Case in Sakha: are two modalities really necessary?


Baker and Vinokurova (2010) argue that the distribution of morphologically observable case in Sakha (Turkic) requires a hybrid account, which involves recourse both to configurational rules of case assignment (Bittner and Hale 1996; Marantz 1991; Yip et al. 1987), and to case assignment by functional heads (Chomsky 2000, 2001). In this paper, we argue that this conclusion is under-motivated, and present an alternative account of case in Sakha that is entirely configurational. The central innovation lies in abandoning Chomsky’s (2000, 2001) assumptions regarding the interaction of case and agreement, and replacing them with Bobaljik’s (2008) and Preminger’s (2011) independently motivated alternative, nullifying the need to appeal to case assignment by functional heads in accounting for the Sakha facts.

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  1. 1.

    We thank the reviewers for raising these points.

  2. 2.

    This is a tendency, not a universal: the Baltic languages, as well as Aymara, are examples of nominative-accusative languages where nominative cannot be construed as morpho-phonologically unmarked or less-marked than other case-markings; similarly, Nias (Donohue and Brown 1999), as well as the Northwest Caucasian languages (Maria Polinsky, p.c.), are examples of ergative-absolutive languages where absolutive cannot be construed as morpho-phonologically unmarked or less-marked than ergative.

  3. 3.

    Ditransitives (and perhaps applicatives more generally) might present a case of c-selected specifiers. If so, the sisterhood restriction noted in the text may be replaced with immediate m-command.

  4. 4.

    We thank the reviewers for helpful discussion of these issues.

  5. 5.

    As stated in Sect. 1, we adopt a syntax-internal implementation of configurational case assignment (following B&V, as well as Preminger 2011:141–155). This position, however, is not uncontroversial. Marantz’s (1991) original proposal, which B&V build on, posits that case assignment occurs post-syntactically—a position that has since been adopted by McFadden (2004) and Bobaljik (2008), as well. Situating the configurational rules within the narrow syntax, as B&V do, means they can apply as soon as the relevant structural condition is met. This property is exploited by B&V in their account of how case interacts with long-distance scrambling (see also the discussion of case and agreement in raising constructions, in Sect. 3.5, below).

    In contrast, on the post-syntactic view, all syntactic operations (within a given domain) must culminate prior to case being assigned, which seems at odds with rules applying as soon as their structural conditions are met. It is possible that the post-syntactic rules of configurational case assignment could be altered so that they achieve the same results; but this does not seem entirely trivial, at this point. We therefore maintain the syntax-internal implementation as indicated in the text. Thanks to a reviewer for helpful discussion of this matter.

  6. 6.

    A reviewer raises several potential counter-examples to Bobaljik’s (2008) generalization, cited in the text. First, the reviewer notes that Coast Tsimshian (Dunn 1979) and Semelai (Kruspe 2004) are two languages that exhibit agreement with ergative noun phrases, but not nominative/absolutive ones. Second, the reviewer notes that in languages like Burushaski and Amharic, object agreement can target a dative noun phrase, but subject agreement cannot.

    It is important to note, however, that (8–9) are meant to account for agreement in the narrow sense, excluding other agreement-like phenomena—most notably, clitic doubling (see Anagnostopoulou 2006, and references therein). Interesting, in this regard, is Kramer’s (2014) analysis showing that what is conventionally referred to as ‘object agreement’ in Amharic is in fact an instance of clitic doubling (pace Baker 2012a), which would remove Amharic from this list of putative counter-examples. Whether the other cases raised by the reviewer can be afforded a similar analysis is beyond the scope of the current paper.

  7. 7.

    Other possibilities created by such parametrization are attested, as well. As Bobaljik (2008) shows, finite agreement in Nepali can target noun phrases bearing either unmarked case or dependent case, thus behaving according to the parametrization in (i):


    Similarly, the case/agreement misalignments of Warlpiri and Chukchi (i.e., ergative-absolutive case alignment, coupled with nominative-accusative agreement alignment) come about, following Bobaljik, via the same parameter setting shown in (i).

  8. 8.

    Thanks to a reviewer for correcting earlier mistakes in the characterization of these data. Interestingly, the agreement morphology that shows up on participial complement clauses (of the kind in (10b)) comes from the “possessive paradigm”, rather than the “predicative paradigm” (see Vinokurova 2005:204, 238). We take this as a mild form of support for our more general point that the assignment of case to a nominal—even for unmarked cases—is not intrinsically tied to the identity of whichever head might ultimately enter into an agreement relation with that nominal (though see Baker 2011 for a different take on such apparent mismatches).

  9. 9.

    If this dissociation is real, it could bear on the debate concerning whether Binding Theory can be reduced to syntactic agreement relations (Reuland 2011; Rooryck and Vanden Wyngaerd 2011, inter alia). This issue, however, is clearly outside the scope of the current paper.

  10. 10.

    A reviewer raises a possible challenge to this approach, concerning the actual shape of the paradigms in question. The reviewer points out that in Sakha, those paradigms of T0 in which 3rd person singular agreement is non-null (e.g. past, pluperfect, some instances of future; see Vinokurova 2005:238 for a summary) actually share their form with the possessive agreement paradigm. Crucially, we argued in Sect. 3.1 that the exponent of Sakha D0 that has failed to find an agreement target is null; whereas on our analysis of examples like (12), this cannot be the case for Sakha T0, even when using the “possessive” paradigm.

