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Review of  Case and Agreement from Fringe to Core

Reviewer: Peter M. Arkadiev
Book Title: Case and Agreement from Fringe to Core
Book Author: Stefan Keine
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 22.2151

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AUTHOR: Stefan Keine
TITLE: Case and Agreement from Fringe to Core
SUBTITLE: A Minimalist Approach
SERIES TITLE: Linguistische Arbeiten 536
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2010

Peter M. Arkadiev, Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow


The book proposes a novel account of an array of at first glance disparate facts
having to do with non-trivial interaction of case and agreement. These include
differential case marking in modern Indo-Aryan languages, the so-called
agreement ''displacement'' in Basque and Itelmen, the nominative objects of dative
subject verbs in Icelandic, ''global'' case splits in Umatilla Sahaptin and Kolyma
Yukaghir, ''pseudo-antipassives'' in Nez Perce, ''pseudo-incorporation'' in Niuean,
and other phenomena deviating from what is usually assumed to be the ''canonical''
encoding of arguments which are problematic for both generative and
non-generative theories of case and agreement.

The account proposed in the book is couched in the current Minimalist syntax and
Distributed Morphology, but is unorthodox in several ways. The most important
innovation proposed by Keine concerns the relations between the two operations
hitherto considered to be extrinsically ordered: Agree and Impoverishment. The
''classic'' Distributed Morphology approach assumes that Impoverishment operates
in morphology while Agree applies in narrow syntax, thus all Agree operations
necessarily apply before all Impoverishment operations. Keine, however, argues
that the phenomena treated in the book can be accounted for if Agree and
Impoverishment are allowed to interact, in particular if Impoverishment can
apply before Agree. This move has important consequences for the whole
architecture of grammar.

Second, Keine proposes to treat Impoverishment not as constituting arbitrary
rules deleting arbitrary features or values in the context of other arbitrary
features or values, but as reflecting independently established feature
hierarchies proposed in functional-typological literature and formally
implemented via the mechanism of Optimality Theory. This suggests a more
restrictive and principled theory of Impoverishment able to make empirically
testable predictions about possible and impossible structures.

Third, Keine assumes that case assignment and verb agreement are handled by
different applications of Agree (k-Agree and phi-Agree, in his terminology), not
as two facets of a single operation. This allows for k-Agree and phi-Agree to be
differently ordered in different languages, and for Impoverishment to apply
after k‑Agree but before phi-Agree or vice versa. Though potentially
overgenerating, this proposal seems fully justified in the light of the
empirical data suggesting that case marking and agreement are to a large extent
independent phenomena.

The book consists of a short Preface, eight chapters (including Introduction and
Conclusions), a list of abbreviations, references and a subject index. In the
Introduction (p. 1-4), Keine states his research questions, outlines the main
tenets of his proposal, and gives a short summary of the book.

Chapter 2, ''Theoretical Background'' (p. 5-35), provides a useful summary of the
theoretical assumptions of the book. These include the basics of Distributed
Morphology and the mechanism of Impoverishment, the notions of iconicity,
markedness, feature hierarchies and the concomitant Optimality-Theoretic
apparatus, and the operation Agree. With respect to Impoverishment it is claimed
that if it ''applies to a certain type of argument, it also applies to all less
marked types'' (p. 20), where ''markedness'' is understood in terms of such
well-known feature hierarchies as person scale, definiteness scale, animacy
scale etc. In relation to the operation Agree the notion of ''agreement opacity''
is also discussed, whereby ''the presence of certain language-specific case
features on a DP renders this DP incapable of acting as a goal for Agree'' (p.
30). It is also assumed, as already mentioned above, following some previous
literature, that ''case and agreement dependencies are established by separate
instances of Agree operations''.

In chapter 3, ''The Input to Agree'' (p. 37--67), Keine starts with an observation
that in different languages and in different situations there exist two kinds of
input to Agree operations, i.e. morphological case and abstract case, and then
proposes a unified account of both phenomena in terms of different interactions
of Impoverishment and Agree. The first case is illustrated by Hindi, where verbs
only agree with zero-marked DPs; the situation of abstract case feeding
agreement is attested in Warlpiri, where subjects trigger agreement regardless
of being marked ergative or absolutive. However, the crucial data comes from
Marathi and Punjabi, where verbal agreement requires access to both abstract and
morphological case.

