PLM2016 Thematic session: Non-canonical subjects: Their rise and development (Evidence from Indo-European and beyond)

Conveners: Leonid Kulikov1, Jóhanna Barðdal1, Thórhallur Eythórsson2, Cynthia Amy Johnson1, Esther Le Mair1, Sigríður Sæunn Sigurðardóttir1 (1Ghent University, 2University of Iceland)

The contact person for this thematic session is Leonid Kulikov (e-mail:

The recent two decades are marked with a considerable progress in the study of transitivity and grammatical relations (subject, object). Valuable results are achieved both in the study of the notion of prototypical subject and non-canonical subject marking (see, in particular, Aikhenvald et al. 2001; Bhaskararao & Subbarao 2004), and in the research of intermediary types, with non-canonical encoding of the core relations (non-nominative/oblique subjects etc.). Meticulous research of subject properties has uncovered an amazing variety of criteria of subjecthood that can be used as a powerful tool for detecting (non-canonical) subjects and, ultimately to arrive at a more adequate definition of subject.

Indo-European languages are particularly notorious for their diversity of non-canonical subject marking, ranking from nominative (standard), to dative, genitive, accusative etc., as in Icelandic (1) (see, among others, Barđdal 2001) and other Germanic languages (Eythórsson & Barðdal 2005), Latin (2) (Fedriani 2014) and Romance languages (Bauer 2001), Polish (Holvoet 1991), or Bengali (Onishi 2001), Hindi and other (New) Indo-Aryan languages (Masica 1991: 346ff.; Verbeke, Kulikov & Willems 2015):
(1)    Icelandic
        Mér          líkar                   þessi        tilgáta
        I:DAT       like:PRES:3SG    this          hypothesis:NOM
        ‘I like this hypothesis.’
(2)    Latin (Cic.)
         mihi     caligae             eius     et         fasciae                 cretatae            non placebant
         I:DAT   boot:NOM.PL    his      and        leggings:NOM.PL   white:NOM.PL    not  please:IMPF:3PL
        ‘I did not like his boots and white leggings.’
(3)     Hindi
         mujh-e     mithāī             cāhiye
         I-DAT       sweet:NOM      want:3SG
         ‘I want candy.’

By now, the synchronic study of subject and transitivity in Indo-European languages (and beyond; see, for instance, Haspelmath & Caruana 2000 on Maltese/Semitic) has furnished detailed descriptions of syntactic patterns, inventories of features and types and valuable cross-linguistic observations. We have at our disposal well-elaborated catalogues of predicates with non-canonically case-marked subject-like arguments in the earliest attested stages of all branches of the Indo-European language family. A work in progress is the compilation of an online interactive database with non-canonically case-marked argument structure constructions, which is now prepared within the the ERC-funded project “The Evolution of Case, Alignment and Argument Structure in Indo-European” (see below) and will be available to the research community at large.

Less attention has been paid to the diachronic aspects of the phenomena in question. Although considerable progress has been made in the analysis of the history of constructions with non-canonical subjects in Indo-European and reconstruction of their sources in Proto-Indo-European (see, in particular, Barðdal & Smitherman 2013; Barðdal et al. 2012), many historical processes and phenomena that are relevant for this syntactic domain still need to be elucidated. Many details of the emergence and disappearance of the non-canonical subject marking are still unclear to us, and there is no complete inventory of the basic mechanisms of the rise and evolution of this subject-marking (but cf. a typology of changes typical for case marking in Barðdal 2015).

Likewise, there are several important correlations between types of subject marking and changes in transitivity oppositions, such as increase in transitivity correlating with increase in the subject and object properties of the core arguments (in accordance with Hopper & Thompson’s (1980) set of transitivity parameters; cf. the handbook example of correlation between the marking of core arguments and tense-aspect features of the verb in Finnish). These correlations, which may be of crucial importance for understanding the nature of the historical processes relevant both for the marking of core arguments and for transitivity features, are not yet properly explained. Thus, of particular interest are syntactic patterns such as the Slavic (North Russian) ‘possessive perfect’ constructions, originating in the possessive construction of the mihi-est type with the passive participle (cf. Kuteva & Heine 2004) and with the oblique ‘possessor’ noun acquiring subject properties (Timberlake 1976).

