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Dependent case and clitic dissimilation in Yimas


Baker (2015) suggests that the dependent theory of case (Marantz 1991, a.o.) is a formulation of the intuition that morphological case functions to differentiate nominals. This paper presents novel evidence for this idea from the agreement system of Yimas. Departing from previous characterizations of the language, this paper argues that the Yimas agreement morphemes are actually doubled pronominal clitics, and that they exhibit paradigmatic alternations that parallel the distributions of dependent case on nominals crosslinguistically. Crucially, clitic doubling in Yimas is optional; once this is taken into account, it is revealed that the morphological form of a given clitic co-varies with the total number of clitics present, even when the sentence-level syntax is held constant: how a clitic is realized is thus dependent on its clitic environment. This context-dependence is analyzed as a dissimilation process, which applies to distinguish between multiple morphosyntactically indistinguishable clitics; this arises whenever multiple DPs are doubled. Thus, both clitic dissimilation in Yimas and dependent case on nominals can be viewed as alternations that are controlled by morphosyntactic context, albeit in different structural domains.

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  1. 1.

    Others have also proposed that dat case is dependent, but not assigned to a syntactically intermediate argument. For example, Baker and Vinokurova (2010) and Baker (2015) take dependent dat to be assigned to the higher of two arguments within a VP phase.

  2. 2.

    See McFadden (2004), Bobaljik (2008), Baker and Vinokurova (2010), Podobryaev (2013), Preminger (2011, 2014), Baker (2014, 2015), Yuan (2018), a.o.

  3. 3.

    The citation convention I will use throughout this paper is as follows: (F[pg.#]) or (F,p.c.).

  4. 4.

    Yimas also has paucal number, which is realized differently from the others. I will mostly set aside the paucal number system in this paper; see Foley (1991:216–225), Phillips (1993:193–195), and Wunderlich (2001:33–34) for discussion.

  5. 5.

    Noun class distinctions are visible only in the abs paradigm. When a nonhuman nominal is expressed with the erg or dat paradigm, its class is neutralized and it is encoded the same way as human nominals:

    1. (i)
  6. 6.

    Raised possessors in Yimas will be discussed in greater detail in Sect. 5.1.

  7. 7.

    The idea that some of the agreement forms in Yimas are pronominal in nature is also found in Phillips (1993) and Woolford (2003). However, the present analysis takes all of these morphemes to be clitic in nature, not just a partial set.

  8. 8.

    See Postal (1966), Elbourne (2005), and Stanton (2016) for arguments that pronouns are in fact D0s.

  9. 9.

    The 2sgabs form is ma- while its pronoun counterpart is mi; this is the only non-identical pair. The rest of the forms are entirely identical, suggesting that the slight divergence in the 2sg form might be idiosyncratic, with no bearing on the larger generalization.

  10. 10.

    Unlike the 1st and 2nd person pronouns, the 3rd person pronouns are bound—they always occur with a deictic suffix indicating promixity or distality, omitted in the table below. There is also another bound 3rd person pronoun form m, which has a crossreferencing morpheme equivalent, m-. This morpheme triggers idiosyncratic morphological effects on the adjacent nominal-referencing morpheme, suggesting that it is in the same category of the modal prefixes discussed above (Phillips 1993, 1995).

  11. 11.

    This optionality only holds for the abs, erg, and 3rd person dat forms crossreferencing indirect objects. As will be shown later, the dat morphemes that crossreference participant internal arguments and raised possessors are obligatorily doubled.

  12. 12.

    Yimas possesses two additional doubled clitics that crossreference embedded clauses: roughly, pia- for embedded complements encoding speech reports and tia- for embedded complements encoding actions.

  13. 13.

    This optionality is also expected given the diagnostic for agreement vs. clitic doubling developed by Preminger (2009). Preminger argues that the failure to expone ϕ-agreement on a head should result in that head being spelled out as a default agreement form, e.g. 3sg; failure to clitic double an argument should result in the wholesale absence of the clitic. This is precisely what we see in Yimas.

  14. 14.

