Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton July 6, 2017

Do grammatical relations reflect information status? Reassessing Preferred Argument Structure theory against discourse data from Tondano

Timothy C. Brickell and Stefan Schnell
From the journal Linguistic Typology


We test Preferred Argument Structure theory against corpus data from Tondano, an Austronesian language with symmetrical voice. Investigating the use of full noun phrases in individual argument positions, we find no significant clustering of both S and P as opposed to A, hence no discourse ergativity. Moreover, neither pivotal nor non-pivotal grammatical relations appear to specialise in the accommodation of full noun phrases. Thus, grammatical relations do not serve as architecture for regulating information flow in discourse. Only constituent order reflects information flow, so that full noun phrases tend to occur in clause-final position. More generally, correlations of humanness and topicality predict most straightforwardly attested patterns of argument realisation.


The research reported here has been supported by a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council awarded to Stefan Schnell (DE120102017) for the project “Typology of language use” hosted by the Centre for Research on Language Diversity at La Trobe University, Melbourne. An earlier version of this article was presented in the Linguistics Seminar Series at the University of Newcastle in February 2016, and we thank the audience for useful comments. We are also grateful to Sonja Riesberg for most valuable feedback, in particular on matters concerning symmetrical voice. We thank the three anonymous reviewers for their comments on the draft manuscript. All remaining errors are of course our responsibility. Finally, Tim Brickell would like to thank the Tondano community in Rinegetan and Kiniar for their tireless support during his PhD candidature.



1st/2nd/3rd person




actor voice




conveyance voice


Differential A Marking








Differential O(bject) Marking


Differential Subject Marking








grammatical relation














locative voice


noun phrase


Preferred Argument Structure




proper noun






patient voice






undergoer voice


verb complex.


Adams, Karen L. & Alexis Manaster-Ramer. 1988. Some questions of topic/focus choice in Tagalog. Oceanic Linguistics 27. 79–101.10.2307/3623150Search in Google Scholar

Andrews, Avery. 2007. The major functions of the noun phrase. In Shopen (ed.) 2007, 132–223.10.1017/CBO9780511619427.003Search in Google Scholar

Ariel, Mira. 1990. Accessing noun phrase antecedents. London: Croom Helm.Search in Google Scholar

Bell, Sarah J. 1976. Cebuano subjects in two frameworks. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral dissertation. in Google Scholar

Bell, Sarah J. 1978. Two differences in definiteness in Cebuano and Tagalog. Oceanic Linguistics 17. 1–9.10.2307/3622824Search in Google Scholar

Bickel, Balthasar. 2011. Grammatical relations typology. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford handbook of language typology, 399–444. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199281251.013.0020Search in Google Scholar

Bickel, Balthasar, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Kamal K. Choudhary, Matthias Schlesewsky & Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2015. The neurophysiology of language processing shapes the evolution of grammar: Evidence from case marking. PLoS ONE 10(8). e0132819. in Google Scholar

Blake, Frank R. 1906. Expression of case by the verb in Tagalog. Journal of the American Oriental Society 27. 183–189.10.2307/592858Search in Google Scholar

Brickell, Timothy C. 2015. A grammatical description of the Tondano (Toundano) language. Melbourne: La Trobe University doctoral dissertation.Search in Google Scholar

Chafe, Wallace L. 1976. Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view. In Charles N. Li (ed.), Subjects and topics, 25–56. New York: Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar

Chafe, Wallace L. 1987. Cognitive constraints on information flow. In Russell S. Tomlin (ed.), Coherence and grounding in discourse, 21–51. Amsterdam: Benjamins.10.1075/tsl.11.03chaSearch in Google Scholar

Chafe, Wallace L. 1994. Discourse, consciousness, and time: The flow and displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Search in Google Scholar

De Guzman, Videa P. 1988. Ergative analysis for Philippine languages: An analysis. In McGinn (ed.) 1988, 323–345.Search in Google Scholar

Du Bois, John W. 1987. The discourse basis of ergativity. Language 63. 805–855.10.2307/415719Search in Google Scholar

Du Bois, John W. 2003a. Argument structure: Grammar in use. In Du Bois et al. (eds.) 2003, 1–60.10.1075/sidag.14.04dubSearch in Google Scholar

Du Bois, John W. 2003b. Discourse and grammar. In Michael Tomasello (ed.), The new psychology of language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure, Vol. 1, 47–88. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Search in Google Scholar

Du Bois, John W., Lorraine E. Kumpf & William J. Ashby (eds.). 2003. Preferred argument structure: Grammar as architecture for function. Amsterdam: Benjamins.10.1075/sidag.14Search in Google Scholar

Durie, Mark. 2003. New light on information pressure: Information conduits, “escape valves”, and role alignment stretching. In Du Bois et al. (eds.) 2003, 159–196.10.1075/sidag.14.09durSearch in Google Scholar

Everett, Caleb. 2009. A reconsideration of the motivations for preferred argument structure. Studies in Language 33. 1–24.10.1075/sl.33.1.02eveSearch in Google Scholar

Fillmore, Charles J. 1968. The case for case. In Emmon Bach & Robert T. Harms (eds.), Universals in linguistic theory, 1–88. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.Search in Google Scholar

