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Deconstructing switch-reference


This paper develops a new view on switch-reference, a phenomenon commonly taken to involve a morphological marker on a verb indicating whether the subject of this verb is coreferent with or disjoint from the subject of another verb. I propose a new structural source of switch-reference marking, which centers around coordination at different heights of the clausal structure, coupled with distinct morphological realizations of the syntactic coordination head. Conjunction of two VPs has two independent consequences: First, only a single external argument is projected; second, the coordinator head is realized by some marker A (the ‘same subject’ marker). Conjunction of two vPs, by contrast, leads to projection of two independent external arguments and a different realization of the coordination by a marker B (the ‘different subject’ marker). The hallmark properties of this analysis are that (i) subject identity or disjointness is only indirectly tied to the switch-reference markers, furnishing a straightforward account of cases where this correlation breaks down; (ii) switch-reference does not operate across fully developed clauses, which accounts for the widely observed featural defectiveness of switch-reference clauses; (iii) ‘same subject’ and ‘different subject’ constructions differ in their syntactic structure, thus accommodating cases where the choice of the switch-reference markers has an impact on event structure. The analysis is mainly developed on the basis of evidence from the Mexican language Seri, the Papuan language Amele, and the North-American language Kiowa.

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  1. A list of abbreviations is provided above.

  2. Neither Watanabe (2000) nor Camacho (2010) employs an explicit index feature; they claim instead that coreferentiality follows as a product of ϕ-agreement. The exact mechanisms are, however, not made precise. Specifically, identity of ϕ-features is not sufficient to yield coreference (as two 3sg elements may, of course, be disjoint). Something in addition to ϕ-identity is doubtlessly needed in these accounts as well.

  3. To give just some examples, DS-marking with coreferent subjects (like (2)) are reported for Amele (Roberts 1987), various Caucasian languages (including Chechen, Ingush, Dido, Bežta, Agul, and Udi; cf. Nichols 1983a, 1983b), Creek (Martin 1998), Central Pomo (Mithun 1993), Oirata (Donohue 2008), Tonkawa (Jacobsen 1967), and Nêlêmwa (Bril 2004). Unexpected SR marking is pervasive in Kiowa (McKenzie 2007) and Lakhota (Dahlstrom 1982) and will receive closer inspection in Sect. 5.

    Same subject marking without coreferent subjects, as in (3), is also found in a number of languages, including Amele, Seri (Marlett 1981), Choctaw (Davies 1986), Lenakel (Lynch 1983), as well as other Yuman languages (Langdon and Munro 1979).

  4. See Harley and Noyer (2003), and Embick and Noyer (2007) for an overview of Distributed Morphology. It is worth emphasizing that the analysis developed below makes use of machinery that is solely available in DM. First, my core assertion that a coordination head is spelled out depending on its syntactic context is incompatible with lexicalist theories of morphology, which decidedly reject such interactions (cf., e.g., Selkirk 1982; Di Sciullo and Williams 1987). Second, as will be become clear from the discussion of Amele in Sect. 4, the coordination head must be able to interact with the morphological structure of an adjacent verb. While this is straightforwardly accomplished in DM, lexicalist and inferential frameworks of morphology (such as A-Morphous Morphology [Anderson 1992] or Paradigm Function Morphology [Stump 2001]) do not straightforwardly accommodate this. Thus, to the extent that the present proposal is on the right track, it may be seen as evidence for the conflation of syntax and morphology embodied within DM.

  5. See Haspelmath (2007) for an overview. Haspelmath cites Somali, Chamorro, Maori, and Yapese as exhibiting a contrast similar to (11). Other examples are Jacaltec (Craig 1977) and Dholuo (Seth Cable, p.c.).

  6. The same problem arises if SR is taken to operate on verbal agreement features as suggested by Finer (1984), Broadwell (1997), Watanabe (2000), and Camacho (2010). In (17a) both verbs comprise 1st person singular subject agreement, which leads these accounts to wrongly predict SS marking in (17).

  7. One might wonder whether unaccusative verbs differ from unergative verbs with respect to SR. Seri does not show morphological or syntactic evidence for this distinction (Marlett 2010:629–630), which makes it hard to probe this question.

  8. A second clause-conjoining element, x ‘or’, behaves alike. As Steve Marlett (p.c.) informs me, there is no designated element corresponding to and.

