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Review of  Coding Participant Marking

Reviewer: Giorgio Iemmolo
Book Title: Coding Participant Marking
Book Author: Gerrit J Dimmendaal
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 21.2959

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EDITOR: Gerrit J. Dimmendaal
TITLE: Coding participant marking: construction types in twelve African languages
SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series 110
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Giorgio Iemmolo, Università di Pavia, Italy.

The book under review is a collection of twelve papers originating from a
typological project on participant marking held at the Institut für Afrikanistik
of the University of Cologne, Germany. The contributions to the volume discuss
issues related to the coding of participant marking (such as case, argument and
event structure, transitivity) based on data from twelve poorly studied African
languages diversified from both a genetic and an areal point of view. The volume
can be of interest to specialists in African languages, as well as to language
typologists and scholars interested in lesser-known languages.


The editor's introductory first chapter (pp. 1-19) gives an overview of the book
coverage, stating the goals of the book and giving useful and well-written
summaries of the individual chapters.

The first paper, by Christa König, concerns the Central Khoisan language !Xun
(pp. 23-53). König accurately describes some interesting features of !Xun from a
typological point of view. !Xun is an isolating language with basic SVO order.
There is neither case nor cross-referencing on the verb: agreement is only
present at the phrase level. Core participants bear zero marking, and
grammatical relations are retrieved by means of word order. Peripheral
participants can be marked by the transitive suffix -a, which basically serves
to increase verbal valency by one: this suffix expresses all the peripheral case
functions. The only pure dependent marking strategy is the preposition ke, which
encodes not-frontshifted peripheral participants and, quite curiously, displaced
DOs; other postpositions have an ambiguous status, following either a head or
dependent pattern. Another crucial strategy for participant marking in !Xun is
the serial verb construction. As for pragmatic features, in !Xun topic and focus
position are clause-initial. The language presents a nearly grammaticalized
topic marker, which obligatorily marks subjects and agents, and can be used with
other participants if they are clause-initial. Interestingly, it is possible to
have double topic marking if the topic is not the subject. Unlike topic, focus
is less grammaticalized.

Schneider-Blum's article (pp. 55-96) deals with the Highland-East-Cushitic
language Alaaba. The author begins by describing the case system of this
language, which is predominantly dependent-marking, and has eight cases within
the nominal paradigm, while the modifier case-system is considerably reduced,
showing only a distinction between nominative and absolutive (accusative). In
the first part, the author discusses some interesting issues regarding 1) the
uses of the various cases, such as the various uses of the absolutive, and 2)
the problems in detecting case-distinctions, such as those between locative and
instrumental, differentiated only for masculine. Subsequently, the author
discusses the pronominal case-system of Alaaba: apart from the independent
pronouns, distinguished for the three persons both in the singular and the
plural, the absolutive, the genitive and the dative are also marked by
pronominal clitics suffixed to the verb. Interesting is the fact that both
absolutive and dative can be used optionally to cross-reference the direct or
indirect object (DO, IO): in ditransitive clauses, only cross-reference to IO is
allowed, because the two suffixes are not differentiated. The second part of the
article concerns verb valency and valency-changing operations: although
monovalency is quite rare in Alaaba, verbs do not have any strict constraint
regarding their valency, as shown in pp. 83-85. In the remainder of the chapter,
valency-changing processes are described. An interesting point illustrated by
the author involves the different case-marking of causee based on the higher or
lower directness in the effects of the action performed by the causer: a more
direct effect is reflected by the use of the absolutive, while the dative is
used for less direct effect.