The proposal which explains the observed differences in case-agreement
interactions assumes that Impoverishment and Agree apply cyclically in the same
module of grammar. Thus Impoverishment can feed or bleed Agree, and modify the
content of agreement. The ordering of Impoverishment and Agree operations is not
extrinsic, but is claimed to be governed by language specific constraint
interaction. A constraint on the locality of Impoverishment is proposed (p. 57):
''Impoverishment is only sensitive to features within a single syntactic head and
its syntactic configuration'', which prevents verbal features from triggering
Impoverishment in nominals and the other way round.

Turning to the empirical application of the proposal, for Hindi it is claimed
that both subjects and objects originate as fully specified for insertion of the
Ergative /-ne/ and Accusative /-ko/ case markers. The relevant case
(sub)features render these DPs opaque for Agree. However, Impoverishment
operations motivated by functional constraint hierarchies delete case features
on the object if it is non-human and non-specific, and on the subject in the
context of the imperfective aspect. Crucially, these instances of Impoverishment
apply before agreement takes place, thus deriving the effect of the sensitivity
of Hindi verbal agreement to the morphological case. The intricate difference
between Hindi, on the one hand, and Marathi and Punjabi, on the other, is
explained by another Impoverishment operation active in the latter two languages
and sensitive to the person of the subject. It prevents 1st and 2nd person
subjects from getting ergative case-marking but does not render them accessible
for phi-Agree. The analysis is consistent with the assumption that
Impoverishment in these languages applies before phi-Agree but after k‑Agree.

Chapter 4, ''Eccentric Agreement'' (p. 69--106), extends the analysis to the
apparently very different kind of phenomenon, i.e. the so-called ''ergative
displacement'' and ''dative displacement'' in Basque and Itelmen. It is argued that
agreement with the ''wrong'' controller becomes possible when Impoverishment
operations delete phi-features and thus render the ''canonical'' controller
unavailable for Agree. In particular, both in Basque and in Itelmen person
features are deleted from 3rd person objects, thus bleeding agreement. In
addition, in Basque the [+subject] feature is impoverished in the context of the
non-present tense, in compliance with a universal hierarchy of tense, making the
subject available for agreement. Similarly, ''dative displacement'' (agreement
with the Dative indirect object instead of the ''canonical'' direct object)
attested in various languages is treated as resulting from the Impoverishment
rule deleting the [+oblique] feature, which otherwise renders the indirect
object opaque for phi‑Agree, in the context of certain other features of that
DP. It is shown that cross-linguistically ''dative displacement'' obeys the
person/topicality scale ''1 > 2 > 3.topical > 3.non‑topical'' (p. 98): ''if a
language allows agreement with a dative having a certain property'' on this
scale, ''then it allows agreement with all datives having properties on its left''.

In addition, Keine argues that his analysis presents an essentially unified
account of both ''eccentric agreement'' in Basque and Itelmen and tense-aspect
split ergativity in Hindi and other languages. The difference between the two
lies in the fact that in Hindi impoverishment affects both case and agreement,
whereas in Basque only agreement is modified. This is claimed to be due to the
feature content of case markers in these languages: in Hindi, the ergative /-ne/
is specified for [+subject] and does not appear when this feature is
impoverished on the DP, whereas the Basque ergative case marker /-k/, as Keine
argues on independent grounds, does not contain this feature, so its deletion
does not affect the surface case marking of the subject. The two languages
differ also in the conditions on phi-opaqueness. Thus the difference between two
phenomena which on the surface do not seem to have much in common boils down to
language particular factors affecting identical general mechanisms of
scale-driven Impoverishment interacting with Agree.

In chapter 5, ''Icelandic Nominative Objects'' (p. 107--127), Keine shows how his
analysis can explain case marking and agreement in the Icelandic constructions
with dative subjects and nominative objects. The following facts are accounted
for: (i) that assignment of dative to the subjects requires the nominative
appearing on the object; (ii) that nominative objects do not behave
syntactically like nominative subjects; (iii) that only 3rd person nominative
objects trigger verbal agreement, while 1st and 2nd person objects either
require default (3rd person singular) agreement or are illicit at all. These
facts are analysed under the assumption that the feature [+governed] relevant
for the surface accusative case is impoverished on the verbal head prior to its
assignment to the object. Thus the object appears in the default nominative case
but still does not behave as a subject since it is not assigned the [--object]
feature. After k-Agree has taken place, further impoverishment rule deleting
[--subject] feature from the 3rd person object can apply, rendering the object
accessible for phi-Agree. 1st and 2nd objects with dative subject verbs are thus
correctly predicted not to trigger agreement despite their nominative
case-marking. Variability in the grammaticality of sentences with non-3rd person
nominative objects depends on the availability of default agreement for
particular speakers, which is consistent with the fact that person effects on
nominative objects are lacking in non-finite configurations showing no agreement
at all.

