Verb class, case, and order: A crosslinguistic experiment on non-nominative experiencers

  • 1 Department of Linguistics, University of Stuttgart, Keplerstr. 17, 70174 Stuttgart, Germany
  • 2 Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
Anne Temme and Elisabeth Verhoeven


In several languages, non-nominative experiencers tend to appear early on in utterances, which frequently triggers deviations from the preferred word order. These observations are based on linearization preferences, which in most cases involve gradient levels that cannot be determined precisely through singular intuitions. This article presents a crosslinguistic experimental study on languages with different word order properties (German, Greek, Hungarian, and Korean), offering precise estimates for the effects of experiencer objects on linearization. The findings reveal a strong effect of case in the sense that dative experiencers appear more frequently early in an utterance than accusative experiencers. Based on the specific properties of the investigated languages, we are revising previous hypotheses about the source of the dative/accusative asymmetry and conclude that the asymmetry relates to phrase-structural differences. Accusative experiencers are fronted more frequently than patients of canonical transitive verbs. We argue that this phenomenon relates to a preference for selecting experiencers as aboutness topics, which explains the fact that experiencer-first structures appear in syntactic constructions that may be triggered by aboutness. The results show that the experiencer-first principle interacts with properties of the syntactic structure. The differences between languages can thus be traced back to the basic properties of syntactic typology.

  • Alexiadou, Artemis & Elena Anagnostopoulou. 2000. Greek syntax: A principle and parameters approach. Journal of Greek Linguistics 1. 171–222.

  • Alexiadou, Artemis & Elena Anagnostopoulou. 2001. The subject in situ generalization, and the role of case in driving computations. Linguistic Inquiry 32. 193–231.

  • Alexopoulou, Theodora & Dimitra Kolliakou. 2002. On linkhood, topicalization and clitic left dislocation, Journal of Linguistics 38(2). 193–245.

  • Anagnostopoulou, Elena. 1997. Clitic left dislocation and contrastive left dislocation. In Elena Anagnostopoulou, Henk van Riemsdijk & Frans Zwarts (eds.), Materials on left Dislocation, 151–192. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Anagnostopoulou, Elena. 1999. On experiencers. In Artemis Alexiadou, Geoffrey C. Horrocks & Melita Stavrou (eds.), Studies in Greek syntax, 67–93. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Arad, Maya. 1998. Psych-notes. In John Harris & Corinne Iten (eds.), UCL Working Papers in Linguistics, 203–223. London: University College London.

  • Bader, Markus & Jana Häussler. 2010. Word order in German: A corpus study. Lingua 120. 717–762.

  • Barr, Dale J., Roger Levy, Christoph Scheepers & Harry J. Tily. 2013. Random effects structure for confirmatory hypothesis testing: Keep it maximal. Journal of Memory and Language 68. 255–278.

  • Bayer, Josef. 2004. Non-nominative subjects in comparison. In Peri Bhaskararao & Karumuri Venkata Subbarao (eds.), Non-nominative subjects, 49–76. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Behrens, Leila. 1982. Zur funktionalen Motivation der Wortstellung: Untersuchungen anhand des Ungarischen. Munich: Veröffentlichungen des Finnisch-Ungarischen Seminars an der Universität München.

  • Belletti, Adriana. & Luigi Rizzi. 1988. Psych-verbs and Θ-theory. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 6. 293–352.

  • den Besten, Hans. 1989. Studies in West Germanic syntax. Amsterdam: Atlanta.

  • Bickel, Balthasar. 2004. The syntax of experiencers in the Himalayas. In Peri Bhaskararao & Karumuri Venkata Subbarao (eds.), Non-nominative subjects, 77–112. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Bornkessel, Ina, Brian McElree, Matthias Schlesewsky & Angela D. Friederici. 2004. Multi-dimensional contributions to garden path strength: Dissociating phrase structure from case marking. Journal of Memory and Language 51. 495–522.

  • Bornkessel, Ina, Matthias Schlesewsky, & Angela Friederici. 2003. Eliciting thematic reanalysis effects: The role of structure-independent information during parsing. Language and Cognitive Processes 18. 268–298.

