The interaction of Information structure, constituent order and case marking in an Australian language: a construction-based account

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This paper presents a construction-based account of the interaction of information structure with both constituent order and argument marking in Jaminjung/Ngaliwurru (J/Ng), an Australian language from the Mirndi family. Construction Grammar offers a monostratal, non-modular way of accounting for information structure, by directly mapping both prosodic and positional correlates of specific information structure categories to their discourse function (e.g. Gregory & Michaelis 2001, Lambrecht 1994, 2001). Data come from annotated corpora of naturalistic speech and elicitation based on non-verbal stimuli resulting from first-hand fieldwork. As a discourse-configurational language, in J/Ng constituent order is not determined by argument roles but by information structure in combination with considerations of rhythm and constituent weight. New/shifting topics, anti-topics and afterthoughts have (presumably universal) fixed positions in the (expanded) clause, whereas constituents within the rhematic part of an utterance have flexible ordering. Focus (both of the information focus and the corrective type) is marked prosodically rather than by position (Simard 2010, 2014, 2015), which can be accounted for by allowing for language-specific information structure constructions (cf. also Van Valin 1999). Crucially, in J/Ng, information structure not only has an influence on constituent order but also on case-marking. As in other fluid A (“optional ergative”) languages (e.g. McGregor 2006, Suter 2010, Gaby 2010, Fauconnier & Verstraete 2014, Malchukov 2015), the absence vs. presence of ergative case is associated with the status of the agentive argument as topic vs. rhematic element in a statistically significant way (Schultze-Berndt & Meakins 2017). This can be accounted for in terms of case-marking constructions with language-specific meanings, in the sense of Goldberg (1995, 2005): In J/Ng, the absolutive (unmarked) case merely signals core argument status irrespective of semantic role, while the ergative case has a constructional meaning of Effector (the entity causally involved in an event), a category which includes animate and inanimate agents as well as instruments (Van Valin & Wilkins 1996). Depending on the predictability of the agentive role of a participant (which is high for topical constituents but also for 1st and 2nd person pronouns), either the Core Argument construction is chosen, plausibly for reasons of Economy (Silverstein 1986, McGregor 1992, Aissen 1999, Malchukov 2008, 2015), or (for the sake of explicitness) the Effector construction which overtly indexes the macro-role of the argument. While this analysis is compatible with an Optimality Theory approach as long as this acknowledges the language-specific nature of argument marking, the construction-based approach offers a more explicit account than the generalised notion of “argument strength” which has been employed in some OT analyses of Differential Argument Marking (e.g. Legendre et al. 1993: 684-688, Aissen 1999, De Hoop 1999, De Hoop & Narasimhan, 2005, De Hoop and Malchukov 2007). Instead, the findings reported here support a multifactorial, “competing motivations” approach to Differential Argument Marking, and highlight the importance of information structure in this regard. The paper will conclude with a more general discussion of how universal principles and language-specific constructions interact to result in patterns of information structure, clause-level constituent order and case marking. References Aissen, Judith, (1999), Markedness and subject choice in optimality theory. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 17: 673–711. De Hoop, Helen, (1999), Optimal case assignment. Linguistics in the Netherlands, 16(1): 97-109. De Hoop, Helen, and Andrej L. Malchukov, (2007), On fluid differential case marking: A bidirectional OT approach. Lingua, 117: 1636-1656. De Hoop, Helen and B. Narasimhan, (2005), Differential case-marking in Hindi. In M. Amberber and Helen De Hoop (eds.), Competition and variation in natural languages: The case for case. 321-345. Fauconnier, Stephanie, and Jean-Christophe Verstraete, (2014), A and O as each other's mirror image? Problems with markedness reversal. Linguistic Typology, 18(1): 3–49. Gaby, Alice, (2010), From discourse to syntax and back: The lifecycle of Kuuk Thaayorre ergative morphology. Lingua, 120(7): 1677-1692. Gregory, M. L. and L. A. Michaelis, (2001. Topicalization and Left-Dislocation: A Functional Opposition Revisited. Journal of Pragmatics, 33: 1665-1706. Goldberg, Adele E, (1995), Constructions. A construction grammar approach to argument structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Goldberg, Adele E, (2005), Argument realization. The role of constructions, lexical semantics and discourse factors. In M. Fried & J.-O. Östman (Eds.), Construction Grammars: cognitive grounding and theoretical extensions, 17-43. Amsterdam: Benjamins. Lambrecht, Knut, (1994), Information structure and sentence form. Topic, focus and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lambrecht, Knut, (2001), Dislocations. In M. Haspelmath, E. König, W. Oesterreicher, and W. Raible (eds.), Language Typology and Language Universals: An International Handbook, Vol. 2, 1050–1078. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Legendre, Geraldine, William Raymond, and Paul Smolensky, (1993), An Optimality-Theoretic Typology of Case and Grammatical Voice Systems. Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: General Session and Parasession on Semantic Typology and Semantic Universals. Malchukov, Andrej L., (2008), Animacy and asymmetries in differential case marking. Lingua, 118: 203-221. Malchukov, Andrej L., (2015), Towards a typology of split ergativity: A TAM-hierarchy for alignment splits. In I. Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, A. L. Malchukov, & M. Richards (eds.), Scales and hierarchies: a cross-disciplinary perspective, 275-296. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. McGregor, William B., (1992), The semantics of ergative marking in Gooniyandi. Linguistics 30: 275-318. McGregor, William B., (2006), Focal and optional ergative marking in Warrwa (Kimberley, Western Australia). Lingua 116(4): 393-423. Schultze-Berndt, Eva, and Felicity Meakins, (2017), Bringing agents into focus: Competing motivations in differential agent marking. Paper presented at the Association for Linguistic Typology conference, Canberra, December 2017. Silverstein, Michael (1976), Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity. In R. M. W. Dixon (ed.), Grammatical Categories in Australian Languages, 112-171. Canberra: AIAS. Simard, Candide, (2010), The Prosodic Contours of Jaminjung, a language of Northern Australia. (PhD dissertation), University of Manchester, Manchester. Simard, Candide, (2014), Another look at right detached NPs. Proceedings of the Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 4., London, SOAS. Simard, Candide, (2015), On being first. Paper presented at the conference on Information Structure in Spoken Language Corpora (ISSLAC 2), Paris, 2 December 2015. Suter, Edgar, (2010), The Optional Ergative in Kâte. In J. Bowden, N. P. Himmelmann and M. Ross (eds.), A journey through Austronesian and Papuan linguistic and cultural space. Papers in honour of Andrew Pawley, 423–437. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. Van Valin, Robert D., (1999), A typology of the interaction of focus structure and syntax. In E. Raxilina & J. Testelec (eds.), Typology and the theory of Language: From description to Explanation, 511-524. Moscow: Languages of Russian Culture. Van Valin, Robert D., and David Wilkins, (1996), The case for ‘effector’: case roles, agents, and agency revisited. In M. Shibatani & S. A. Thompson (eds.), Grammatical constructions: their form and meaning, 289-322. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2018
EventWorkshop on Information Structure at the Interfaces, part of
51st Annual Meeting Societas Linguistica Europaea: 51st Annual Meeting Societas Linguistica Europaea
- University of Tallinn, Tallinn, Estonia
Duration: 29 Aug 20181 Sep 2018


WorkshopWorkshop on Information Structure at the Interfaces, part of
51st Annual Meeting Societas Linguistica Europaea
Abbreviated titleSLE2018
Internet address


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