LINGUIST List 21.4069

Thu Oct 14 2010

Review: Syntax: Riedel (2009)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

        1.     Daniel Hieber , The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa

Message 1: The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa
Date: 14-Oct-2010
From: Daniel Hieber <>
Subject: The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa
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AUTHOR: Riedel, KristinaTITLE: The Syntax of Object Marking in SambaaSUBTITLE: A Comparative Bantu PerspectiveSERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation series 213PUBSLIHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke - LOTYEAR: 2009

Daniel W. Hieber, Endangered Language Program, Rosetta Stone


This monograph, a dissertation at the Netherlands Graduate School ofLinguistics, examines the status of object markers in Bantu, with a specialfocus on Sambaa, Haya, and Swahili. Since Bresnan and Mchombo's (1987) seminalpaper on Chichewa, there has been considerable debate over the classification ofobject markers in Bantu languages. Following Bresnan and Mchombo's distinctionbetween grammatical and anaphoric agreement, many linguists classify Bantulanguages as either 'agreement' or 'pronominal' languages, referring to theobject marker's status as either an agreement marker or an incorporated pronoun,respectively (see e.g. Baker 2008). In this thesis R considers the arguments foran agreement-pronoun distinction from a Minimalist perspective, and concludesthat such a dichotomy is unfounded. R instead proposes a modified version ofAgree that is flexible enough to account for the varieties of object markingacross Bantu.


In the Introduction, R presents her theoretical position within Minimalistsyntax and gives a general definition of Agree, which she will later modify. Rapproaches her topic cautiously, first presenting six relevant properties whichin her view define an object, and then dismissing notions of primary andsecondary objects in favor of traditional notions of direct and indirectobjects. Behavioral distinctions between direct and indirect objects areexplained as stemming from structural differences in the syntax. R also gives abrief typological overview of object marking across Bantu. In a topic as widelydiscussed and complex as this, such precision in setting up the framework isappreciated.

Chapter 2 then gives a sketch of the Sambaa language, including somesociocultural context and a brief literature review. Some additional notes onHaya and Swahili would have been valuable here, since both languages featureprominently through the rest of the thesis.

Having laid out her framework, R delves into the agreement-pronoun distinctionin Chapter 3. The chapter serves as a thorough literature review, and overviewof the morphosyntactic properties of object markers in several Bantu languages,making it a worthwhile contribution to the field in itself. R treats a varietyof tests meant to distinguish between pronominal and grammatical agreement, andshows how they yield conflicting results when applied to the data. From this sheconcludes ''there is no good evidence for dividing Bantu languages into twogroups based on the syntactic status of the object marker as a pronouns [sic] oragreement marker'' (43). While I find R's reasoning for this position to bewell-argued, she goes on to conclude that either all Bantu languages havegrammatical agreement, or all Bantu languages have pronominal agreement. Thisseems like a hasty generalization: it fails to answer the question of why weshould expect such tests, or the properties of the relevant lexical categories,to hold cross-linguistically in the first place. Additionally, as R herselfpoints out, one still has to account for the behavioral differences between thelanguages.

Chapter 4 is a start at addressing such misgivings. Here, R adopts MultipleAgree, and reformulates it in a way that encompasses crosslinguistic variationin the data. The principle of Equidistance, once thought necessary for Agree(Chomsky 2000) but later abandoned (Chomsky 2001), is here retained as aparameter to explain object asymmetries (Bresnan and Moshi 1990). That is, itexplains why in Haya both objects can be marked on the verb, while in Swahili orSambaa only one may. R also adjusts Agree so that only the Probe is required tohave active features, thus addressing optionality in object-marking. Whilepositing these parameters offers little to no explanatory value, it does lay thegroundwork for a conception of agreement which is flexible enough to handle thedata, and is thus a significant step forward from earlier conceptions of Agree.