  9. The particle ha has the allomorph iha after consonants. Farrell et al. (1991) transcribe it as ʔa instead of ha, as in (15a).

  10. Marlett (2010:Sect. 17.3.1) observes that the ‘distal’ and ‘proximal’ seem to correspond to tense, aspect, habituality, inchoativity, and sometimes are freely interchangable without meaning change. The ‘emphatic’ is not transparently related to mood, tense or aspect either. Given that the exact nature of the further distinctions made by the final verb within realis and irrealis mood is thus unclear, it is not obvious how these distinctions are best implemented. It is conceivable that, e.g., the marker tm- in Table 1 is a portmanteau for realis mood and subjunctive, licensed whenever the heads bearing the realis and subjunctive feature are linearly adjacent. If, by assumption, the subjunctive is projected above the conjunction and not lowered via Agree, this environment will be fulfilled for only the final verb. Hence, the portmanteau markers in the ‘independent’ column in Table 1 are only applicable for final verbs. While this analysis derives the observable facts, pending further insights into the nature of the independent forms it remains a speculation.

  11. An additional test to track the size of the clauses involved in SR marking would be speaker-oriented adverbs. As these are commonly taken to be generated fairly high in the clausal spine (cf. Cinque 1999), they are predicted not to be possible in each individual clause. However, as Seri does not have speaker-oriented adverbs this prediction is trivially borne out (Steve Marlett, p.c.).

  12. Nothing in my proposal crucially requires asymmetric coordination of vP and VP. A feasible alternative would be to project a semantically vacuous (defective) v above VP and make the realization of coordination sensitive to the types of v that are conjoined. In light of the fact that distinct syntactic projections may be conjoined as long as their semantic type is alike makes conjunction of vP and VP the zero assumption.

  13. While the exponents in (27) are the ones relevant for SR marking, there are additional ways of realizing a coordination head in Seri. In a nominal environment it is spelled out as xah (cf. Marlett 2010:Sect. 25.1).

  14. A reviewer wonders why mood is lowered but tense and clause type are not. I am not aware of a principled reason for this asymmetry and will stipulate it as an arbitrary property of the system. Technically, Mood agrees with its complement but T and C do not. In an upward agree approach, v is furnished with an unvalued mood feature only.

  15. There is some independent evidence that the realization of a coordination head may be sensitive to features other than the category of the conjuncts: The Papuan language Takia, for instance, employs different coordinators for human and non-human nouns. In the Austronesian language Nêlêmwa the animacy of the conjuncts affects the form of the conjunction (Haspelmath 2004:12).

  16. Notice that there is, of course, no requirement inherent to the system for these Agree operations to take place. If no Agree applies, features associated with v will be spelled out once in VP coordination structures but twice in vP coordinations. Such patterns are indeed attested. They will be discussed in Sect. 6.2.

  17. For help with the semantics of coordination I am grateful to Rajesh Bhatt, Seth Cable, and Henry Davis.

  18. Recall from the discussion in Sect. 2.4 that agentivity plays no direct role in this system. The analysis operates on syntactic positions rather than θ-roles per se.

  19. Notice that (30), due to irrealis mood, involves a conditional interpretation. The emergence of conditional interpretations in coordination structures is well-attested (Culicover and Jackendoff 1997).

  20. I have not included the element Xut’ in the structure in (31a), mainly because the nature of this element is unclear (Marlett 2010:132).

  21. Marlett (2010) uses a different transcription than Marlett (1981) and Farrell et al. (1991), which I have left unchanged. Marlett’s (2010) ahaaux-dcl’ corresponds to the latter two’s ʔa=ʔa.

  22. A reviewer asks whether the principle in (38) would rule out TP coordination in favor of vP coordination. It does not. In contrast to v, T is a scope-bearing element. If a single T ranges over an entire conjunction of two vPs, the semantic result is plausibly different from a conjunction of two TPs, where each T takes scope over exactly one vP.

    Relatedly, Marcel den Dikken has pointed out to me the example in (i). Given the principle (38), (i) should be an instance of VP coordination. Nevertheless, the second conjunct contains a floating quantifier, which, under some analyses (e.g., Sportiche 1988), requires a SpecvP position to be stranded in.

