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ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert



A Survey of Nominative Case Assignment by

Alan Libert, Department of Linguistics, University of
Newcastle, Callaghan,

The Government-Binding rule of Case assignment by adpositions is "NP is
oblique if
governed by P" (Chomsky 1981:170), and this is consistent with
the fact that in some of
the best known languages, such as Latin and
German, objects (or complements) of
adpositions are marked for some case
other than the nominative. One may note the remark
by Beard (1995:240) that
"Ps do not occur without Case Marking on the nouns which they
accompany in
inflectional languages". However, one does sometimes find objects of

adpositions which are in the nominative. In this paper I shall present a

survey of the
circumstances in which this seemingly unusual phenomenon
occurs, as a first step to an
attempt to account for it.
One must bear in mind the distinction between abstract case and
morphological case (or
between case assignment and case realization). If
one accepts the GB notion of abstract
case, then it is certainly possible
that objects of adpositions which appear in the
nominative case are
assigned some abstract oblique case by a P, but that this abstract case

does not correspond to an overt oblique case (as happens to objects of

verbs in English). If
this is so, then it is not a question of nominative
case assignment by adpositions, but rather
of nominative case realization,
but the phenomenon is still of interest. However, one might
argue that some
examples of it present evidence against the notion of abstract case, or at

least that we need some principled way to determine whether an apparently

nominative (or
caseless) element has been assigned abstract nominative case
or an abstract oblique case.
Here I am not looking at situations such as that in English where nouns
lack an overt
accusative or oblique case, and hence appear to be in the
nominative after prepositions, but
rather at situations where an oblique
case form is available, but is not used. The rest of this
paper consists of
a presentation of the types of such situations which I have discovered,
a few preliminary remarks on how one might account for them.

Nominative Assignment "by Mistake"

Let us first consider what we might call case marking errors in
languages which, unlike
English, have morphological oblique cases on nouns.
In Classical Greek prepositions take
the genitive, dative, or accusative
cases. However, in later Greek there are a few examples
of prepositions
with nominative objects, as in the following example from a papyrus of the

Ptolomaic era with the preposition apo 'from', which usually takes
the genitive:


'peliote:s [sic]
east.wind-NOM (cited in Mayser 1934:367)

This is very rare and is presumably a consequence of the breakdown of

the case system of[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]


ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert

Greek. In Modern Greek as well occasionally there may be

nominative objects of
prepositions, as illustrated by Thumb (1912:101),
although I am somewhat dubious about
whether they are such.
Portuguese is like English in that only pronouns show case, and indeed
only some pronouns
do; in Brazilian Portuguese prepositions have been
observed to occur with the nominative
of these pronouns, rather than the
expected non-nominative forms (Sebastian Drude,
personal communication
We also find "errors" of this sort in two ancient Semitic languages,
Akkadian and Ugaritic,
where prepositions "should" take genitive objects
but are found with nominative ones. The
loss of the genitive itself is not
so strange, but one may think it surprising that the
nominative, rather
than the accusative, so commonly replaces the genitive in its function of

marking prepositional objects. A point of interest about these languages,

and one which
adds to the apparent oddity of the just mentioned fact, is
that, unlike many case languages,
they have some nominative forms involving
discernible suffixes, so we cannot simply say
that the prepositional
objects have lost a case; rather, they clearly do have an overt
case marker. Such data may argue that in at least these instances we should
speak of abstract oblique cases being assigned and being realized as
nominatives (or
caseless forms). We may note that in at least most of the
languages mentioned the case
system was in decline, and case errors occur
in other structures as well.
In English there are case errors when pronouns occur as conjuncts; some
of these errors are
when the conjoined NPs are objects of prepositions.
Examples are given in (2)-(3).
(3) For both Steve and I, our marriage in 1979 was a second chance
(Evening Standard, 30 June 1992:2,
cited in Johannessen 1996:674)
(3) ... between you and I ...(Sobin 1997:319)

Given that this also happens outside of prepositional phrases, such

instances are perhaps to
be accounted for by some property of co-ordinators
rather than by some process particular
to prepositional objects.
Among the errors made by aphasics are those involving the substitution
of one case for
another. It can happen that the object of an adposition is
marked nominative rather than
with the required case. An example from
German is given below, where the article is
marked for nominative rather
than accusative.