The third chapter (pp. 97-122), by Hirut Woldemariam, examines participant
marking in the Omotic language Haro (East-Ometo). Haro is an SOV pro-drop
language and shows some interesting features from a typological point of view.
First, there is an interesting interaction between definiteness and case marking
in Haro: all nouns marked for definiteness should be case-marked. This is
compulsory for core cases, that is nominative, absolutive (accusative) and
genitive, which only appear on definite nouns. Peripheral cases, such as dative,
comitative, etc., can also occur with indefinite nouns: when they are suffixed
to definite nouns, they have to be preceded by the genitive case-marker, insofar
as genitive is the base for peripheral case-markers with definite nouns. Haro
exhibits some case syncretism patterns: the first is between genitive and
nominative, a pattern mainly found, to my knowledge, among Omotic languages. The
syncretism between instrumental and comitative is at an incipient stage. Another
interesting point is the strong interplay between focus marking on the one hand
and argument marking, predicate structure and verb morphology on the other.
Focus is marked by default on one sentence constituent, such as adverb, a direct
object in transitive clauses without adverbs, or a verb in an intransitive
clause. Definite nouns cannot be marked for focality: interestingly,
subject-focussing requires verb nominalization. Focused verbs carrying focus
marking only have a two-way aspectual distinction between perfective and
imperfective, while the tense distinction is suspended.

Anne Storch's chapter (pp. 123-140) investigates Hone (Jukun, East-Benue Congo):
this language exhibits very interesting patterns, both from a typological and an
areal point of view. First of all, Hone completely lacks an areal feature of
Chadic-Niger-Congo languages, that is the so-called ''intransitive copy pronoun''
(ICP). ICP is the subject-copying pronoun used in intransitive constructions
beside the preverbal subject marker. It is usually placed after the verb,
occupying the position the DO would have in transitive constructions. More
interestingly, Hone seems to lack intransitivity as a morphological and
syntactic category. As the author shows on pp. 128-130, Hone verbs are always
bivalent: verbs are always followed by a DO (word-order is SVO) and, in the case
of clearly semantically intransitive verbs, such as ''to die'', the post-verbal
position is filled up by a cognate object, which is a verbal noun in the
perfective aspect or a participle in the imperfective aspect. Another
characteristic of Hone is mirativity, which is overtly expressed by a pronoun
consisting of a particle meaning ''with'' plus the personal pronoun base: this
pronoun always follows the verb, because of the strict rigidity of word order in
Hone, and appears only in the perfective aspect.

In the fifth chapter (pp. 141-172), Christa König gives an overview of the
Kuliak (Nilo-Saharan) language Ik. Ik is a verb-initial language, with a quite
elaborated case system. The case system is quite interesting: firstly, a clitic
dummy pronoun is used to mark peripheral participants. Moreover, the case system
for core participants shows some anomalies and irregularities, being defective.
For example, if A refers to the 1st or 2nd person, the DO occurs in the
nominative, giving rise to a case-neutralization pattern. In verb-initial
imperative clauses, all participants are in the oblique case, whereas in
verb-medial imperative clauses, S/A is encoded in the nominative, and the DO in
the oblique. In relative and subordinate clauses with the subjunctive, all core
participants are in the accusative. Finally, in clauses with topicalized DOs,
all participants are in the nominative. Therefore, Ik exhibits a
split-accusative system, with either an accusative pattern or no distinction at
all. Subsequently, König discusses the cross-reference system (obligatory only
for S/A if they are 1st and 2nd person) and the changing-valency devices of Ik.
Remarkable about this language is the fact that head-marking strategies come
into play only when case fails, and vice-versa. König also shows that almost all
elements, such as conjunctions, adpositions, etc. can be case-marked. Finally,
focus structure is highly grammaticalized in this language, being marked by a
copulative marker.

The sixth chapter, by Friederike Lüpke (pp. 173-214), is devoted to the Mande
language Jalonke (Niger-Congo). Jalonke has neither case marking nor
cross-reference/agreement strategies, and grammatical relations are encoded
through word order only (rigid SOV). After discussing some theoretical issues
related to the distinction between arguments and adjuncts, the author deals with
the issue of the identification of lexical categories: she convincingly
demonstrates that there is enough syntactic evidence to assume the distinction
between nouns and verbs in Jalonke. With reference to participant marking, Lüpke
examines the existence and the coding of thematic roles in Jalonke, including
Effectors and Agents, Instruments, Themes, Location and Beneficiaries. In the
remainder of the chapter, a fine-grained analysis of argument structure classes
is presented: the author argues that verb argument structure in Jalonke
encompasses information on participant roles. Moreover, four predicate types are
distinguished, transitive, intransitive, causative/inchoative and reflexive,
based on parameters such as external vs. internal causation, agentivity, etc.
The claims based on the qualitative analysis of Jalonke data are further
confirmed by a quantitative study of lexical argument realization in discourse

