LINGUIST List 14.1792

Thu Jun 26 2003

Diss: Syntax/Morphology/Estonian: Hiietam

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. katrinhiietam, Definiteness and Grammatical Relations in Estonian

Message 1: Definiteness and Grammatical Relations in Estonian

Date: Thu, 26 Jun 2003 08:13:26 +0000
From: katrinhiietam <>
Subject: Definiteness and Grammatical Relations in Estonian

Institution: University of Manchester
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Katrin Hiietam 

Dissertation Title: Definiteness and Grammatical Relations in Estonian

Linguistic Field: 	Typology

Subject Language: 	Estonian (code: EST )

Dissertation Director 1: Kersti Borjars

Dissertation Abstract: 

This thesis investigates the expression of definiteness in Estonian, a
language traditionally seen as lacking articles. It shows that the
semantic concept of definiteness exists in an article-less language
and that it can be expressed by various means. These expressions
include the use of definite determiners, the use of case marking in
grammatical relations and the discourse pragmatic organisation of
linguistic material. The above three manifestations of definiteness
are respectively connected to the syntactic, morphological and
pragmatic level of the language. The study is based on a data set of
spoken Estonian, which is complemented by samples of written natural

This thesis takes a functional-typological approach and defines the
key terms, such as definiteness marker, subject, object and topic,
based on criteria posited cross-linguistically. The cross-linguistic
criteria for each of these terms are evaluated to establish whether it
would be possible for them to lead to any judgements in relation to
Estonian, and from this the valid characteristics relevant for this
language are distilled. Following this, the data are analysed using
the criteria posited on the above basis for the definite article, and
subject, object and topic in Estonian. Then the tree three claims
outlined below are made:

Firstly, despite the absence of a dedicated syntactic marker of
definiteness in Estonian it is evident that, based on the data, there
is an element that has set off on the path of grammaticalising into a
definiteness marker, namely the unstressed adnominal pronoun see.

Secondly, definiteness can also be expressed morphologically via case
marking in grammatical relations. The case that indicates reduced
transitivity of the clause and therefore often also indefiniteness of
a grammatical relation is the partitive. For subjects, the nominative
is the case indicating definiteness and in relation to objects this
function is filled either by the accusative or the nominative
depending on the syntactic environment. The interaction between case
marking and definiteness for the subject and object relations is
explained in terms of the modified Transitivity Hypothesis originally
posited by Hopper and Thompson (1980).

Thirdly, at the pragmatic level, definiteness can be expressed via
elements that constitute the topic relation in a clause. Due to the
flexible word order in Estonian the topic of the discourse cannot be
defined syntactically but merely semantically as the constituent
indicating 'what the sentence/discourse is about'. The data suggests
that the elements that indicate the most prototypical topical entities
in Estonian are generally pronouns, most commonly the pronominal see,
but also a zero pronoun in the case of the most accessible topics.
Overt and covert pronouns are linked to definiteness since they refer
to already identifiable information.

To conclude, the results that are obtained in the thesis indicate that
definiteness in Estonian is expressed at three levels of the
language. In syntax it is effected by the use of adnominal unstressed
see- marking on noun phrases. In morphology it is efected by
nominative case marking on subjects and nominative and accusative case
marking on objects, which signals identifiability. Finally, at the
pragmatic level zero, pronouns or the pronominal see in the topic
position refer to maximally identifiable entities.
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