  • Bouchard, Denis. 1995. The semantics of syntax: a minimalist approach to gram- mar. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

  • Büring, Daniel. 1999. Topic. In Peter Bosch & Rob van der Sandt (eds.), Focus: Linguistic, cognitive, and computational perspectives, 142–165. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Choi, Hye-Won. 1996. Optimizing structure in context: scrambling and information structure. Stanford, CA: Stanford University dissertation.

  • Dalmi, Gréte. 2005. The role of agreement in non-finite predication. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • É. Kiss, Katalin. 1998. Identificational vs. information focus. Language 74(2). 245–273.

  • É. Kiss, Katalin. 2003. Argument scrambling, operator movement, and topic movement in Hungarian. In Simin Karimi (ed.), Word order and scrambling, 22–43. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • É. Kiss, Katalin. 2005. Event types and discourse linking in Hungarian. Linguistics 43(1). 131–154.

  • É. Kiss, Katalin. 2008. Free word order, (non-)configurationality, and phases. Linguistic Inquiry 39(3). 441–475.

  • Fanselow, Gisbert. 2000. Optimal exceptions. In Barbara Stiebels & Dieter Wunderlich (eds.), Lexicon in focus, 173–209. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

  • Fanselow Gisbert. 2003. Zur Generierung der Abfolge der Satzglieder im Deutschen. In Shin Tanaka (ed.), Akten des 30. Linguistenseminars, Kyoto & Tokyo.

  • Ferreira, Fernanda. 1994. Choice of passive voice is affected by verb type and animacy. Journal of Memory and Language 33. 715–736.

  • Frank, Robert, Young-Suk Lee & Owen Rambow. 1996. Scrambling, reconstruction, and subject binding. Rivista di Grammatica Generativa 21. 67–106.

  • Frey, Werner. 2004. A medial topic position for German. Linguistische Berichte 198. 153–190.

  • Frey, Werner. 2005. Zur Syntax der linken Peripherie im Deutschen. In Franz J. d’Avis (ed.), Deutsche Syntax: Empirie und Theorie (Göteborger Germanistische Forschungen 46), 147–171. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.

  • Frey, Werner. 2006. Contrast and movement to the German prefield. In Valéria Molnár & Susanne Winkler (eds.), The architecture of focus, 235–264. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Ganenkov, Dmitry, Timur Maisak & Solmaz Merdanova. 2008. Non-canonical agent marking in Agul. In Helen de Hoop & Peter de Swart (eds.), Differential subject marking, 173–198. Dordrecht: Springer.

  • Gerdts, Donna B. & Cheong Youn. 2001. Korean dative experiencers: The evidence for their status as surface subjects. In Susumu Kuno, Ik-Hwan Lee, John Whitman, Joan Maling, Young-Se Kang, & Young-joo Kim (eds.), Harvard studies in Korean linguistics IX, 317–327. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

  • Grewendorf, Günther. 1989. Ergativity in German. Dordrecht: Foris.

  • Grimshaw, Jane. 1990. Argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Grohmann, Kleanthes. 2003. Prolific peripheries: A radical view from the left. College Park, MD: University of Maryland dissertation.

  • Haider, Hubert & Inger Rosengren. 2003. Scrambling: Nontriggered chain formation in OV languages. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 15(3). 203–267.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 1999. External possession in a European areal perspective. In Doris L. Payne & Immanuel Barshi (eds.), External possession, 109–139. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2001. Non-canonical marking of core arguments in European languages. In Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, Robert M. W. Dixon & Masayuki Onishi (eds.), Non-canonical marking of subjects and objects, 53–83. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Haupt, Friederike S., Matthias Schlesewsky, Dietmar Roehm, Angela D. Friederici & Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2008. The status of subject-object reanalyses in language comprehension architecture. Journal of Memory and Language 59. 54–96.

  • Hoberg, Ursula. 1981. Die Wortstellung in der geschriebenen deutschen Gegenwartssprache. Munich: Hueber.

  • Ichihashi-Nakayama, Kumiko. 1994. On dative ‘subject’ constructions in Nepali. In Carol Genetti (ed.), Aspects of Nepali grammar (Santa Barbara Papers in Linguistics, vol. 6), 41–76. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California, Santa Barbara.

