenomenon “agreement”. Nikolaeva (1999: 336) writes: “In Hungarian the verbs in the objective conjugation do not actually show agreement with the object, but simply mark it for definiteness”. Siewierska (1999: 244) writes that the Hungarian objective conjugation suffixes “represent a combination of [subject agreement] and what Nichols (1992: 49) calls O[bject] registration”; on page 245 she writes: “In view of the fact that the markers of the object conjugation do not index the person or number features of the object, but merely register its presence, the object conjugation does not currently represent an instance of agreement with the object”. Corbett (2006: 91) writes: “We do not expect to have a verb which agrees in definiteness with one of its arguments”, and chooses to analyze definiteness as a condition on agreement, rather than an agreement feature, in Hungarian. Corbett continues: “Thus recognizing agreement conditions… simplifies the typology of features [by eliminating def as an agreement feature]”. We see all of these views as valid and consistent with the thesis that we argue for in this section, but we will nonetheless use the term ‘agreement’ in its wider sense for the phenomenon in question.

  8. 8.

    In contrast, the special Hungarian ending -lak/-lek seen in (10), which marks a first person singular subject and a second person object, is invariant across all tenses and moods. Some illustrative forms of vár ‘wait’ are: vár lak ‘I wait for you’; várta lak ‘I waited for you’; várná lak ‘I would wait for you’. This supports the idea that the -l in -lak/-lek is a second person clitic, as Den Dikken (2006) proposes.

  9. 9.

    By the term null anaphora we mean the null instantiation of an argument with a definite interpretation; cf. Fillmore’s (1986) ‘definite null instantiation’. We follow Austin and Bresnan (1996) in the use of the term ‘null anaphora’, which they use for anaphoric interpretations that arise independently of verbal inflection in the Australian language Jiwarli.

  10. 10.

    An anonymous reviewer points out that there are spoken varieties of Spanish and Catalan that allow 3sg clitics to double coordinations and even 3pl DPs in clitic doubling constructions (Camacho 1997: Sect. 3.1.13; Boeckx 2008: 169). This suggests that the pronominal variant of a clitic may be marked for number while the agreement (i.e. doubling) variant is not. Such an analysis for Hungarian could potentially succeed in capturing the facts under discussion, but ultimately would not be appropriate. The restriction of null anaphora to singulars is not tied to the objective conjugation, but is rather a general constraint on null anaphora.

  11. 11.

    Example (46a) would be more natural if azt and János were to exchange places, but it is still much more natural as it is than (46b), according our informants, despite the fact that there is a motivation for placing azt post-verbally in (46b).

  12. 12.

    The corresponding example with the matrix verb in the objective conjugation is also ungrammatical.

  13. 13.

    Specificity also plays a role in other constructions, including scrambling in Dutch and German, participle agreement in French and Hindi, and morphological accusative case in Turkish. See Anagnostopoulou (2005) for a summary and references.

  14. 14.

    Gutiérrez-Rexach (2000) argues that in some varieties of Spanish, the doubled DP must denote a principal filter (see Gutiérrez-Rexach 2000 and Barwise and Cooper 1981). Principal filters are a subclass of the strong determiners including quantifiers like each, every, and all, so phrases like minden fiú ‘every boy’ count as principal filters. As shown in (55), they can trigger the subjective conjugation, so principal filterhood does not make the right cut either.

  15. 15.

    López (2009) argues that topichood is not relevant for characterizing clitic left dislocation in Spanish, and proposes that strong anaphoricity is what characterizes left dislocated items. This notion does not include all definites; for example, the teacher in the following dialogue is not anaphoric in the relevant sense (López’s example (2.35)): (i) Q: Who did you see? A: I saw the teacher. Consider the translation of this dialogue into Hungarian (using the present tense, because the subjective and objective conjugations are conflated in first person past tense): (ii) Q:

    figurebt

    The verb is in the objective conjugation in the response in (ii), yet the object is not strongly anaphoric in López’s sense. Thus it must not be strong anaphoricity that determines the use of the objective conjugation.

  16. 16.

