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Switch reference as index agreement


The grammatical notion of switch reference refers to morphological markers that track whether the subjects of two related clauses are coreferent (Jacobsen 1967). We argue in this article for a treatment of switch reference as index agreement, based on the behavior of switch reference in Washo (Hokan/isolate; USA). We propose that switch-reference marking arises as the result of multiple agreement between C in an embedded clause and the referential index values of the subject in that embedded clause as well as the subject in its superordinate clause. The morphemes representing both different and same subject marking are then the exponence of the presence or absence, respectively, of conflict in the featural makeup of C. We argue that, unlike alternatives based on coordination, control, or binding, an agreement-based account explains several core properties of this phenomenon in Washo, including the distribution and internal structure of clauses marked for switch reference, as well as the exponence of switch reference in cases of reference overlap. More generally, switch reference in Washo provides evidence that Agree can be bidirectional (downward and upward), as well as for the existence of referential indices as true syntactic objects that participate in syntactic operations.

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  1. 1.

    We adopt a standard distinction in the literature between canonical switch reference, which tracks reference of arguments (typically, subjects) in different clauses, and non-canonical switch reference, which tracks topical or situational continuity (i.a. Dahlstrom 1982; Stirling 1993; McKenzie 2012; McKenzie 2015). Switch reference in Washo is canonical, as argued in Arregi and Hanink (2018).

  2. 2.

    Washo is sometimes considered to be part of the Hokan family; see Campbell (1997) and Mithun (1999) for discussion. The uncited data in this article come from fieldwork by Emily Hanink in the Nevada community, largely from trips taking place between 2017 and 2020. The primary collection methods were elicitation tasks in which the speaker was asked to translate a sentence, as well as grammatically tasks, where the speaker was asked to judge the grammaticality of a given utterance. Examples labeled with ‘Washo Archive’ are taken from the corpus of examples available online at

  3. 3.

    Although this description is true when both subjects are singular, matters are more complex when plural nominals are involved. See Sect. 7.

  4. 4.

    In all examples, we follow the Leipzig Glossing Rules (, and use the following abbreviations: acc(usative), ap(plicative), caus(ative), dep(endent mood), dist.fut (distant future), ds (different subject), du(al), fut(ure), inch(oative), ind(dependent mood), inv(erse), neg(ative), nm (nominalizer), nom(inative), obl(ique), pl(ural), plup(perfect), pro(noun), prog(ressive), prosp (prospective aspect), pst (past), q(uestion particle), r(eduplication) (see Yu 2005), rec.pst (recent past), refl(exive), sg (singular), ss (same subject), un(expressed object or possessor agreement). The numbers 1, 2, and 3 represent first, second, and third person, respectively. In Washo examples, a prefixed number represents intransitive subject agreement in verbs and possessor agreement in nouns. Transitive verbs have a portmanteau prefix indicating the person of the subject and object, represented as 1/2 (‘one-on-two’), 3/1 (‘three-on-one’), etc. In Bantu examples, nc1, nc2, etc. represent noun classes and sbj = subject agreement. Examples from previous literature have been adapted to follow these conventions. We use the standardized orthography for Washo adopted in Jacobsen (1964), which largely follows the IPA, though with the following special characters: M , and y . Stress is represented with an acute accent.

  5. 5.

    The mood marker -i also occurs in other clause types that we do not address in this article, e.g., conditionals.

  6. 6.

    The dependent mood suffix has allomorph -a before the different subject maker -š (Jacobsen 1964:368), as seen for example in (7).

  7. 7.