    1. (i)
      figure af

    A stranding analysis of floated quantifiers has been called into question for independent reasons (see Bobaljik 2003 and references cited therein). There is evidence that floating quantifiers at least may be parsed as VP-adjuncts. This allows (i) to have a VP coordination structure with the second conjunct carrying the quantifier as an adverb.

  23. Various ways of blocking structures because they are semantically equivalent to another structure have been proposed. Hornstein (2007) rules out DS structures with coreferent subjects by a version of Chomsky’s (1981) avoid pronoun. A similar reasoning is employed by Camacho (2010). A conceivable pragmatic account would be based on Reinhart (1983a, 1983b). The gist of Reinhart’s analysis is that if a certain reading can be systematically expressed it has to be. VP coordination inherently entails a same-subject interpretation, while vP coordination does not.

  24. Very similar facts are observed if one verb is marked with the ‘unspecified subject’ marker ka-, as in (i). Here the use of the SS marker entails that the unspecified subject of o:ʔa ‘cry’ is coreferential with the underlying subject of aʔit ‘eat’ (cf. Farrell et al. 1991; Marlett 2010:311):

    1. (i)
      figure al

    As Marlett (2010:Sect. 17.3.5) observes, the passive marker po- and the unspecified subject marker ka- are in complementary distribution: While only transitive verbs may be marked for passive, the unspecified subject marker is confined to intransitive verbs. A straightforward way of handling (i) is to treat the passive and the unspecified subject marker as allomorphs. While the former spells out \(\textit{v}_{\rm pass}\) on transitive verbs, a passive of an intransitive verb is marked by ka-. Under this analysis, (i) has the same structure as (44a) modulo the valency of second verb. Thus, (i) instantiates VP coordination under v pass, giving rise to (ii).

    1. (ii)
      figure am

    As in (43), subject identity is induced without the need for a distinct underlying structure.

  25. See Roberts (1990) for illustration and discussion.

  26. Amele parallels Seri in that the DS marker is sensitive to the mood of the entire clause chain. Compare the realis (ia) to the irrealis (ib). In the former the agreement/DS portmanteau is -en, while in the latter it is -eb. I will assume that, much like in Seri, mood is transmitted into both conjuncts via Agree and there affects the spellout of other features:

    1. (i)
      figure ap
  27. As Roberts (1988a:61; fn. 20) puts it “where the category SS is clearly established across a string of clauses, the speaker has the option of using the DS marker for a higher-level discourse function to indicate other deictic changes.”

  28. Some of these nominals only occur in impersonal constructions and may not be used productively.

  29. If comparison of verbal agreement was at stake in determing the emergence of the SR markers (as claimed by Finer 1984; Watanabe 2000; Camacho 2010), we would naturally expect DS marking in (50) as well as (52), given that subject agreement is 1sg in the first clause of, e.g., (50) and 3sg in the second clause.

  30. One might entertain the possibility that the medial clause ija wen-te-ce-b, being impersonal, is simply ignored for SR marking. Roberts (1987:299) argues that this is not a tenable analysis. As seen in, e.g., (52a), the verb preceding the impersonal verb is SS marked even if the impersonal verb is final. It can thus not simply be ignored. In a cross-linguistic survey of switch-reference in Papuan languages, Roberts (1997) notes that this pattern of SR marking is fairly widespread. There is thus plausibly more to it than just some idiosyncratic quirk in the grammar of Amele.

  31. As pointed out by a reviewer, Roberts (1988a:52–53) claims that SR structures show a curious asymmetry with respect to negation: While it is possible to negate either the final verb alone or both medial and final verb, it is impossible to negate the medial verb without negating the final verb. It is not clear whether this generalization is correct. Roberts (1997:181–182) gives examples of negation taking scope over only the medial verb and explicitly states that “it is possible to negate a SS/DS medial clause independently from the final clause” (p. 181). If this is true, SR structures pattern like ‘canonical’ coordination and the problem disappears.

    1. (i)
      figure bh
  32. The morphology of the Amele SR markers is highly complex. In some environments it is a separate marker, in others it fuses with the person agreement marker, in still others it is morphologically elided. I will abstract away from these complications by referring to the underlying forms as /SS/ and /DS/. For morphological details see Roberts (1987:Sect. 2.1.3) .