The seventh chapter (pp. 215-237), by Christa Kilian-Hatz, deals with Khwe, a
Central-Khoisan language spoken mainly in North-Eastern Namibia. Khwe has highly
flexible word order that can be changed for pragmatic purposes, although there
are still traces of a basic SVO constituent order. Arguments and adjuncts are
mainly encoded via postpositions. The postposition à, related to the Central
Khoisan focus/object marker or copula, is used to mark nominal non-specific
subjects as well as DOs and IOs: interestingly, in sentences with two animate or
human participants, the postposition à is used as a pure object marker.
Peripheral participants are marked by a different postposition: when they are
not definite (as indicated by the person-gender-number suffix), they are marked
by the postposition à, the same used to encode DOs and indefinite subjects.
Remarkable about this postposition is the grammaticalization chain reconstructed
by the author at p. 220: from a copula marker, à grammaticalizes firstly as a
focus marker for subjects and DOs, subsequently as a DO and IO case marker and
finally as an oblique and genitive marker. The main restriction for the
postposition to be used seems to be the indefinite and non-specific status of
the nominal referent. In the remainder of the paper, valency strategies and verb
serialization are analysed.

The eighth chapter, by Felix Ameka (pp. 239-279), focuses on Likpe (Kwa,
Niger-Congo). Likpe has SVO word order, and grammatical relations are retrieved
by means of word order along with S/A cross-reference. There are two sets of
subject cross-reference markers: one set is used in pragmatically unmarked
clauses and the other is used in subordinate and pragmatically marked clauses.
Ameka describes various participant coding patterns in Likpe, such as
transitivity vs. intransitivity, figure-ground reversals and multiple argument
realizations. The author demonstrates that these different constructions are
employed to depict events or participants' roles and involvement in an event
from different perspectives. Through the analysis of the event type of planting
crops (pp. 252-253), he convincingly shows the influence that cultural practices
and beliefs can have on language structure, not only at the semantic-pragmatic
level, but also at the syntactic one. In the remainder of the article, other
devices for encoding participants are presented and analysed, such as the
valency-increasing strategies of causative and associative (the latter used to
add a participant associated with another participant in the event) and the
comitative and locative prepositions. Finally, the author describes serial verb
constructions (SVC), Undergoer voice (UV) and experiential constructions (EC) in
Likpe, discussing some interesting issues related to these constructions from a
cross-linguistic perspective.

In the ninth chapter (pp. 281-303), Peter Kraal looks at a specific construction
of the Bantu language Makonde, namely the so-called ''conjoint-disjoint''
(CJT-DJT) distinction between verbal and nominal forms typical of Bantu
languages. After a brief ethnographic introduction, Kraal presents some typical
Bantu features, and introduces the CJT-DJT distinction. The distinction is
usually expressed by means of phonological processes, such as vowel lengthening
and tonal modification. The author begins his analysis by describing the CJT-DJT
verbal system in one Makonde dialect, Chinnima. CJT forms function as single
phonological phrases (PP) with the following word, whereas DJT tenses form a
phonological phrase on their own. There is a third paradigm, that of
''conjoint-disjoint forms'', which, unlike CJT forms, could constitute a PP on
their own; however, if these forms are followed by a DO or an adjunct, they must
form a phonological phrase with them, unlike DJT forms. The same situation is
roughly mirrored in the specifier system. In Makwe, the other dialect analysed
by Kraal, the CJT-DJT system shows a lot of similarities. However, there are
some interesting differences between conjoint-disjoint forms in Makwe and
Chinnima. Indeed, in Chinnima they can form a PP only if they are not followed
by any other word, while in Makwe they can constitute a PP depending on the way
the speaker wants to structure information. In the last section, the author
provides a functional explanation for CJT and DJT forms, showing how variation
is accounted for by the information structure role of focus.