  • Kempen, Gerard & Karin Harbusch. 2003. A corpus study into word order variation in German subordinate clauses: Animacy affects linearization independently of grammatical function assignment. In Thomas Pechmann & Chistopher Habel (eds.), Multidisciplinary approaches to language production, 173–181. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Kim, Youngjoo. 1990. The syntax and semantics of Korean case: The interaction between lexical and syntactic levels of representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University dissertation.

  • Klein, Katharina & Silvia Kutscher. 2002. Psych-verbs and lexical economy (Theorie des Lexikons 122: Arbeiten des Sonderforschungsbereichs 282), 1–41. Düsseldorf: Universität Düsseldorf.

  • Kordoni, Valia. 1999. Lexical semantics and linking in HPSG: The case of psych verb constructions. In Vaila Kordoni (ed.), Tübingen Studies in Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar 132(2) (SFB 340 Bericht), 494–527. Tübingen: Universität Tübingen, Seminar für Sprachwissenschaft.

  • Lambert, Silke. 2010. Beyond recipients: Towards a typology of dative uses. Buffalo, NY: State University of New York at Buffalo dissertation.

  • Lamers, Monique & Helen de Hoop. 2014. Animate object fronting in Dutch. In Brian MacWhinney, Andrej L Malchukov & Edith A. Moravcsik (eds.), Competing motivations in grammar and usage, 42–53. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Lamers, Monique & Kees de Schepper. 2010. Argument linearization in Dutch and German: A multifactorial analysis. Paper presented at the Conference on Competing Motivations, Leipzig, 24 November.

  • Landau, Idan. 2010. The locative syntax of experiencers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Lascaratou, Chryssoula. 1989. A functional approach to constituent order with particular reference to Modern Greek: Implications for language learning and language teaching. Athens: Parousia.

  • Lee, Eunsuk. 2007. Types of scrambling in Korean syntax. Stanford, CA: Stanford University dissertation.

  • Lee, Hanjung. 2001. Optimization in argument expression and interpretation: A unified approach. Stanford, CA: Stanford University dissertation.

  • Lenerz, Jürgen. 1977. Zum Einfluß von “Agens” auf die Wortstellung des Deutschen. In Hans Werner Viethen, Wolf-Dietrich Bald & Konrad Sprengel (eds.), Grammatik und interdisziplinäre Bereiche der Linguistik. Akten des 11. Linguistischen Kolloquiums Aachen 1976, 133–142. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

  • Müller, Gereon. 1999. Optimality, markedness, and word order in German. Linguistics 37(5). 777–818.

  • Müller, Gereon. 2004. Verb-second as vP-first. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 7(3). 179–234.

  • Pesetsky, David. 1987. Binding problems with experiencer verbs. Linguistic Inquiry 18. 126–140.

  • Pesetsky, David. 1995. Zero syntax: Experiencers and cascades. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Philippaki-Warburton, Irene. 1982. I simasia tis siras rima ipokimeno antikimeno sta Nea Ellinika [The importance of the VSO order in Modern Greek]. Studies in Greek Linguistics 3. 135–158.

  • Postal, Paul M. 1971. Cross over phenomena. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

  • Primus, Beatrice. 2004. Protorollen und Verbtyp: Kasusvariaton bei psychischen Verben. In Rolf Kailuweit & Martin Hummel (eds.), Semantische Rollen, 377–401. Tübingen: Narr.

  • R Core Team. 2013. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. (accessed 8 June 2016).

  • Rákosi, György. 2006. Dative experiencer predicates in Hungarian (LOT 146). Utrecht: University of Utrecht dissertation. (accessed 8 June 2016).

  • Rákosi, György. 2014. On dative causers in Hungarian. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 61(1). 91–111.

  • Reinhart, Tanya. 2002. The theta system: An overview. Theoretical Linguistics 28(3). 229–290.