    The nominalized embedded clauses in (10a) and (11) are sentential subjects of the copula , and are treated as a type of cleft construction in Bochnak et al. 2011 (that they are in subject position is diagnosed by the nominative form of the nominalizer -gi; see below). The different-subject marker in (10a) is therefore expected, given that the embedded subject (béverli ‘Beverly’) and the matrix subject (the embedded clause itself) are referentially disjoint. Interestingly, the same construction can also give rise to an interpretation along the lines of an internally headed relative clause in subject position. Such a case is found for example in (11) below (cf. the internally headed relative clause in object position in (10b)), in which the same subject marker is found: this is expected in cases where the relativized argument is the subject, as the two subjects (that of the nominalized clause, and that of the copula) are coreferential. We note moreover that these copular constructions are often interpreted as modal or generic (Bochnak 2015), but the specific modal flavor used in particular examples is sometimes hard to ascertain. The literal translations given in (10a) and (11) should be taken as merely rough approximations of the meanings of these sentences.

  8. 8.

    Within --marked clauses, switch reference is obligatory in adjuncts but is not observed in clauses embedded by non-factive verbs. Hanink and Bochnak (2018) argue that the clauses in the latter case are somewhat reduced, maximally instantiating MoodPs. The absence of C in their structure explains the lack of switch reference.

  9. 9.

    Hanink (2021) argues that this morpheme is in fact the spell out of an index head ‘idx’ that occurs with a covert D, rather than D as such. In her account, id features are hosted on idx, rather than D. We abstract away from that here in the interest of expositional simplicity, as this distinction is not crucial for our purposes; see Hanink (2021) for details.

  10. 10.

    Due to regular morphophonology, the vowels in gi and ge are only long and stressed in independent forms as in (15), but short and unstressed in suffixal form (e.g., in clausal nominalizations). See Jacobsen 1964:309, 312–313.

  11. 11.

    Truly independent clauses in Washo are rare in connected speech. Generally, the dependent mood maker - is used in order to form connected clauses in a narrative through the use of adjuncts; see Bochnak and Hanink 2021. Like other --marked adjunct clauses, these connected clauses obligatorily show switch reference.

  12. 12.

    Specifically, the matrix subject is an internally headed relative clause whose internal head is súkuʔ ‘dog’.

  13. 13.

    The nominalized clause in this example takes on the meaning of a concessive clause, which is uncommon but indeed attested. The vowel [a] in the nominalizer is potentially a point of speaker variation.

  14. 14.

    Crucial to our analysis is the assumption that CP is the only phase boundary in Washo, to the exclusion of vP, PP, and DP. We offer more detail on this matter in Sect. 3.2.3.

  15. 15.

    Another reviewer asks about the behavior of switch reference with derived subjects. We are not able to test this, as Washo lacks a passive (Jacobsen 1979) and other relevant constructions such as possessor raising.

  16. 16.

    A reviewer correctly points out that we should be able to test for case-marking on experiencers with pronouns and clausal nominalizations in subject position, as they overtly distinguish between nominative and non-nominative. Unfortunately, we do not have any data of this kind at present.

  17. 17.

    The preceding argument relies on the assumption that only nominative nominals trigger subject agreement in Washo.

  18. 18.

    For ease of exposition, the representations below are simplified, in that we only include the number feature [±singular]. Harbour’s analysis also includes [±augmented] and [±group], which allows him to account for Kiowa’s three-number system and its nine number-based noun classes.

  19. 19.

    Although Harbour’s vocabulary entry for Kiowa uses variables only for the feature attribute, he also makes use of them for feature values in the analysis of inverse number morphology in Jemez (Harbour 2011:576–578).

  20. 20.

    See also Bošković (2015) on the notion of phase collapsing, according to which D and C in clausal nominalizations might constitute a single phase barrier following head movement. Under this account, DP could potentially be a phase, but would not add an additional phase boundary in clausal nominalizations.

  21. 21.

    We do not at this point have any independent evidence for our claim that only CPs are phases in Washo, but we make a note here of the difficulties involved. Specifically, we haven’t been able to test the predictions of this claim with respect to extraction, as Washo does not seem to have (overt) A′-movement: relativization does not involve movement (Hanink 2021), and wh-phrases appear to be in situ in questions, based on Emily Hanink’s field-work experience with the language.

  22. 22.