In the tenth chapter (pp. 305-329), Gerrit Dimmendaal investigates the Eastern
Sudanic language Tama (Nilo-Saharan). The author begins by discussing some
issues related to the Tama phonological system, showing the presence of
cross-height and rounded harmony in Tama, and sketching the tonal oppositions
within the phonological system. Subsequently, he provides some information on
the nominal and verbal system. In the verbal system, Tama quite commonly uses
light-verb constructions, formed by a general meaning verb plus a nominal,
adjectival or adverbial coverb. As for the nominal system, Tima shows the
presence of a specifier, whose function is not yet fully understood, but which
seems to express referentiality, as confirmed by the fact that it is
obligatorily used with nouns modified by a pronominal possessive. In the second
part of the article, participant marking is investigated. Tama is an SOV
language with a dependent-marking pattern, head-marking being limited to
subjects and agents. The nominative is unmarked; accusative is obligatory only
with pronominal DOs, while nominal DOs can be optionally marked, resulting in a
typical differential object marking (DOM) system. At a first glance, DOM in Tama
seems to be governed by the need for distinguishing between agents and patients:
however, as pointed out by Dimmendaal, other pragmatic factors may influence the
presence of overt marking for DOs, but further studies based on texts are needed
in order to clearly determine the factors at play.

In the eleventh chapter (pp. 331-353), Gerrit Dimmendaal provides an initial
outline of the poorly studied language Tima, spoken in Sudan. After a brief
review of the previous studies on the language, Dimmendaal gives a sketch of
Tima phonology. Section two deals with nominal and verbal morphology: Tima has a
highly reduced system of nominal modifiers compared to other Kordofanian
languages. With verbs, a clusivity distinction is found in the first person
plural. Furthermore, the verb may be double inflected for subjects or agents
when it carries specific tense-aspect. On the contrary, there is no
cross-reference to the subject in the presence of a focalized phrase in the
clause. In the remainder of the article, Dimmendaal examines the encoding of
participants and the interaction between syntax and pragmatics in Tima. The
basic word order in Tima is SVO. However, pragmatics appears to strongly
influence word order as well as case marking. For example, in negated clauses,
word order shifts to VSO. More interestingly, focus marking results in a
split-ergative system. The situation is very interesting from a typological
point of view, also because it is quite infrequent cross-linguistically,
split-ergativity being usually conditioned by other factors, such as
tense-aspect, animacy hierarchy, finiteness, etc.

The last chapter, by Azeb Amha (pp. 355-384), deals with the Omotic language
Wolaitta. Wolaitta has SOV word order, which can be changed for pragmatic
reasons, for example to express focus. Case marking is obligatory on both nouns
and pronouns: remarkable about Wolaitta case marking is the fact that indefinite
nouns are not morphologically marked for the accusative. The indefinite
accusative form is also the citation form for nouns, as for other Omotic and
Cushitic languages. Agreement on the verb in Wolaitta only indicates the S/A
roles. Moreover, the language distinguishes declarative and interrogative verb
forms via S/A inflection. Such a system is quite rare from a cross-linguistic
point of view. In the remainder of the article, Amha deals with various issues
related to participant marking. First, she analyses canonical and non-canonical
uses of case-marking depending on verb type, and demonstrates that the
alternation between nominative and accusative to encode the experiencer with
some verbs can only be understood based on the notion of control. When the
experiencer does have some control on the achievement of the event, it is marked
by nominative case; lack of control is coded by accusative case. Second, Amha
provides an initial outline of the switch-reference system in Wolaitta: the
language makes use of morphological markers on dependent verbs to signal whether
the S/A of the subordinate clause is the same or differs from that of the main


This volume is a very interesting and valuable collection of papers on important
and widely discussed topics in current linguistic analysis. The contributions to
the volume cover a large variety of questions pertaining to participant marking,
and present data hardly known to non-specialists. Besides providing new data
from African languages, several papers of this collection also deserve, in my
opinion, special attention from theoretical linguists and typologists, since
they provide important contributions to our understanding of case (Dimmendaal,
König, Woldemariam), raise serious issues on the need for studying argument
structure within discourse (Lüpke), and shed new light on interfaces between
syntax and semantics/pragmatics within the domain of case marking (Amha,
Dimmendaal, Kilian-Hatz, Kraal, Schneider-Blum). Moreover, important theoretical
issues are raised with respect to transitivity theory and lexicalist vs.
constructionist approaches to argument structure (Lüpke, Storch), as well as the
relevance of cultural practices and beliefs in shaping languages (Ameka).