In chapter 6, ''Global case splits'' (pp. 129-160), Keine discusses intriguing
situations where the case-marking of one argument DP apparently depends on some
properties of another argument DP, attested in such languages as Umatilla
Sahaptin, Yurok and Kolyma Yukaghir. In Umatilla Sahaptin the ergative case
marker appears only on 3rd person singular subjects and only in the context of
1st or 2nd person object. This at first sight seems to violate the strict
head-locality of Impoverishment and vocabulary insertion. However, Keine argues
that such data can be accommodated into his analysis under the assumption that
first phi-agreement with both arguments creates on the verbal head a feature
configuration which then may undergo scale-driven Impoverishment; only then
k-agreement assigns either full or impoverished feature matrices to the
arguments, thus making it possible for the case-marking on the subject to be
sensitive to the person features of the object. Similar logic is shown to work
for Yurok, where 1st and 2nd person singular objects are case marked when a 3rd
person subject is present.

The situation in Kolyma Yukaghir is especially complex. Here four case markers
(one of them zero) can appear on the object depending both on its own person and
definiteness features and on the person features of the subject. Kolyma Yukaghir
is different from Yurok and Umatilla Sahaptin in that it does not show any overt
object agreement, thus suggesting that only the subject's phi-features are
represented in the verbal head prior to k-agreement. The case splits are
accounted for under the assumption that phi-agreement with the subject can feed
Impoverishment of the case features to be assigned to the object. After k-Agree
has operated, further Impoverishment operations, now on the object itself,
affect case-marking.

The general typological distinction between ''local'' and ''global'' case-splits is
argued to result from the ordering of phi-Agree and k-Agree: in languages like
Hindi and Basque k-agree applies first and prevents the features of one DP to
affect the feature content of the other DP with the mediation of the verb. By
contrast, in languages like Umatilla Sahaptin and Kolyma Yukaghir, phi-Agree
applies prior to k-agree, thus creating environments where features of subject
and object can interact. So both types of case split involve the same
morphosyntactic mechanisms and constraints, which are just differently ordered.

In chapter, 7 ''Sigma-Impoverishment'' (pp. 161-197), Keine discusses a further
possibility of the interaction of Impoverishment and Agree, i.e. application of
Impoverishment before any Agree operations thus deleting unvalued features. This
operation turns out to be necessary for an account of such facts as the
so-called Pseudo-Antipassive in Nez Perce and Pseudo-Incorporation in Niuean. In
Nez Perce transitive clauses two kinds of marking are attested: the one with the
verb showing agreement with subject and object, both of which receive overt
case-marking, and the other (the Pseudo-Antipassive construction), where neither
subject nor object are case-marked, and the verb agreement follows the
intransitive pattern as if the object was not there at all. Keine proposes to
treat these facts as involving the so-called ''Sigma-Impoverishment'', i.e.
hierarchically conditioned deletion of unvalued case, person and number features
(which Keine calls ''Sigma-features'') from the object DP, which makes it
invisible for further Agree operations. This analysis makes an interesting
prediction (p. 179): Since the Sigma-impoverished DPs do not participate in
Agree operations, they must receive no case-marking at all even in those
languages where there are no zero case-markers. This is borne out in the case of
the Pseudo-Incorporation in Niuean, where non-specific objects appear without
case-markers, while all other kinds of DPs are overtly case-marked. In a similar
vein Keine analyses the construction with indefinite objects in Selayarese,
where only verbal agreement is affected by Sigma-Impoverishment. Finally, the
analysis in terms of Sigma-Impoverishment is extended to ''canonical''
antipassives (involving special morphological marking on the verb and oblique
marking of the object, as in West Greenlandic). It is claimed that here
Impoverishment affects not just the Sigma-features of the object, but all its
features so that it is not realized phonologically at all, and can be
subsequently bound by an oblique adjunct DP. A common trait of all these cases
is that Sigma-Impoverishment applies to ''canonical'' objects (low on
definiteness/topicality scales) before any Agree operations have taken place.

The last chapter, ''Concluding Remarks'' (pp. 199-210), summarizes the main
results of the book and offers a brief discussion of such problems as the module
of grammar where Agree and Impoverishment apply (i.e. syntax vs. morphology) and
the role of markedness scales and functional motivation, of Optimality Theory
and of impoverishment in grammar.


