Plenary panel: Morphosyntactic

Wednesday 13 December

9am Plenary Panel: Issues in morphosyntatic typology 

[(Session Chair Masha Koptjevskaja-Tamm)] featuring Rachel Nordlinger (University of Melbourne), Jean-Christophe Verstraete (University of Leuven) and Hilary Chappell (L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales-Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l'Asie Orientale)

This plenary panel will survey selected major challenges in morphological typology, taking the form of three 20-minute presentations by Rachel Nordlinger, Jean-Christophe Verstraete and Hilary Chappell, plus a response by Frans Plank and open discussion. 

Multiple case marking, and what it shows us 

Rachel Nordlinger, University of Melbourne 

Multiple case marking, found in its most striking form amongst the languages of Australia, involves a single nominal carrying two or more case markers, each indicating a different relationship within the clause. This phenomenon challenges standard theories of case, which typically assume that a noun phrase will be morphologically marked for case only once, and consequently, multiple case marking has been the subject of research from a variety of theoretical and typological perspectives over the last 25-30 years. In this paper I review this research on multiple case marking and consider what we have learned about the phenomenon, and what it tells us about the ways in which morphology and syntax interact. I argue that the existence of multiple case marking demonstrates the potential for morphology to be used to signal complex syntactic relationships, since a single nominal can carry markers indicating external clausal relationships outside of its immediate NP. I then consider whether multiple case marking is just one exemplar of a larger linguistic strategy in which morphology is employed to express syntactic relationships beyond the local context in which it appears. In this sense, understanding the nature of multiple case marking is crucial to understanding morphology-syntax interactions and the structure of language more broadly. 


Ergativity, optional and otherwise 

Jean-Christophe Verstraete, University of Leuven 

Morphological ergativity is a classic of linguistic typology (e.g. Dixon 1979, Plank ed 1979), and needs little introduction. However, since the late 1980s, an increasing number of so-called ‘optional’ ergative systems has been documented, where ergative markers can be present or absent in one and the same context without affecting role interpretation (see McGregor 1989, Tournadre 1991 for early statements, and McGregor 2010 for a typological survey). Such optionalities were initially explained as side effects of the discriminatory function of case systems, but they are now sufficiently well attested, with robust functional motivations of their own, to be considered a distinct type. In very general terms, optional use of ergative marking is driven by information structure (focal or discursively unexpected A is marked), and/or by degrees of agentivity (highly agentive A is marked) (see further in McGregor 2010). 

In this paper, I provide a brief introduction to what we know about optional ergativity, and I use this to do a hypothetical: What would our understanding of ergativity look like if initial typological work had started out from optional ergative systems? 

(i) Where would we locate ergativity? 

Ergativity has traditionally been analysed in terms of representational meanings. Optional ergative marking is semantically hybrid, however, and an alternative typology would locate ergativity primarily at the interface between representational and interpersonal types of meaning, specifically information structure and speakers’ perspectivization of events. 

(ii) Where would we look for its origins? 

While diachronic typology has presented arguments back and forth about accusative-to-ergative pathways and vice versa (see Dixon 1994 for an overview), an alternative typology would look elsewhere, specifically at interpersonal categories. For instance, Gaby (2010) shows how the highly irregular ergative morphology of Kuuk Thaayorre originates in information-structural alternations, and McGregor (2008) suggests that focalising constructions with indexical markers are at the origins of other Australian ergatives. Interestingly, parallel proposals have been made for optional accusative systems (see, for instance, Iemmolo 2011). 

(iii) But would it still be case? 

Some analyses of optional ergative systems, especially in Tibeto-Burman languages, have expressed doubts whether ergativity or ergative alignment is still a suitable label for optional systems (e.g. Coupe 2007, DeLancey 2011). Reasons for such doubts include the occasional use of relevant markers in intransitive clauses, and their transparent semantic motivation, leading some to call them agentive rather than ergative. An alternative typology of ergativity would not necessarily lead away from case- or alignment-based analyses, however. Intransitive uses are not found in all optional ergative systems, and where they are found, they are generally infrequent, and rarely occur in elicitation. Moreover, optionalities with motivations beyond clausal morphosyntax have long been recognized for accusative markers, at the other end of the action chain, without calls to abandon analyses in terms of alignment. 


Coupe, A. 2007. A grammar of Mongsen Ao. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

DeLancey, S. 2011. “Optional” “ergativity” in Tibeto-Burman languages. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 34: 9-20. 