  33. There is no indication that the placement of the SR marker is a constitutive part of the SR system. In an overview study, Roberts (1997) notes that out of the Papuan languages in his database that mark both SR and subject agreement, 18 had the order SR+agr, while 33 showed agr+SR.

  34. As it stands, this is a very general claim, and adjustments might turn out to be necessary. As far as I can see, the continuity requirement is consistent with the data provided in Roberts (1987). Whenever a verb designates an event that is spatiotemporally disconnected, it is repeated via either DS marking, TP-coordination, or juxtaposition of full sentences. Whether this strong restriction can be maintained or has to be modified will ultimately have to be settled by targeted semantic fieldwork.

  35. Note that qa is not displaced and surfaces between the two clauses. The dislocation operation (65) only applies if a coordination is string-adjacent to an agreement marker. With the tense exponent -anyestp’ intervening between the two, the coordination stays where it is generated.

  36. In principle, coordination nesting could also have been the other way around, i.e., as in (i). Nothing hinges on the choice.

    1. (i)
      figure br
  37. I am indebted to two reviewers for bringing the Kiowa facts to my attention.

  38. There are four other SR markers in Kiowa, which I will not discuss here. The markers -cę̄́ (also written -chę̄́) and -ę̄́ interestingly do not show unexpected SR marking:

    1. (i)
      figure bt

    McKenzie (2007, 2010) claims that -cę̄́ and -ę̄́ are subordinating conjunctions and that the lack of unexpected SR results from this status. The third set of markers is k’ɔ̀t and ɔ̀t, which seem to largely pattern like gɔ̀ and nɔ̀, only adding semantic content (cf. Watkins 1993). Incidentally, McKenzie (2007) claims that the SR markers gɔ̀ and nɔ̀ may also be used in subordination configurations but does not provide a motivation for this claim.

  39. Similar facts have been observed in Lakhota (Dahlstrom 1982), Sùpyìré (Carlson 1987), and Central Pomo (Mithun 1993). All of these languages allow SS marking with disjoint subjects. Whether they fall under McKenzie’s generalization for Kiowa or whether the similarity is only apparent is, however, an open question.

  40. This of course raises the question how we get from properties of events at the vP level to properties of situations at the TP level. I will adopt Kratzer’s (2011) view that events are a subtype of situations and are hence of the same ontological type (namely, 〈s〉). I will nevertheless follow common practice and designate situations by using the symbol s.

  41. In yet other languages, there is at least a strong resemblence between elements conjoining NPs and SR markers (Chuave, Gende, Siane, Gahuku, Hua, Fore, Gimi, Kanite; cf. Haiman 1983:111–112; Roberts 1988b:83–85).

  42. Several other languages behave like Ancash Quechua in that they exhibit subject agreement in DS structures but lack it in SS structures. Within Papuan, Kâte (Payne 2006:301), Ono (Haiman 1983:108), Usan, Fore, Chuave (Haiman and Munro 1983:x–xi), Lenakel, Tanna (Lynch 1983:211, 217), Tauya (MacDonald 1990:221–223), and Kewa (Franklin 1983:40) behave in this way. Outside of Papuan, it has been reported for Kolyma Yukaghir (Maslova 2003:370–373).

    In addition to spelling out v in situ (as in Quechua) and spelling it out on V (as in Seri and Amele), a third possibility is conceivable. Suppose that a head higher than v—say, Tense—agrees with its complement and that the tense feature is realized on v. In such a system, SS structure would receive only one instance of tense marking, DS structures would contain two instances that obligatorily have to match, and TP/CP coordination would contain two potentially mismatching instances of tense marking. This is arguably the situation in Hua (cf. Haiman 1983:121).

  43. The view that sentences such as (87) have an underlying coordination structure is adopted by Davies (1986).

  44. In Seri asymmetric extraction out of SR constructions is also possible (Steve Marlett, p.c.). Amele does not exhibit wh-movement to the left periphery in general. It is, however, possible to have a wh-element in only one clause. If it is taken to move covertly, (i) makes the relevant point:

    1. (i)
      figure ce

    Of course, if this extraction pattern is cross-linguistically stable, Broadwell’s argument gains additional force.