  • Rivero, Maria. L. 2004. Datives and the non-active voice: Reflexive clitics in Balkan languages. In Olga M. Tomíc (ed.), Balkan syntax and semantics, 237–267. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

  • Rudnitskaya, Elena. 2005. The experiencer of non-agentive psych predicates in Korean as a bearer of the prominent discourse role “the subject of a psychological state.” In Sang Jik Rhee (ed.), Proceedings of the 1st European Conference of Korean Linguistics (ECKL 1), 137–150. Seoul: Hankookmunhwasa.

  • Schäfer, Florian. 2007. On the nature of anticausative morphology: External arguments in change-of-state contexts. Stuttgart: University of Stuttgart dissertation.

  • Schäfer, Florian. 2009. The oblique causer construction across languages. In Anisa Schardl, Martin Walkow & Muhammad Abdurrahman (eds.) Proceedings of NELS 38, 297–308. (accessed 13 January 2014).

  • Scheepers, Christoph. 1997. Menschliche Satzverarbeitung: Syntaktische und thematische Aspekte der Wortstellung im Deutschen. Freiburg: Freiburg University dissertation.

  • Scheepers, Christoph, Barbara Hemforth & Lars Konieczny. 2000. Linking syntactic functions with thematic roles: Psych verbs and the resolution of subject-object ambiguity. In Barbara Hemforth & Lars Konieczny (eds.), German sentence processing, 95–135. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Shin, Yong-Min & Elisabeth Verhoeven. 2009. Animacy and argument hierarchy in conflict: Constraints on object topicalization in Korean. In Johannes Helmbrecht, Yoko Nishina, Yong-Min Shin, Stavros Skopeteas & Elisabeth Verhoeven (eds.), Form and function in language research (Trends in Linguistics 210), 107–122. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Skopeteas, Stavros & Gisbert Fanselow. 2009. Effects of givenness and constraints on free word order. In Malte Zimmerman & Caroline Féry (eds.), Information structure: Theoretical, typological, and experimental perspectives, 307–331. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Spyropoulos, Vasilios & Anthi Revithiadou. 2007. Subject chains in Greek and PF processing. In Claire Halpert, Jeremy Hartman & David Hill (eds.), Proceedings of the 2007 workshop in Greek syntax and semantics at MIT, 293–309. Cambridge, MA: MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.

  • Sternefeld, Wolfgang. 1985. On case and binding theory. Konstanz: University of Konstanz dissertation.

  • Thiersch, Craig. 1978. Topics in German syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT dissertation.

  • Tsimpli, Ianthi-Maria. 1995. Focussing in Modern Greek. In Katalin É. Kiss (ed.), Discourse configurational languages, 176–206. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Verhoeven, Elisabeth. 2008. (Non-)canonical marking of experiencer objects: A typological comparison of Chinese, Korean, Turkish, and Modern Greek. Language Typology and Universals 61(1). 81–92.

  • Verhoeven, Elisabeth. 2009. Experiencer objects and object clitics in Modern Greek: Evidence from a corpus study. In Georgios K. Giannakis, Mary Baltazani, Georgios I Xydopoulos & Tassos Tsangalidis (eds.), Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Greek Linguistics, 574–588. University of Ioannina.

  • Verhoeven, Elisabeth. 2010. Agentivity and stativity in experiencer verbs: Implications for a typology of verb classes. Linguistic Typology 14. 213–251.

  • Verhoeven, Elisabeth. 2014. Thematic prominence and animacy asymmetries. Evidence from a cross-linguistic production study. Lingua 143. 129–161.

  • Wegener, Heide. 1998. Der Kasus des EXP. In Marcel Vuillaume (ed.), Die Kasus im Deutschen: Form und Inhalt, 71–84. Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag.

  • Weskott, Thomas, Robin Hörnig, Gisbert Fanselow & Reinhold Kliegl. 2011. Contextual licensing of marked OVS word order in German. Linguistische Berichte 225. 3–18.

  • Zeanen, Annie, Joan Maling & Höskuldur Thráinsson. 1985. Case and grammatical functions: The Icelandic passive. Syntax and Semantics 24. 95–136.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.

Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues

Linguistics publishes articles and book reviews in the traditional disciplines of linguistics as well as in neighboring disciplines insofar as these are deemed to be of interest to linguists and other students of natural language. The journal also features occasional Special Issues in these fields.