    Nothing crucial hinges on this view; the analysis is also compatible with the ‘Big DP’ analysis of clitic doubling, which takes a clitic to be a D0 element generated in a complex DP with its associate, prior to its movement up to its host (Torrego 1988; Uriagereka 1995; Nevins 2011).

  15. 15.

    In contrast, Richards (2001) proposes that multiple syntactic movement should “tuck in,” i.e. preserve the hierarchical order of the DPs prior to movement. Nevins (2011) and Harizanov (2014) suggest that the syntactic movement operations involved in clitic doubling should also “tuck in.” I assume for now that whether clitic doubling tucks in or not can be parametrized across languages, and leave a deeper investigation of this assumption for future research.

  16. 16.

    Whether suffixal paucal morphology surfaces depends on the person specification of the prefixal clitic. See Foley (1991:216–225).

  17. 17.

    The data are complicated, and a full account lies far beyond the scope of this paper. See, however, Foley (1991:413–424 and 430–433) for discussion.

  18. 18.

    As mentioned in Sect. 2.1, Foley (1991) glosses the clitic morphology by grammatical function or thematic role, rather than morphological case. As a result, he does not discuss the morphosyntactic distributions of the individual paradigms.

  19. 19.

    I will use the term ‘indirect object’ broadly to refer to benefactives, goals, causees, applicatives, and other such arguments that sit between the subject and the direct object in ditransitive constructions.

  20. 20.

    The characterization of morphological case offered here is reminiscent of the treatment of case in Wunderlich (2001) (as well as van Valin 1991), in which morphological case encodes high, mid, and low roles, respectively. Dependent case theory, I suggest, is in many ways a generative reinterpretation of this idea, with these roles translated into relative structural height.

  21. 21.

    In the absence of Yimas-specific unaccusativity diagnostics, the assumption that the verbs in (32)–(33) are unaccusative are based on their English translations. It is also worth noting that an agentive reading is especially difficult to obtain in the examples in (33).

  22. 22.

    In (42a), this is because the verb is intransitive; in (42b), this is because non-subject wh-words cannot be crossreferenced by the relativizing morpheme m- (Foley 1991:431).

  23. 23.

    This paper will not adjudicate between syntactic vs. postsyntactic approaches to dependent case, though see Baker and Vinokurova (2010), Baker (2015) and Preminger (2011, 2014) for the former, and Yip et al. (1987), Marantz (1991), and McFadden (2004) for the latter.

  24. 24.

    Note that this diverges somewhat from the original implementation by Marantz (1991), which relies partly on government (see also Bittner and Hale (1996b)). However, characterization below is consistent with more recent approaches to dependent case, e.g. Baker (2015).

  25. 25.

    For copious evidence for acc as a dependent case, see Baker and Vinokurova (2010), Baker (2015).

  26. 26.

    Another compatible view takes erg to be abstract Case, assigned by a higher head such as T0 (Laka 2000; Rezac et al. 2014). However, these analyses generally require additional mechanisms to explain how intransitive subjects, presumably also in Spec-TP, receive abs case.

  27. 27.

    See also Deal (2019) on Nez Perce.

  28. 28.

    Similar data can also be seen in French (Kayne 1975; Guasti 1993) and Italian (Folli and Harley 2007).

  29. 29.

    Of course, this does not account for the nom and abs case morphemes that have non-zero exponents crosslinguistically. I leave integrating these cases into the current proposal for future research.

  30. 30.

    For example, Kornfilt and Preminger point out that, under a case-stacking approach, the embedded subject must receive nom case in the lower clause and then receives dependent acc case in the matrix clause. This is, according to them, conceptually problematic, since this means that dependent case can be assigned to nominals that already receive case; this is contrary to the standard view that only caseless nominals are in competition to receive dependent case and leave the case competition upon receiving case.

  31. 31.

    As discussed above, however, I depart from the hierarchy in (56)somewhat in that I take ‘unmarked case’ to be the absence of case assignment altogether.

  32. 32.

    Possessor raising is used for possessors of inalienably possessed things, such as body parts, entities on body parts (e.g. mosquitos), and personal characteristics (Foley 1991:pp. 300–303). Raised possessors are crossreferenced by dat clitic morphology and, if overt, surface as caseless nominals. Non-raised possessors are not clitic doubled and surface as independent oblique-marked nominals.

