Archive for April 2010

Some Preliminary Results

April 6, 2010

My biggest fear for my dissertation was to get a year into the project and find that the data does not support my hypothesis at all. Thankfully, it seems like that will not be the case. After some preliminary research, everything seems to be lining up quite nicely.

As you may recall, I am interested in definiteness, information structure, and the particle את in BH. Largely following Christopher Lyons, I have described definiteness as a semantic and pragmatic category that has to do with identifiability. As I detailed here, identifiability can be considered a scalar which Ellen Prince has described with a four-part scale:

evoked > unused > inferrable > new

The identifiability of a referent can be encoded by the use of pronouns, proper nouns, and determiners, which can be arranged into an implicational hierarchy:

pronoun > proper noun > definite NP > indefinite NP

Identifiability especially interacts with grammar in the expression of subjects and objects, and the object marker את is an interesting example. Scholars have long noted that the particle את is used with objects that can be considered definite, but beyond this, its distribution has been perplexing. As I mentioned in the first post cited above, however, את is a very typical example of the phenomenon termed differential object marking. In DOM languages the frequency of marking is generally tied to the parameters of animacy and definiteness. Subjects tend to be high in animacy and definiteness, thus the thinking is that object marking is motivated by the desire to distinguish more subject-like objects.

There seems to be a general correlation of את-marking with the implicational hierarchy listed above. Pronouns are obligatorily marked in BH, and in his dissertation on valency, Michael Malessa found that proper nouns were marked 97% of the time. Further, while definite objects where marked 73% of the time, those with human and animate referents were marked 90% and 83% respectively, thus there was an obvious effect of animacy on marking. Malessa, however, did not explore the impact of identifiability on marking.

In my preliminary study, I began by randomly pulling 650 finite verbs from the corpus of SBH. From these, I whittled down a group of 291 simple mono-transitive clauses (no compound objects). Pulling out the proper nouns, I had the following results:

Identifiability Animacy et no et total %
evoked animate 25 1 26 0.96
evoked inanimate 41 7 49 0.84
unused or inferrable animate 16 3 19 0.84
unused or inferrable inanimate 57 33 91 0.63
Totals: 139 44 185 0.75

The sample size is small at this point, but the results are in-line with what I would expect. Objects that are most topic-worthy, being both animate and evoked, are marked 96% of the time. Objects that are high in animacy but low in identifiability (or vice-versa) are marked about 84% of the time, while objects low in both identifiability and animacy are marked only 63% of the time. Overall, definite noun phrases were marked 75% of the time as objects, similar to Malessa’s finding of 73%.

Now I need to scale up the data and investigate some of the other interesting relationships. I will also be investigating the more complex cases such as di-transitive verbs, compound objects, and the use of את with the subject of passives.


Malessa, Michael. Untersuchungen Zur Verbalen Valenz Im Biblischen Hebräisch. Assen: Van Gorcum, 2006.


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