(Stark and Dressler 1990:419)

In further research I intend to compare the type and frequency of these

errors with the
errors in normal language just described in order to see
whether there are any common

Nominative Assignment in "Standard" Languages

We now turn to nominative objects of adpositions which might not be
considered the result
of errors, i.e. deviations from a certain normal
state, although this is of course an arbitrary
I know of no language in which all objects of adpositions are nominative
considering only languages which have an overt case system).
However, there are[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]

ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert

languages in which some such objects are marked

nominative. We shall first look at
languages where some adpositions have
nominative objects (and other adpositions have
objects in another case),
i.e. where the choice of case seems to be a lexical matter, and then

languages where it depends on some feature of the object or on some

semantic factor.
In many languages adpositions differ in which case they take, for
example in Latin some
prepositions take the accusative while others take
the ablative (and some take either,
depending on the meaning). At least a
few languages have the same sort of differences
among adpositions, with one
of the possibilities being the nominative case. Albanian has
prepositions which require accusative objects, and some which require
objects, but also two prepositions which take nominative objects,
te (or tek) 'at, to' and nga
'from' (I thank Wayles
Brown for pointing this out to me). Similarly, in Spanish segun

'according to' takes the nominative, unlike most prepositions (thanks to

James L.
Fidelholtz and Matthew L. Juge for this information).
In ergative languages the basic function of the nominative, marking
subjects, is covered
partly by the ergative and partly by the absolutive;
prepositional objects bearing these
cases could be the equivalent in
ergative languages of the nominative objects under
discussion, and might be
seen as equally unusual, as perhaps shown by the following quote
Haspelmath (1993:22) on the Lezgian postposition patal 'for': "This
postposition ...
inexplicably takes an Absolutive argument." Several other
postpositions in this language
also have absolutive objects. My intuition
is that ergative objects of adpositions would
be more unusual than
absolutive objects, but note that Mel'chuk (1988:208) uses

nominative to refer to the absolutive, since it is "the most

unmarked case".
In some languages there is a split in case marking, depending on what
type of constituent is
the head of the NP. In at least some Turkic
languages several postpositions take the
nominative of nouns, but the
genitive of some pronouns. For example, in Turkish the
gibi 'like', ile 'with', kadar 'as much as', and
ichin 'for' act in this way; other
Turkish postpositions take
objects marked with one of the following cases: nominative
(only), dative
or ablative. In (5)-(6) are sentences illustrating the behaviour of


'with whom did you go?' (Lewis 1967:86)
'you went by boat' (ibid.)

A few remarks are in order here. First, what I am calling the nominative
in Turkish has a
significant difference from the nominative cases of
languages such as Latin and Greek:
this case is also borne by direct
objects if they are not "definite" (v. Lewis 1967:35-6 for
details), i.e.
it covers some of the territory of the accusative of many other case
Lewis calls it the absolute rather than the nominative. One may
wonder whether this
difference has any connection with the facts just
described, and whether there is a
language with a more typical nominative
where these same facts hold.
Second, two of these postpositions, ile and ichin, also
turn up as suffixes, namely -yle and
chin (and variations),
so it is not entirely clear whether we are in fact talking about

postpositions (although they are affixed to a genitive stem rather than a

nominative stem
when the relevant pronouns are involved, with the
exceptions to be mentioned
immediately below). Finally, the pronouns which
generally appear in the genitive before
adpositions sometimes (namely
"colloquially" (Lewis 1967:85)) bear nominative case:
Lewis (1967:86) says,
"This is particularly frequent with kim; instead of kiminle,
ichin, and kimin gibi 'with whom?', 'for whom?', 'like
whom?', one hears kimle, kim ichin,
and kim gibi, the
last being a more respectable solecism than the first two". This may be[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]

ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert

seen as the same kind of "error" as those in Greek and other languages
described earlier.
The pronouns which are (generally) genitive here are ben 'I',
sen 'you (singular/informal)', o
'he, she, it, that',
biz 'we', siz 'you (plural/formal)', bu 'this',
shu 'that', and kim 'who?'. A fact
complicating any attempt
to account for this phenomenon is that when these pronouns take
the plural
ending -ler/-lar they are nominative, not genitive, e.g. onlar
gibi 'like them'
(Lewis ibid.).
In some languages there is a split with respect to the case taken by an
adposition based not
on the syntactic category of the object, but on
semantics: the choice between the
nominative and some other case depends on
the meaning to be expressed; this is similar to
the situation in Latin
where several prepositions can take accusative or ablative objects.
appears to happen with two postpositions in the Turkic language Bashkir:
means 'like(= the size of)' with the nominative, but 'up to,
until, till' with the dative; tiklem
has the latter meaning with the
dative, and means 'the size of' with the nominative (glosses
from Poppe
We find something similar in several Indo-European languages. For
example, Russian has
two prepositions, za and v, which general
ly take oblique cases, but which apparently take
the nominative in certain
circumstances, although they could perhaps be analyzed as
something other
than prepositions in those circumstances (I thank Daniel E. Collins and

Keith Goeringer for drawing my attention to these facts).