Although my overall evaluation of the book is absolutely positive, I would like
to make a few remarks, both on single papers and the general organization of the
book. My first remark concerns the general ordering of the papers, which shows
no thematic or areal justification but rather follows alphabetical ordering by
language. No cross-referencing among the articles is found to improve cohesion
with respect to similar phenomena, e.g. focus marking. Furthermore, more careful
editorial work could have been done: reading is at times made difficult by the
several typos found in the articles. Some terms, lastly, are not clarified, e.g.
Woldemariam and Kilian-Hatz should have probably explained what is meant by
''absolutive'', used instead of accusative, since the label might be confusing for
readers who are not acquainted with Omotic and Cushitic linguistics.

As for individual chapters, I would like to make three points. In the chapter on
Alaaba, it is unclear why the author considers absolutive (accusative) marking
of the experiencer in example (11), p. 59, ''he is ill'', and absolutive marking
of the reason relation in (12), p. 59, ''I could not come because of the rain'',
as unexpected or unusual. To find experiencers or reason relations marked by the
accusative it is not so infrequent cross-linguistically, e.g. see the Wolaitta
example (18), p. 370, ''I am sick'', presented by Amha, in which the experiencer
is marked by the accusative case. As for reason relations, a number of Amazonian
languages, e.g. Tariana (Aikhenvald 2003), mark them for the accusative.

Another point of criticism is the discussion by Dimmendaal on differential
object marking (DOM). In the introduction to the volume, the author states on p.
13 that ''iconicity […] is not the strategy guiding case marking in languages
using differential object marking. Here, an alternative -- and highly important
-- principle, that of economy, manifests itself''. In the analysis of DOM in
Tama, the author states again that the underlying principle for DOM patterns is
only that of economy, rather than iconicity (p. 327). In an economic DOM system,
overt marking will only be present when there is the need to disambiguate
between the noun phrases. According to the iconicity principle, well represented
in DOM languages, such as Romance languages, overt marking indexes salient
semantic or pragmatic properties of the DO, regardless of the need for
disambiguation. In the Tama examples presented by Dimmendaal, I am not sure that
an economic principle is at play; for instance, in example (71), p. 325, it is
not clear why there would be any need for disambiguation. In the clause ''she hit
the child with a big stick'', the 3rd singular person pronominal is unmarked,
insofar as the nominative is unmarked in the language, whereas the DO ''child'' is
marked by the accusative case. Even if OSV word order were possible, and initial
pronouns ''may be used as topic markers (coindexed with following subjects or
objects)'' (p. 325), the agent is higher than the DO in the animacy hierarchy.
Therefore, the basic interpretation of the clause would see the pronoun as the
agent and the full noun phrase as the DO. The role of ambiguity thus appears to
be too often overemphasized in languages.

Finally, one last observation concerns the case marking description in Wolaitta:
it is not easy to understand (at least for me) whether differential marking
based on definiteness is found when the author states that ''indefinite objects
are not marked for the Accusative case'' (p. 359). Maybe further information on
the situation would be necessary.

To sum up, in spite of minor shortcomings, this collection of papers is a very
valuable contribution to the study of participant marking and related issues
across African languages, and sheds new light on crucial phenomena from both a
typological and a theoretical point of view.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra (2003). A Grammar of Tariana. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Giorgio Iemmolo studied Linguistics, Ancient Greek, Latin and History of the Italian Language at both the University of Palermo and the University of Pavia from 2003-2008. He is currently a PhD Student in Linguistics at the University of Pavia, Italy, where he is working on a typological and diachronic study of Differential Object Marking.