Chapter 5 discusses the Person Case Constraint (PCC), which surfaces in Bantulanguages as the ungrammaticality of object agreement when it co-occurs withfirst- and second-person objects in ditransitive constructions. Baker (2008)suggests that the presence or absence of the PCC in a language is a gooddiagnostic for the agreement-pronoun distinction in Bantu. Since Haya and Sambaapattern the same with regard to the PCC and differently in regard to objectagreement, however, R shows that such a test fails to provide any useful metricfor determining agreement.

Chapter 6 examines object marking in various wh-environments. Bresnan andMchombo (1987) used wh-environments as a diagnostic for the agreement-pronoundistinction. However the data is complex, often showing four gradients ofgrammaticality, and R shows that object marking can behave differently dependingon the specific type of wh-context it is in. Since Bresnan and Mchombo did notdistinguish between different types of wh-questions, however, the acceptabilityof object marking in wh-environments cannot be used as a diagnostic foragreement. R suggests that a better predictor of object marking in wh-contextsis animacy, rather than the agreement-pronoun distinction.

Finally, Chapter 7 investigates object marking in coordinate structures, whichare themselves the topic of heated discussion. Bantu languages vary as to whatthe verb agrees with: both conjuncts; just one; takes a default conjunctionagreement; or takes none. In order to account for this variety in the data, Radopts a more fine-grained version of Agree, since the coordinate structure isthought to interfere with agreement. R concludes the book with an excellentsummary, and some thoughtful avenues for further investigation.


A common occurrence throughout the book was disagreement with previous authorsregarding data (and in fact this tends to be a problem for Bantu linguisticsmore generally). This seems like good evidence that the principles underconsideration here are less rigid than R tends to treat them. There is ampleevidence throughout this thesis for more scalar approaches to dealing with thedata, making use of things like processing constraints or linguistic prototypes.As it is, R gives little in the way of explanation for the constraints sheposits. With that said, however, R does an excellent job of summarizing the dataand formulating the rules they follow very precisely. Future researchers havehere an excellent starting point for a number of phenomena and behavioralproperties which are deserving of further exploration.

This book unfortunately could have used some extra copyediting, as the erratawere fairly numerous. Also, it was occasionally difficult to follow the logicalstructure of R's argument, due to slightly awkward sentence structure.

As far as the book's larger structure is concerned, it seemed over-ambitious attimes, oscillating between a typological study of Bantu languages moregenerally, and a focused examination of the three languages Haya, Swahili, andSambaa. Overall, however, the book was very well laid out, progressing from aforceful refutation of previous attempts at drawing out an agreement-pronoundichotomy; to advancing a positive thesis regarding the behavior of Agree; toin-depth discussions of object marking in specific contexts, adapting thetheoretical apparatus to fit the data along the way.

While I might disagree with R's theoretical approach, she has done a service tothe field of syntax by reconceptualizing traditional notions of agreement toencompass a broader range of data, taking into account things like multipleagreement, optional agreement, and animacy/definiteness effects. Her greatestcontribution with this book is to show that the agreement-pronoun distinction,far from being straightforward as previously assumed, is neither useful noraccurate, and that a more nuanced definition of agreement is needed. Anylinguist with an interest in agreement, object marking, theoretical syntax, ortypology would do well to read this book.


Baker, Mark C. 2008. The syntax of agreement and concord. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Bresnan, Joan and Sam A. Mchombo. 1987. Topic, pronoun, and agreement inChichewa. Language 63:741-782.

Bresnan, Joan and Lioba Moshi. 1990. Object asymmetries in comparative Bantusyntax. Linguistic Inquiry 21:147-185.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In Step by step, ed.R. Martin, D. Michaels, and J. Uriagereka, 89-155. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Derivation by phase. In Ken Hale: A life in language, ed.M. Kenstowicz, 1-52. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Danny Hieber is the Editor for the Endangered Language Program at Rosetta Stone, and holds a B.A. in Linguistics and Philosophy from The College of William & Mary in Virginia. His primary interests are endangered language revitalization and documentation, with an eye towards typology and linguistic theory.

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