Towards an Account for Nominative Adpositional Objects

One may say first that nominative marking of objects of adpositions is
not that unusual a
phenomenon; the feeling that it is odd may be a result
of the fact that it is quite uncommon
in the case languages most familiar
to traditional linguistics. I know of no a priori
theoretical reason why
such objects should not bear nominative case; there is presumably
not the
potential for confusion with sentence subjects as there would be if verbal
objects in
a free word order language were marked nominative rather than
When a language has different Ps taking objects in different cases, one
of which is the
nominative, the account for this would presumably be the
same as the account for why
some verbs in German and Latin take objects in
different cases than the accusative: it is a
lexical property of those
verbs that they assign dative, or some other case. Therefore it is
in the lexical entry of Albanian nga 'from' that it assigns
nominative. Chomsky's
rule for case assignment for Ps would have to be
modified in any event to handle
languages where more than one oblique case
can be assigned by Ps; one might suggest
something like "P assigns
accusative unless otherwise specified by its lexical entry". I see
principled reason to assume that nga assigns an abstract oblique
case, which is not
realized as such, given the fact that other Ps in the
language assign oblique cases which do
show up as oblique morphological
Splits in case marking based on the nature of the object are somewhat
more difficult to
account for, but note that again this is not a problem
unique to nominative adpositional
objects. An account for the Turkish-type
split in terms of lexical properties of individual
elements is possible,
though unattractive. Recall, however, that the split does not occur
all postpositions (and indeed not all postpositions taking the nominative,
there are only two of these which do not exhibit the split, one of
which usually has an
infinitive as an object, and the other one being
"obsolete except in archaizing poetry"
(Lewis 1967:85)). Thus, in any case,
there will have to be reference to lexical properties of[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]

ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert

postpositions. The problem is with those pronouns which are involved in the

split: if some of them are not to be lexically specified as to which case

they bear in certain
contexts, a more general mechanism will have to be
found. At the moment I know of no
such solution; I am not convinced that
the discussion in Kornfilt (1984:61, 225-7) will
account for all the
However, one may note that there are other splits between pronouns and
nouns, and even
between different kinds of pronouns, involving either
abstract or morphological case.
Examples of these include the difference
between English nouns and pronouns, or between
who and what,
the former having distinct nominative and accusative forms, the latter not.

(It is interesting that the Turkish equivalents display a difference with

respect to case
marking before the postpositions under discussion,
kim 'who' being genitive while ne
'what' is nominative.) If
such splits can be attributed to other properties of these elements,
latter might be invoked in an explanation of the complicated facts of
Turkic languages
(this idea is due to Anne Robotham). That is, some
properties of pronouns, or of some
pronouns, may make them more or less
likely to be assigned oblique case, or more or less
likely to lose
morphological case.
A similar kind of account can perhaps be extended to the case "errors" due to language
change or disordered language. One might think that when adpositional objects lose their
originalcase marking, due to the decline
of the case system of a language, they are marked
for some other case,
usually not nominative. However, perhaps some kinds of elements are
vulnerable to nominative marking than others, in normal and/or aphasic
although they too would usually be marked with the accusative or
another non-nominative
case, perhaps a certain combination of factors makes
it possible for them to be nominative.
It would therefore be worthwhile to
collect and analyze a large number of such "errors" to
determine whether
they are more likely to occur in some circumstances than others, e.g.
objects of certain prepositions more likely to bear nominative than others,
or are
certain types of objects more susceptible to such unusual case
marking than others?
As has been shown, although it is not a very common phenomenon, objects
of adpositions
can bear nominative case, perhaps more often than supposed.
A detailed analysis of the
situations where it happens, and of the
constituents to which it tends to occur, may allow
us to explain both why
it occurs at all, and why it is relatively rare.

I thank George Horn, Christo Moskovsky, Peter Peterson, and Anne
Robotham for useful

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NY:State University
of New York Press.
Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht:
Haspelmath, M. 1993. A grammar of Lezgian. Berlin: Mouton de
Johannessen, J.B. 1996. Partial agreement and coordination.
Linguistic Inquiry 27.
Kornfilt, J. 1984. Case marking, agreement, and empty categories in
Turkish. PhD
thesis, Harvard University.[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]

ALS98 PAPERS - Alan Libert

Lewis, G.L. 1967. Turkish grammar. Oxford: Oxford University

Mayser, E. 1934. Grammatik des griechischen Papryri aus der
(Band II 2) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Mel'chuk, I.A. 1988. Dependency Syntax. Albany, NY:State
University of New York
Poppe, N. 1964. Bashkir manual. (Uralic and Altaic Series, 36)
Indiana University.
Sobin, N. 1997. Agreement, default rules, and grammatical viruses.
Inquiry 28. 318-343.
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studies. In
Menn, L. and Obler, L.K. (eds), Agrammatic aphasia.
Philadephia: John Benjamins.
Thumb, A. 1912. Handbook of the modern Greek vernacular.
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Clark.[28/10/2016 3:57:31 PM]