    Because of pro-drop, and the general verb-final syntax of the language, it is not always clear whether a given subject should be parsed in a matrix or embedded clause. For instance, both the embedded and matrix subjects in (37b) refer to Adele, but the sentence only contains one overt subject, namely Adele. Thus, one of the subjects is Adele and the other is pro-dropped, but it is not immediately obvious which is which. Our parse in (37b) places the name in matrix subject position; a decision that we justify based on Condition C, which would be violated under the alternative parse. Condition C effects in Washo and their relevance to switch reference are discussed further below in the text surrounding examples (43)–(44).

  23. 23.

    Although switch reference frequently occurs in adverbial clauses crosslinguistically, it is also possible in complement clauses in several languages (McKenzie 2015:431). A well-studied case is Choctaw (Broadwell 2006:268–282).

  24. 24.

    The dependent mood suffix - (discussed in Sect. 2) occasionally surfaces in what appears to be a matrix clause, such as (40b). This tends to occur in narrative contexts, in which the --marked clause occurs in a sentence that continues the story, as is the case in (40b). The preceding sentence in this text is A bear was about to go gathering food, and it is this bear that the subject of the superordinate sentence in (40b) refers to; (40b) is then followed immediately by a direct quote beginning with I will go and then …, whose subject is also coreferential with the bear. Such uses of the dependent marker in apparent matrix clauses are therefore plausibly analyzed in terms of subordination with respect to the preceding sentence, an instance of something like clause-chaining. Note also that the suffix surfaces as -ya in (40b) due to a regular process of y-epenthesis between vowels (Jacobsen 1964:260–265).

  25. 25.

    Object drop has an effect on the agreement prefix only when the subject is third person. See Douros (2019) for a more complete description, as well as an analysis.

  26. 26.

    In Amahuaca, switch reference tracks objects in addition to subjects. In terms of an agreement-based account, this means that the probe is not restricted to goals that are nominative. We abstract away from these details in the current discussion.

  27. 27.

    Another difference, discussed in the next subsection, is that the Downward Agree account relies on the switch reference morpheme being hosted in the highest head in the embedded clause, but this is not the case for the Upward Agree account.

  28. 28.

    Even if a parse for this order were possible in which the subject moved to the left of a dislocated object nominalization, there is no evidence to exclude a parse that involves no movement, that is, one in which the object nominalization is in situ and therefore doesn’t c-command the subject or any of movement-generated copies. Furthermore, this addition to the analysis would not help in countering the argument we present in the next subsection.

  29. 29.

    Noting the potential problem that switch reference in complement and relative clauses poses for his account, McKenzie suggests ways in which the account could be extended to cover them, but does not offer any detailed analysis (McKenzie 2012:256–261).

  30. 30.

    Unlike Clem (2020), Baker and Camargo Souza (2020) argue that case in Panoan is realized on a distinct head—as in Washo—that triggers allomorphy on the switch reference morpheme. The case relation differs from Washo however in that it reflects case concord with the case of the matrix subject, rather than the grammatical relation of the nominalization within the matrix clause.

  31. 31.

    An Indirect Agree account of switch reference in Washo complement clauses is suggested in Clem 2020:fn. 37.

  32. 32.

    Indeed, this aspect of the analysis of complementizer agreement in Lubukusu is left open in Diercks (2013), which doesn’t provide a semantics for the posited null reflexive.

  33. 33.

    The exact disjoint-reference effect varies from language to language. See Keine (2013) for details. As may be expected, the analysis is flexible enough to allow for coordination of other categories such as TP or CP, which Keine (2013:807–811) uses in his analysis of of noncanonical with reference in Kiowa. However, his analysis of canonical switch reference only involves coordination of smaller categories (VP and vP).

  34. 34.

    See also Nonato (2014), Weisser (2015), and Clem (2018) for arguments against different aspects of the proposal in Keine (2013).

  35. 35.

    Kiowa also has switch reference in coordination. McKenzie (2012) argues that in this language switch reference is canonical in adjuncts, but noncanonical in coordination, and we thus restrict our attention to the former type here.

  36. 36.

    As noted in Sect. 4, research into Condition C effects in Washo is very preliminary, which makes our arguments here somewhat tentative.