Dixon, R.M.W. 1979. Ergativity. Language 55: 59-138. 

Dixon, R.M.W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Gaby, A. 2010. From discourse to syntax and back: the lifecycle of Kuuk Thaayorre ergative morphology. Lingua 120: 1677-1692. 

Iemmolo, G. 2011. Towards a typological study of differential object marking and differential object indexation. Pavia: Università degli Studi di Pavia doctoral dissertation. 

McGregor, W. 1989. The discourse basis of ergative marking in Gooniyandi. La Trobe Working Papers in Linguistics 2: 127-158. 

McGregor, W. 2008. Indexicals as sources of case markers in Australian languages. In F. Josephson & I. Söhrman, eds. Interdependence of synchronic and diachronic analyses. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 299-321. 

McGregor, W. 2010. Optional ergative case marking systems in a typological-semiotic perspective. Lingua 120: 1610–1636. 

Plank, F., ed. 1979. Ergativity. Towards a typology of grammatical relations. New York: Academic Press. 

Tournadre, N. 1991. The rhetorical use of the Tibetan ergative. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 14: 93-108. 

Grammatical tone in Sinitic: Where prosody meets morphology 

Hilary Chappell, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris 

Sinitic languages are typically cited and celebrated as examples of isolating languages par excellence. They are generally described as lacking any inflectional morphology while their derivational morphology is minimal. The main processes used in word formation are considered to be affixation, compounding and reduplication. This view has been further reinforced in work over the last decades on syntactic change, for example, Bybee et al (1994) and Bisang (2004, 2008), who uphold the view that little phonetic erosion, if any at all, accompanies grammaticalization in Chinese languages. 

This presentation will treat phonological processes that lead to the creation of suprasegmental nonlinear morphology (Bickel & Nichols 2005, 2013) involving tone sandhi and fusion, and thus the creation of new portmanteaux morphemes that code a variety of grammatical functions. 

Distinct from phonological tone sandhi (tone change) conditioned by features of context, such as the tone value on the preceding or following syllable, morphologically-conditioned tone is also attested in Sinitic languages, where the modified tone value signals grammatical meaning, regularly associated with processes of derivation and inflection in other languages. 

Despite the idée fixe concerning rigid morpheme boundaries and shape-preserving morphemes, not to mention the indeterminacy of grammatical categories in Chinese that has lingered on for several centuries, more and more data has come to light on the use of grammatical tone to signal not only morphological operations of derivation but also something akin to a fledgling inflectional system for aspect. This is doubtlessly due to the study of Sinitic languages other than the standard language, Mandarin (pǔtōnghuà). See, for example, Lamarre (2015) on morphologization involving ablaut, tone change and rhotacization linked with the coding of verbal aspect in the Sinitic languages of Northern China and, similarly, Arcodia (2013).

In this presentation, I will examine and illustrate these phenomena for Central and Southern Sinitic not only for verbal aspect systems but also for pronominal ones, in addition to treating the mechanisms involved. The areal distribution will also be taken into account, since it is much wider than previously believed. 


Arcodia, Giorgio. 2013. Grammaticalisation with coevolution of form and meaning in East Asia? Evidence from Sinitic. Language Sciences 40:148–167. 

Bickel, Balthasar and Nichols, Johanna. 2005. Inflectional Morphology. In Shopen, Timothy (ed.), Language Typology and Syntactic Description. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2nd edition). 

Balthasar Bickel and Johanna Nichols. 2013. Fusion of Selected Inflectional Formatives. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2017-07-07.) 

Bisang Walter. 2008. Grammaticalization as an areal phenomenon: The case of East and Mainland Southeast Asian Languages and its consequences for concepts of complexity and maturation. Yǔyánxué Lùncóng 《語言學論叢》38: 64-98. 

Bisang Walter. 2009. Grammaticalization without Coevolution of Form and Meaning: The Case of Tense-Aspect-Modality in East and Mainland Southeast Asia. In Walter Bisang, Nikolaus Himmelmann and Bjorn Wiemer (eds.), What makes Grammaticalization? – A look from its Fringes and its Components. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 109-138.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins andWilliamPagliuca. 1994. The Evolution of Grammar —Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

Lamarre C., 2015, The morphologization of verb suffixes in Northern Chinese, in C. Guangshun, R. Djamouri & A. Peyraube (eds.), Language Contact in North-Western China, Paris, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, p. 275-307.

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  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University