    We are not certain that this is a problem. It is not completely clear what this instance of paradigmatic syncretism entails syntactically. Concretely, we do not think that the identity of morphological forms between the possessive paradigm and the past-tense paradigm means, e.g., that there is a D0 head within the past-tense functional structure, or that there is a past-tense T0 within possessives’ functional structure. (To be clear, this was not the reviewer’s implication, either.) In other words, there are still two different lexical items, T0 and D0, involved in each construction; and if the two lexical items are distinct from one another, there is no reason why the exponent that arises upon failed φ-probing could not be null for one of the two (D0) and syncretic with 3rd person singular agreement in the other (T0).

  11. 11.

    We assume here that the lack of appropriate φ-features on PROarb (see the discussion in Sect. 3.1) means that it is simply ignored by T0, not that it halts probing by T0 (see Preminger 2011:105–110 for a discussion of this distinction).

  12. 12.

    A reviewer points out that the number exponent behaves slightly differently. As the data below show, the plural exponent on a given nominal can signal either the plurality of the nominal itself, the plurality of its possessor, or both:


    Assuming that the ungrammaticality of (ii) is more than just a matter of haplology, we think this pattern can be analyzed as follows. Suppose that plural features within the noun phrase originate on Num0, a projection that is higher than N0 but lower than D0 (Ritter 1991, 1992, inter alia). It is then possible that -lAr is actually the exponent of D0 that has entered into an agreement relation with another plural-bearing XP. (The exponence of Num0, on this view, is always null.) The XP in question could be the NumP sister of D0, if its own Num0 head bears plural; or it could be another complete DP that bears its own plural features (e.g. a plural possessor). The latter could be base-generated as a plural DP (if one adopts such an approach to plural pronouns), or received its plural features derivationally via the very same mechanism (i.e., its own D0 head probing its own NumP layer; cf. Preminger 2009:630–631).

    If so, what sets person and number apart is that person is a D(P)-level feature, and therefore cannot be found on something smaller than a complete extended nominal projection (and in particular, cannot be found by D0 probing its own complement unless that complement contains a complete, distinct DP); whereas number can be found by D0 probing its own NumP complement.

  13. 13.

    We suspect that this issue has not gone unnoticed by B&V, who mention (p. 636, footnote 32) Baker’s (2008:155ff.) proposal that the Activity Condition, or something very close to it, should itself be parametrizable. Nevertheless, the point in the main text stands: it is nearly uncontroversial that properties such as, say, the rules of pronunciation at PF, are subject to cross-linguistic variation. The approach we pursue is therefore better positioned to reduce the difference between Sakha on the one hand (19), and Hindi-Urdu on the other (22), to well established parameters of linguistic variation.

    We also acknowledge that (21b), coupled with PF pronunciation of both links of the head movement chain, is not the analysis of (22) put forth by Bhatt (2005), from whom this example is taken. Our point is merely that cross-linguistic counterparts of the Sakha (19) do exist—and that some behave in a fashion opposite of Sakha—suggesting the need for an account of (19) that is based on parameters, rather than principles alone.

  14. 14.

    We thank a reviewer for helpful discussion of this topic.

  15. 15.

    A reviewer asks whether we would then predict that raising out of impersonal predicates would render the raised subject eligible for agreement by the matrix predicate (given that the raised subject in such cases does not receive accusative case; B&V:619–620). The answer would depend, we think, on whether such impersonal subjects have a pro subject (an issue which B&V remain undecided on; p. 619), and if so, whether this pro would count as an agreement target for T0.

  16. 16.

    It is perhaps worth noting that the specific proposal for configurational case assignment that B&V build upon is that of Marantz (1991), a proposal which in its original form, explicitly eschews the Case Filter.

  17. 17.

    A reviewer asks about the possibilities of (pseudo-)incorporation predicted by a structure like (30), noting that (pseudo-)incorporation in these cases is possible, provided the resultative PP/AP moves leftward (B&V:629). Like B&V, we assume that it is not required that the incorporated Theme be in [Compl,V]. (In fact, (30) is the same structure given by B&V for such resultatives.) Instead, adjacency is sufficient. A different question is why leftward movement of the resultative predicate bleeds accusative case assignment. Suppose such movement lands in a second specifier of VP. Since the first specifier, the Theme, is base generated, tucking-in (Richards 2001) would not apply, and the resultative would land in an outer specifier. We tentatively assume that only the outermost specifier of VP is visible for the purposes of case competition with other noun phrases outside of VP. (Note also that we are assuming, with B&V, that VP rather than vP is the relevant phasal category, for Sakha.) This results in a non-accusative-marked, V-adjacent Theme, which can then undergo (pseudo-)incorporation.

  18. 18.

    Alternatively, we may derive (27) from the assumption that all movement operations within a given phase are necessarily triggered by the phase head (Chomsky 2008). On this view, movement from a position in a given phase to a second position within the same phase would not be able to create probe-goal relations not already possible before such movement, and would therefore be ruled out by considerations of derivational economy.


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We are grateful to Sabine Iatridou, David Pesetsky, and Norvin Richards, to audiences at MIT’s Syntax Square and at the 2012 annual meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB 2012), and to three anonymous reviewers, for helpful discussion and comments. Additional thanks to the editor, and one of the reviewers, for their help with structuring and streamlining the presentation. All errors are our own.

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Correspondence to Omer Preminger.

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Levin, T., Preminger, O. Case in Sakha: are two modalities really necessary?. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 231–250 (2015).

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  • Syntax
  • Morphology
  • Sakha
  • Turkic
  • Case
  • Agreement
  • Case-competition