    There are several complications having to do with what is “visible” for haplology. First, proper names “always come with an underlying D, but the visibility of D for haplology varies with types of proper names and with dialects” (Szabolcsi 1994: 211). Second, “When there is no overt [phonological material] intervening between D and DetP, [+def] noun phrases require an overt a(z), but merely [+spec] noun phrases cannot have one” (ibid.), i.e., “the features [+def] and [+spec] differ in visibility for the haplology rule”; [+spec] is “visible” and [+def] is not. What this means is that only [−def,+spec] DetPs are visible for haplology. The set of [+def] Dets clearly contains ezen (based on Szabolcsi’s (101a)), so az ezen kalap is possible. The set of “merely [+spec]” Dets clearly contains minden, and although melyik, valamelyik, and semelyik, are “obviously definite” (ibid.: 219), they cannot be immediately preceded by az, so they must be merely [+spec]. All this means that haplology is not really a surface deletion process, which calls into question whether ‘haplology’ is the appropriate term for this process, if it exists.

  17. 17.

    Under Szabolcsi’s (1994: 219) analysis, both definites and indefinites are contained within a DP shell, the latter headed by an indefinite null determiner. Bartos (2001: 317) proposed that the DP containing the null indefinite determiner is not projected (due to Grimshaw’s 1991 notion of projectional economy), so that a structural difference between the two kinds of nominal emerges.

  18. 18.

    It is only the valamennyi of universal meaning that is specified as [def +]. See footnote 5.

  19. 19.

    Another problem with Kenesei’s (1994) analysis comes from the fact that the expletive is optional. True expletives such as the expletive subjects of raising verbs serve to satisfy a surface requirement such as the Extended Projection Principle. If the phonological material is not required in order to satisfy a surface requirement, then it is not clear why it should ever surface, assuming that it contributes nothing to the meaning.

  20. 20.

    The person and number of the possessor may also be indicated, either through the possessive suffix itself or through a separate morpheme. For example, in kalap-ja-i-m ‘my hats’, the agreement suffix -m occurs outside of the suffix indicating plural number of the possessum -i, which in turn occurs outside the possessive suffix -ja. The agreement affix is not always present; see Den Dikken (1999) for extensive discussion of this issue.

  21. 21.

    This account could potentially be extended to account for the fact that objects of embedded infinitive constructions determine the conjugation of the matrix verbs selecting the infinitive (É. Kiss 2002: 203): (i)

    figurecx

    (ii)

    figurecy

    These facts can be explained under the assumption that verbs are unmarked for definiteness and that they inherit the definiteness of their complement. However, verbs are not in the same extended projection as their complements so the process proposed here would have to be generalized appropriately.

  22. 22.

    In this example még…is is used to ensure that Jánostól a levelet forms a constituent (cf. É. Kiss 2000: 127).

  23. 23.

    Example (103) is É. Kiss’s (2000) ex. (15).

  24. 24.

    This evidence also speaks against the suggestion É. Kiss (2000) makes in passing to analyze dative possessors as being in the specifier of a Top[ic] projection; other topic arguments would also be predicted to fill that position.

  25. 25.

    PossP is to be distinguished from Bartos’s (1999) PossP, which is headed by the possessive suffix.

  26. 26.

    Among the issues not addressed here are various further restrictions on the co-occurrence of determiners and demonstratives, the distribution of different types of nominal, and anti-agreement phenomena in possessed noun phrases. (On the latter see especially Den Dikken (1999); and see É. Kiss (2002: Chap. 7) for an overview and synthesis.)

  27. 27.

    See Coppock and Wechsler 2010 for an explicit proposal in LFG terms.

  28. 28.

    We have no new explanation to offer for why -l is restricted to first person singular subjects. É. Kiss (2005) suggests an explanation inspired by inverse agreement systems: Hungarian object agreement is permitted only when the subject outranks the object on an animacy hierarchy in which first person singular occupies the highest position on the scale.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Mark Baker, Ferenc Havas, Marcel den Dikken and three anonymous reviewers for extremely useful comments on earlier drafts, to Réka Morris, Éva Kardos and Péter Földiák for Hungarian judgments, to Fabio del Prete for judgments on Italian, to Chiyo Nishida for help with Spanish, and to Irina Nikolaeva, Anikó Lipták, Omer Preminger, Valéria Molnár, Marit Julien, and Lars Olof-Delsing for discussion.

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Coppock, E., Wechsler, S. The objective conjugation in Hungarian: agreement without phi-features. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 30, 699–740 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-012-9165-5

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Keywords

  • Object agreement
  • Pronoun incorporation
  • Clitics
  • Definiteness