Indo-European languages, with their well-documented history and long tradition of historical and comparative research, offer a particularly rich opportunity for a diachronic typological study of the above-listed issues (see, for instance, Barðdal & Eythórsson. 2009). One of the first research projects concentrating on the diachronic aspects of these phenomena, the ERC-funded project “The Evolution of Case, Alignment and Argument Structure in Indo-European” (EVALISA), started in 2013 at Ghent University under the general supervision of Prof. J. Barðdal (see

The aim of this workshop is to bring together scholars interested in comparative research on non-canonical subjects in Indo-European and beyond and to open up new horizons in the study of these phenomena, paying special attention to its diachronic aspects. We invite scholars working within all theoretical frameworks, such as Construction Grammar (which is the main theoretical vehicle of the EVALISA project) and other functional and formal frameworks. While the workshop concentrates mainly on evidence from Indo-European, papers on non-Indo-European languages which could be relevant for a diachronic typological study of the issues in question are also welcome.

The issues to be addressed include, among others:
•    subject criteria and subject properties
•    syntactic functions of the subject-like obliques in both ancient and modern Indo-European languages
•    mechanisms of the rise or disappearance of non-canonical subject-marking
•    semantic classes of predicates with non-canonically case-marked subject-like arguments
•    relations between subject marking and transitivity types: evolution of subject-marking with different semantic classes of verbs
•    the main evolutionary types (from the point of view of case-marking of subjects) attested for Indo-European
•    subject and changes in the type of alignment: the emergence of ergativity out of constructions with non-canonical subjects
•    methodological issues of the reconstruction of case-marking of subjects and core arguments in general

Details of abstract submission are available here.

Aikhenvald, A.Y. et al. (eds) 2001. Non-canonical marking of subjects and objects. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Barðdal, J. 2001. Case in Icelandic: A Synchronic, Diachronic and Comparative Approach. Lund: Dept. of Scandinavian Languages, Lund University.
Barðdal, J. 2015. Syntax and syntactic reconstruction. In: C. Bowern & B. Evans (eds), The Routledge handbook of historical linguistics. London: Routledge, 343-373.
Barðdal, J. & Th. Eythórsson. 2003. The change that never happened: the story of oblique subjects. Journal of Linguistics 39.3: 439-472.
Barðdal, J. & Th. Eythórsson. 2009. The origin of the oblique subject construction: an Indo-European comparison. In: V. Bubeník et al. (eds), Grammatical Change in Indo-European Languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 179–193.
Barðdal, J. & Th. Smitherman. 2013. The quest for cognates: A reconstruction of oblique subject constructions in Proto-Indo-European. Language Dynamics and Change 3.1: 28–67.
Barðdal, J. et al. 2012. Reconstructing constructional semantics: The dative subject construction in Old Norse-Icelandic, Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Russian and Old Lithuanian. Studies in Language 36.3: 511-547.
Bauer, B. 2001. Archaic syntax in Indo-European: the spread of transitivity in Latin and French. Berlin: Mouton.
Bhaskararao, P. & Subbarao, K. V. (eds) 2004. Non-nominative Subjects. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Eythórsson, Th. & J. Barðdal. 2005. Oblique subjects: a common Germanic inheritance. Language 81.4: 824–81.
Fedriani, C. 2014. Experiential constructions in Latin. Leiden: Brill.
Haspelmath, M. & S. Caruana. 2000. Subject diffuseness in Maltese: On some subject properties of experiential verbs. Folia Linguistica 34.3-4: 245-266.
Hopper, P.J., and S.A. Thompson. 1980. Transitivity in grammar and discourse. Language 56.2: 251-299.
Kuteva, T. & B. Heine. 2004. On the possessive perfect in North Russian. Word 55: 37-71.
Masica, C.P. 1991. The Indo-Aryan languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Onishi, M. 2001. Non-canonically marked A/S in Bengali. In: A.Y. Aikhenvald et al. (eds), Non-canonical marking of subjects and objects. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 113-147.
Timberlake, A. 1976. Subject properties in the North Russian Passive. In: Ch. N. Li (ed.), Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press, 545-594.
Verbeke, S., L. Kulikov & K. Willems. 2015. Oblique case-marking in Indo-Aryan experiencer constructions: Historical roots and synchronic variation. Lingua 163: 23-39.