I consider Stefan Keine's book an important (truly groundbreaking) contribution
to the generative study of case and agreement, as well as to the more general
problems pertaining to the architecture and mechanisms of grammar. It offers a
highly appealing, technically simple, and conceptually uniform account of a
number of apparently disparate phenomena from languages as diverse as Icelandic,
Hindi, and Nez Perce, many of which have been poorly understood before. I think
that the main conceptual innovation of this book, namely the claim that
Impoverishment and Agree interact in various ways in the same module of grammar,
is a welcome improvement of the architecture of grammar assumed in Minimalism.
It not only facilitates a unified account of the facts discussed in the book,
but also makes a number of interesting empirical predictions and opens a vast
perspective of possible potentially valid analyses of other kinds of data.

Besides that, I would like to praise the author for explicitly and convincingly
showing that a formalist generative apparatus can easily accommodate and make
profit of such functionalist concepts as markedness scales, feature hierarchies,
and iconicity. Though these notions have been employed in generative theorizing
at least since the early days of Optimality Theory, the plea for a ''functional
motivation'' of grammatical operations made by Keine on p. 207 of his book is the
strongest one I have ever encountered in the Minimalist literature. I believe
that Keine's approach offers potential new fields of fruitful interaction
between open-minded linguists belonging to both ''camps'' of theoretical linguistics.

This said, I would like however to point out a few problems with Keine's
approach, as well as to make several minor critical observations.

All the particular analyses of individual cases discussed in the book crucially
depend on the (a priori) feature specification of subjects and objects and of
case-markers. Keine adheres to a decompositional approach to case, whereby
individual case values such as ''Nominative'', ''Ergative'', ''Accusative'' etc. are
considered bundles of primitive features, such as [+/--governed], [+/--subject],
[+/--oblique] etc. Presence of these features, for instance, make DPs opaque for
phi-agreement; precisely these features get deleted when scale-driven
Impoverishment applies. In several places of the book (e.g. with respect to
Hindi vs. Nepali on p. 105-106, and with respect to Basque vs. Hindi on p.
100-101) Keine argues that apparently similar case-markers such as Ergative in
fact show different feature specification. This move is needed to account for
the differing behaviour of these markers with respect to Impoverishment and
Agree operations. Though in these particular cases Keine's proposals seem
justified, I see here a potential for overgeneration and circularity, since
virtually ad hoc feature specifications are assigned to case values and case
markers in order for the analysis to work correctly. On the empirical side, I
consider potentially problematic the analysis of Hindi facts, since it does not
seem to be straightforwardly extendible to the data from Iranian languages
discussed for instance in Haig 2008. These languages show patterns of
case-marking and agreement more or less similar to Hindi, and the most important
difference is that the Iranian languages employ the same case marker both for
''non-canonical'' subjects (in the past tense) and for ''non-canonical''
(animate/definite) objects. Thus an entirely different feature specification for
these ''oblique'' case markers is needed. I do not intend to say that these data
necessarily invalidate Keine's analysis; rather I find it unfortunate that he
did not include a discussion of these important data in his book; it would have
enhanced his argument both empirically and conceptually.

Another point concerns Keine's handling of the ''functional'' notions of
iconicity, markedness, and feature hierarchy. First of all, Keine seems to be
ignorant of the recent debates on the very validity of these notions in such
works as Haspelmath 2006 on markedness, Haspelmath 2009 on iconicity, and Bickel
2008, Bickel & Witzlack-Makarevich 2008 on feature hierarchies. It is surprising
that his definition of iconicity on p. 15 does not contain references to the
influential functional work by Haiman (1980 and subsequent papers). Second, and
more importantly, Keine's argumentation is based on the rather controversial
assumption that ''canonical'' objects which may undergo scale-driven feature
Impoverishment are inanimate or indefinite or non-specific. This assumption,
indeed held by some functional linguists after work by Comrie (1979) and
introduced into the formalist paradigm by Aissen (2003), has been recently
strongly criticized by Næss (2004, 2007). The main problem with the assumption
that less prominent objects are canonical lies in the fact, actually discussed
in chapter 7 of the book, that such objects often do not behave as syntactic
objects at all. For instance, they may trigger the appearance of an intransitive
construction, which Keine captures by his Sigma-Impoverishment. It seems highly
eccentric, in my opinion, to treat as canonical those objects whose presence
requires intransitive (i.e. subject-only) morphosyntax (p. 165), let alone those
which can be impoverished to such a degree as not to appear in surface syntax at
all (p. 196).