  45. Incidentally, it is empirically unclear whether asymmetric extraction out of only the first clause is possible in Choctaw. (i) attests that having a wh-element in only the first clause is licit, it is not clear at this point whether chain-preserving wh-movement takes place in (i) or no movement in all (given that wh-movement is optional in Choctaw). One way of teasing these possibilities apart would be to put an adverb between the focus position and the base generation site of the subject. Unfortunately, no empirical data bearing on this point are presently available (G. Broadwell, p.c.).

    1. (i)
      figure ch
  46. For discussion of further difference between SR marking and logophoricity as well as on how to distinguish between the two, see Stirling (1993:50–56; Sect. 6). For Imbabura Quechua, Stirling (1993:306) notes that the subjunctive ‘SR’ markers only occur under special verbs which can be considered logocentric.

  47. The same point can be made for Choctaw. In addition to -cha/-na (cf. Sect. 6.3), there are the two markers -t and -n (or nasalization, indicated by /˜/), which apparently track reference in complementation structures:

    1. (i)
      figure cp

    Because anokfilli is non-presuppositional, a coordination structure does not yield the correct interpretation. The same situation holds in the related language Chickasaw (Munro 1983) as well as in unrelated languages, for example, in Australia (cf. Austin 1981 for an overview). Camacho (2010) shows that the SR markers in the Pano language Shipibo are sensitive to a number of factors that are not obviously accounted for in terms of coordination height. For instance, several SR markers track the valencies of the verbs involved. Furthermore, there may be tense mismatches between the two clauses. Finally, some markers entail the subject of one clause to be coreferent to the object of the second clause. Interestingly, Camacho (2010) extends his analysis of Shipibo to -t and -n in Choctaw, the markers remaining unaccounted for under the present approach. Finally, there are switch-reference system that make use of an overt coordination marker in addition to the SR marker, e.g., Lenakel (Lynch 1983:212) and Hopi (Camacho 2003:43–46).

  48. Recall from fn. 7 and 30 that the usage of the SR markers does not plausibly correlate with verbal subject agreement in Amele.


acc :


appl :


art :


aug :


aux :


cap :

certain apprehensive mood

caus :


comp :


conj :


contr :

contrafactural mood

dat :


dcl :


dep.pst :

dependent past

dist :


dl :


ds :

different subject

dur :

durative aspect

evid :


foc :


fut :


hsy :


hz :


imp :


inf :


intns :


io :

indirect object

ipf :


ir :


loc :


md :


neg :


negp :

negative past tense

nmlz :


nom :


o :


obl :


part :


pass :


pf :


pl :


pon :

proposition/oblique nominalizer

poss :


pot :


pred :

predicative marker

pro :


prox :


pst :


purp :


qm :

question marker

r :


recp :

recent past

refl :


remp :

remote past tense

s :


sbjv :


sg :


sim :

simultaneous action

sn :

subject nominalizer

ss :

same subject

tm :

tense mode

tns :


todp :

today’s past tense

top :


us :

unspecified subject

usit :


ut :

unspecified time

vt :


yestp :

yesterday’s past tense


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I am indebted to the editor Marcel den Dikken as well as Martina Wiltschko, Henry Davis, and an anonymous NLLT reviewer for very helpful comments, criticism, and suggestions, which improved the paper considerably. I am also grateful to George Broadwell and Steve Marlett, who provided much-appreciated help with the empirical aspects of the Choctaw and Seri switch-reference systems. Discussions with Anke Assmann, Rajesh Bhatt, Balthasar Bickel, Seth Cable, Doreen Georgi, Jesse Harris, Fabian Heck, Kyle Johnson, Angelika Kratzer, Andrew McKenzie, Gereon Müller, Rafael Nonato, Jochen Trommer, Martin Walkow, and Phillip Weisser have likewise contributed to the ideas presented here. Portions of this work have been presented at GLOW 33 (Wrocław, 2010), the Colloquium on Generative Grammar (Barcelona, 2010), the University of Leipzig (2010), the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and at MIT (2010). I thank the audiences for their questions and comments. The work reported here was supported by a DFG grant to the project ‘Argument Encoding in Morphology and Syntax,’ as part of Forschergruppe 742. All errors are my own.

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Keine, S. Deconstructing switch-reference. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 31, 767–826 (2013).

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  • Coordination
  • Clause linkage
  • Reference tracking
  • Distributed Morphology
  • Event semantics
  • Verbal projections