  37. 37.

    These facts were noticed at least to some extent by Jacobsen (1967:244) and in more detail by Finer (1984) (material in brackets our own): “The generalization here in Washo appears to be that DS is [obligatorily] present only when the subjects of two hierarchically adjacent clauses are disjoint in reference (refer to sets that have no members in common)” (Finer 1984:88).

  38. 38.

    A reviewer asks with respect to (67) whether the position of the embedded clause has an effect on whether DS or SS marking is used. To our knowledge, it does not; the different clause orders here are an artifact of elicitation.

    In these examples, the accusative-marked nominalizations seem to be appositive headless relative clauses modifying the direct object gó:beʔ ‘coffee’, in a displaced clause-peripheral position (see Sect. 4 for discussion of the surface position of embedded clauses). This is shown by the fact that the embedded verb has an unexpressed object agreement prefix, which diagnoses that the direct object must be a dropped pronoun, in this case anaphoric (or cataphoric) to gó:beʔ ‘coffee’ (see Sect. 4 on this agreement prefix). This rules out an externally headed restrictive relative clause account of these examples.

  39. 39.

    The mood marker - becomes -a before š; see fn. 7.

  40. 40.

    We take this hypothesis about the index of plural nominals to be a good first approximation to capturing their referential properties. Admittedly, the semantics of plural nominals raises complex issues that are well beyond the scope of this article, especially in the case of indefinite and quantified nominals. None of the examples involving reference overlap in this article have indefinite or quantificational subjects.

  41. 41.

    McKenzie (2012:95–96) makes a tentative argument against a binding-based account, based on the wrong prediction that matrix clauses should be uniformly marked as DS, but also notes that there are ways to amend the analysis to avoid this prediction.

  42. 42.

    Baker and Camargo Souza (2020:1103–1108) analyze reflexive constructions in some languages (including Shipibo) as involving the same Agree mechanism as switch reference in these languages. As a reviewer points out, this predicts that reflexives should pattern like switch reference with respect to the overlapping reference cases. While Baker and Camargo Souza don’t discuss this prediction, the data in this section show that this unification will not work for Washo. We also note that in a revised version of the analysis proposed in Camargo Souza (2020), this assimilation of reflexives and switch reference is in fact rejected on the basis of evidence from number suppletion in Yawanawa (Camargo Souza 2020:111-119), one of the languages whose switch-reference system is analyzed in Baker and Camargo Souza (2020).

  43. 43.

    Importantly, this prediction is possible because, under our account, Agree can interact with more than one goal (as long as locality conditions on the operation are respected). In the usual case, this is restricted to a single goal above the probe, and another one below the probe. In the relevant multiple-subject constructions, two of the goals are above the probe.

  44. 44.

    More specifically, switch reference markers in this language track the reference of embedded subjects (not objects) and both matrix subjects and objects.

  45. 45.

    Furthermore, the language has a nominal split whereby only certain nominals display a full 3-way ergative-nominative-contrast, while others neutralize nominative with either accusative (thus resembling an ergative-absolutive system) or ergative (thus resembling a nominative-accusative system; see Austin 1981:314). Legate (2014) argues that these are case syncretisms, not a direct reflection of the syntax of case in the language.


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We thank first and foremost the Washo elders Adele James and Ramona Dick for sharing their language, as well as the wider Washo community for welcoming and helping to facilitate this research. We would also like to thank Mark Baker, Emily Clem, and Livia Camargo Souza for useful criticism of the ideas presented here, as well as the audiences at WSCLA 22, NELS 48, DISCO 5, GLOW 42, and at the University of Chicago. We also thank Amy Rose Deal and three anonymous reviewers for feedback that led to considerable improvement to our initial manuscript. This work was supported in part by The Jacobs Funds and The Phillips Funds for Native American Research.

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Arregi, K., Hanink, E.A. Switch reference as index agreement. Nat Lang Linguist Theory (2021).

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  • Switch reference
  • Agreement
  • Upward Agree
  • Referential indices
  • Washo