Turning to minor remarks, I think it is a serious gap in Keine's bibliography
that he does not mention work by Andrew Spencer, e.g. Spencer 2006, with respect
to the discussion of morphological vs. syntactic case and their mismatches.
Returning to the problems with feature specifications, I do not see any
independent evidence for postulating Absolutive and Ergative cases for Itelmen
(p. 85); since Itelmen does not overtly case mark subjects and direct objects in
the first place, these case values are as vacuous and ad hoc as, say, Nominative
and Absolutive. I find unattractive and running counter the empirically-oriented
trend of the book the assumption that Tauya verbs exhibit ''abstract agreement''
in animacy with their objects (fn. 17 on p. 159). That the theory allows
''abstract agreement'' between a verbal head and its arguments in arbitrary
features leads to overgeneration and a decrease in explanatory adequacy; such
stipulative moves are definitely to be avoided.

I would like to observe that Keine apparently did not notice an interesting
empirical prediction following from his analysis of the ''global'' case splits in
chapter 7. If such case splits, where the marking of one DP depends on the
features of the other DP, always result from features of subject and object
being transferred to the verbal head via phi-Agree before k-Agree assigns case
features to these DPs, then they are predicted to be impossible in languages
with no overt verbal agreement whatsoever (unless such unjustified mechanisms as
''abstract agreement'' are called into play). It would be extremely interesting
and fruitful to test this prediction against cross-linguistic data.

It is not very clear from the discussion of Nez Perce in section 7.1 which
features are triggering the ''Pseudo-Antipassive'' construction. In particular, it
is surprising that in (19b) on p. 175 this construction is translated with the
use of a definite article, which contradicts the claim that non-specific objects
appear in this construction. On p. 177 it is proposed that in Nez Perce
ditransitives the direct object receives a special ''dative'' case which is
realized morphologically as zero. It is not spelled out, however, which feature
specification this case value has and how its being zero-marked conforms to the
assumptions about markedness and iconicity held throughout the book. It must be
said with respect to the Instrumental advancement in Niuean that the details of
the analysis and the syntactic structure of clauses with Instrumental DPs are
not spelled out in sufficient detail. I think the author should have been more
explicit in these interesting cases.

There are not many typos in the book; however, I'd like to mention one which
seems to be particularly misleading: on p. 206 ''marked'' is written instead of
''unmarked'', which contradicts a similar statement on p. 19.

To conclude, in spite of several problematic issues and inaccuracies which I
have mentioned above, I consider Stefan Keine's book a very valuable and
important contribution to the cross-linguistic study of case and agreement, as
well as to the theorizing about the architecture of grammar in the Minimalist
theory. I think that reading this book might be rewarding not only to those who
approach language from the Minimalist position, but also to those typologically
and functionally oriented linguists who are open-minded enough to try to
understand the goals and methods of the generative enterprise and to acknowledge
its insights. I would also like to advise the author to try to considerably
extend the empirical base of his work, providing analyses of data from even more
languages, thus testing the predictions and explanatory force of his theory.


Aissen, Judith (2003). Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. economy. In:
Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 21/3, 435-483.

Bickel, Balthasar (2008). On the scope of the referential hierarchy in the
typology of grammatical relations. In: G. Corbett & M. Noonan (eds.), Case and
Grammatical Relations. Studies in Honor of Bernard Comrie, 191-210. Amsterdam,
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Bickel, Balthasar, and Alena Witzlack-Makarevich (2008). Referential scales and
case-alignment: Reviewing the typological evidence. In: M. Richards, A.
Malchukov (eds.), Scales, 1--37 (Linguistische Arbeits-Berichte 86, Universität

Comrie, Bernard (1979). Definite and animate direct objects: A natural class.
In: Linguistica Silesiana 3, 13-21.

Haig, Geoffrey (2008). Alignment Change in Iranian Languages: A Construction
Grammar Approach. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Haiman, John (1980). The iconicity of grammar: Isomorphism and motivation. In:
Language 56/3, 515-540.

Haspelmath, Martin (2006). Against markedness (and what to replace it with). In:
Journal of Linguistics 42/1, 25-70.

Haspelmath, Martin (2009). Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical
asymmetries. In: Cognitive Linguistics 19/1, 1-33.

Næss, Åshild (2004). What markedness marks: The markedness problem with direct
objects. In: Lingua, 114/7, 1186-1212.

Næss, Åshild (2007). Prototypical Transitivity. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John

Spencer, Andrew (2006). Syntactic vs. morphological case: Implications for
morphosyntax. In: L. Kulikov et al. (eds.), Case, Valency, and Transitivity,
3-22. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Peter M. Arkadiev, PhD in linguistics (2006), is a senior research fellow in the Department of Typology and Comparative Linguistics of the Institute of Slavic studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His main interests are linguistic typology with a focus on case marking and argument structure and its formal realization, and tense-aspect-modality. He works mainly on Lithuanian and Adyghe.