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Review of  The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa

Reviewer: Daniel W Hieber
Book Title: The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa
Book Author: Kristina Riedel
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): Haya
Issue Number: 21.4069

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AUTHOR: Riedel, Kristina
TITLE: The Syntax of Object Marking in Sambaa
SUBTITLE: A Comparative Bantu Perspective
SERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation series 213
PUBSLIHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke - LOT
YEAR: 2009

Daniel W. Hieber, Endangered Language Program, Rosetta Stone


This monograph, a dissertation at the Netherlands Graduate School of
Linguistics, examines the status of object markers in Bantu, with a special
focus on Sambaa, Haya, and Swahili. Since Bresnan and Mchombo's (1987) seminal
paper on Chichewa, there has been considerable debate over the classification of
object markers in Bantu languages. Following Bresnan and Mchombo's distinction
between grammatical and anaphoric agreement, many linguists classify Bantu
languages as either 'agreement' or 'pronominal' languages, referring to the
object 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 for
an agreement-pronoun distinction from a Minimalist perspective, and concludes
that such a dichotomy is unfounded. R instead proposes a modified version of
Agree that is flexible enough to account for the varieties of object marking
across Bantu.


In the Introduction, R presents her theoretical position within Minimalist
syntax and gives a general definition of Agree, which she will later modify. R
approaches her topic cautiously, first presenting six relevant properties which
in her view define an object, and then dismissing notions of primary and
secondary objects in favor of traditional notions of direct and indirect
objects. Behavioral distinctions between direct and indirect objects are
explained as stemming from structural differences in the syntax. R also gives a
brief typological overview of object marking across Bantu. In a topic as widely
discussed and complex as this, such precision in setting up the framework is

Chapter 2 then gives a sketch of the Sambaa language, including some
sociocultural context and a brief literature review. Some additional notes on
Haya and Swahili would have been valuable here, since both languages feature
prominently through the rest of the thesis.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

While I might disagree with R's theoretical approach, she has done a service to
the field of syntax by reconceptualizing traditional notions of agreement to
encompass a broader range of data, taking into account things like multiple
agreement, optional agreement, and animacy/definiteness effects. Her greatest
contribution with this book is to show that the agreement-pronoun distinction,
far from being straightforward as previously assumed, is neither useful nor
accurate, and that a more nuanced definition of agreement is needed. Any
linguist with an interest in agreement, object marking, theoretical syntax, or
typology would do well to read this book.


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

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

Bresnan, Joan and Lioba Moshi. 1990. Object asymmetries in comparative Bantu
syntax. 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.