  33. 33.

    This dual function of dat is well-attested crosslinguistically on nominals (Harley 1995; Anagnostopoulou and Sevdali 2015; Baker 2015).

  34. 34.

    The claim that there are two structural positions for 3rd person dat clitics should be testable. Following Sect. 2.4, we expect the order of postverbal agreement morphemes to be verb-datposs-erg-datdep-abs, as in (64). Unfortunately, I am not aware of any data in Foley (1991) that shed light on this prediction.

    1. (i)
  35. 35.

    A reviewer asks why datdep crossreferencing indirect objects and datpart crossreferencing participant direct objects (or raised possessors) never co-occur, if they occupy different structural positions and have different functions. I assume that this is a matter of haplology, ruling out multiple instances of the same clitic paradigm in a single verb complex. This process crucially occurs after case assignment to the clitics, such that it is able to eliminate pairs of dat clitics. Thus, while dependent case is argued in this paper to be a means of dissimilating between clitics (Sect. 6), it is not the only dissimilation strategy operative.

  36. 36.

    More concretely, Zubizarreta and Pancheva argue that Paraguayan Guaraní displays a direct-inverse system. As a result, the preverbal agreement slot in Infl0 always bears features of the highest ranked argument along a person hierarchy. What is crucial for our purposes is the fact that participant internal arguments must undergo movement to this position, while 3rd person internal arguments do not.

  37. 37.

    As discussed by Kramer (2014), the obligatory clitic doubling of inalienable possessors (without a person sensitivity) is also found in Amharic. Kramer also outlines a number of other contexts in which object clitic doubling is required (see also Baker 2012). It would be worth determining whether similar effects obtain in Yimas.

  38. 38.

    Dissimilation is more widely known as a phonological phenomenon. The Obligatory Contour Principle (OCP) was proposed as a restriction on consecutive identical phonological features (Leben 1973; Goldsmith 1976; McCarthy 1986; Bennett 2015). Constraints similar to the one here have since been proposed to account for dissimilatory phonological phenomena.

  39. 39.

    See also the online supplementary appendix.

  40. 40.

    For example, in a linearization statement like 〈α,α〉, the pair of α elements cannot be ordered relative to each other because they are non-distinct.

  41. 41.

    Although Bonet (1991) and Nevins (2007) analyze the well-known spurious ‘se’ effect in Spanish as an instance of impoverishment, Bonet and Harbour (2012) point out that the Spanish facts, by themselves, can also simply be analyzed as allomorphy.

  42. 42.

    See also Nevins and Sandalo (2011) on participant dissimilation in Kadiweu.

  43. 43.

    Relatedly, they provide further evidence against an alternative approach by Phillips (1993, 1995), first brought up in Sect. 2.3 (see also the online supplementary appendix). Whereas the present analysis takes all doubled clitics to be abs (caseless) by default, recall that Phillips takes subject clitics to be underlyinglyerg, with abs morphology being enforced by the Abs Requirement. Under this view, subject clitics may be realized with their true erg form if the Abs Requirement is independently satisfied (e.g. by a modal prefix). However, the scope of such an approach is too narrow, as it only captures the abs-to-erg effect shown in (76); additional morphological mechanisms must be invoked to account for the other four effects that surface, especially the effects that allow the abs clitic to remainabs in the presence of a modal.


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Thank you to Athulya Aravind, Karlos Arregi, Nico Baier, Michael Erlewine, Ksenia Ershova, David Pesetsky, Omer Preminger, Norvin Richards, Matthew Tyler, and participants at CLS51, NELS46, and GLOW39 for helpful discussion and comments. This version of this paper has also benefited from comments from anonymous reviewers, as well as from Daniel Harbour, my editor at NLLT. Finally, I am particularly indebted to William Foley for his correspondence and for writing the grammar in the first place. All errors are my own. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Yuan, M. Dependent case and clitic dissimilation in Yimas. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 38, 937–985 (2020).

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  • Dependent case
  • Clitic doubling
  • Yimas
  • Syntax
  • Morphology