Fillmore, Charles J. 1977. The case for case reopened. In Peter Cole & Jerrold M. Sadock (eds.), Grammatical relations (Syntax & Semantics 8), 59–82. New York: Academic Press.10.1163/9789004368866_005Search in Google Scholar

Foley, William. 2007. A typology of information packaging in the clause. In Shopen (ed.) 2007, 362–446.10.1017/CBO9780511619427.007Search in Google Scholar

Foley, William. 2008. The place of Philippine languages in a typology of voice systems. In Peter Austin & Simon Musgrave (eds.), Voice and grammatical relations in Austronesian languages, 22–44. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.Search in Google Scholar

Gerdts, Donna B. 1988. Antipassives and causatives in Ilokano: Evidence for an ergative analysis. In McGinn (ed.) 1988, 295–321.Search in Google Scholar

Goldberg, Adele. 2004. Discourse and argument structure. In Laurence R. Horn & Gregory Ward (eds.), Handbook of pragmatics, 427–441. Malden, MA: Blackwell.10.1002/9780470756959.ch19Search in Google Scholar

Haig, Geoffrey & Stefan Schnell. 2014. Annotations using GRAID (Grammatical Relations and Animacy in Discourse): Manual. Version 7.0. in Google Scholar

Haig, Geoffrey & Stefan Schnell. 2016a. Multi-CAST: Multilingual Corpus of Annotated Spoken Texts. (accessed 20 September 2016)Search in Google Scholar

Haig, Geoffrey & Stefan Schnell. 2016b. The discourse basis of ergativity revisited. Language 92. 591–618.10.1353/lan.2016.0049Search in Google Scholar

Haig, Geoffrey, Stefan Schnell & Claudia Wegener. 2011. Comparing corpora from endangered languages: Explorations in language typology based on original texts. In Geoffrey Haig, Nicole Nau, Stefan Schnell & Claudia Wegener (eds.), Documenting endangered languages: Achievements and perspectives, 55–86. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9783110260021.55Search in Google Scholar

Halliday, M. A. K. & Ruqaiya Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Review of Du Bois et al. (eds.) 2003. Language 82. 908–912.10.1353/lan.2006.0203Search in Google Scholar

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 2002. Voice in two northern Sulawesi languages. In Fay Wouk & Malcolm Ross (eds.), The history and typology of Western Austronesian voice systems (Pacific Linguistics 518), 123–142. Canberra: Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 2005. The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar: Typological characteristics. In Alexander Adelaar & Nikolaus P. Himmelmann (eds.), The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar, 110–173. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Kaufman, Daniel. 2009. Austronesian nominalism and its consequences: A Tagalog case study. Theoretical Linguistics 35. 1–49.10.1515/THLI.2009.001Search in Google Scholar

Krifka, Manfred. 2008. Basic notion of information structure. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55. 243–276.10.1556/ALing.55.2008.3-4.2Search in Google Scholar

Kroeger, Paul. 1993. Phrase structure and grammatical relations in Tagalog. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.Search in Google Scholar

Kumpf, Eleonore. 2003. Genre and Preferred Argument Structure: Sources of argument structure in classroom discourse. In Du Bois et al. (eds.) 2003, 110–130.10.1075/sidag.14.07kumSearch in Google Scholar

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus, and the mental representation of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511620607Search in Google Scholar

McFarland, Curtis D. 1978. Definite objects and subject selection in Philippine languages. In Casilda Edrial-Luzares & Austin Hale (eds.), Studies in Philippine linguistics 2(1). 139–182. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines.Search in Google Scholar

McGinn, Richard (ed.). 1988. Studies in Austronesian linguistics. Athens, OH: Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Center for International Studies, Ohio University.Search in Google Scholar

Naylor, Paz Buenaventura. 1975. Topic, focus, and emphasis in the Tagalog verbal clause. Oceanic Linguistics 14. 12–79.10.2307/3622792Search in Google Scholar

Prince, Ellen. 1981. Towards a new taxonomy of given and new. In Peter Cole (ed.), Radical pragmatics, 223–255. New York: Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar

Riesberg, Sonja. 2014. Symmetrical voice and linking in Western Austronesian languages. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9781614518716Search in Google Scholar

Riesberg, Sonja & Beatrice Primus. 2015. Agent prominence in symmetrical voice languages. Language Typology and Universals 68. 551–564.10.1515/stuf-2015-0023Search in Google Scholar

Shopen, Timothy (ed.). 2007. Language typology and syntactic description, Vol. 1: Clause structure. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511618437Search in Google Scholar

Starosta, Stanley. 1988. A grammatical typology of Formosan languages. Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology (Academia Sinica) 59(2). 541–576.Search in Google Scholar

Starosta, Stanley. 1999. Transitive, ergative, and the best analysis of Atayal case marking. In Elizabeth Zeitoun & Paul Jen-kuei Li (eds.), Selected papers from the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics (8ICAL), 371–392. Taipei: Academia Sinica.Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2016-4-3
Revised: 2016-11-8
Published Online: 2017-7-6
Published in Print: 2017-7-26

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Scroll Up Arrow