Definiteness, information structure, and the particle את in BH
In a new series of posts I would like to introduce the research project behind my dissertation. My hope is that in being transparent during the writing process I can receive good feedback beyond my primary readers. The danger of being too transparent, of course, is that someone may borrow some of my ideas. I will hunt you down and force you to listen to the entire Left Behind series on tape as read by Kirk Cameron (I’m sure it exists somewhere).
In Biblical Hebrew, the particle את is used primarily to mark the direct object. However, the distribution of its use does not seem to follow any obvious pattern. It occurs overwhelmingly with objects that are definite, but it is not obligatory with a definite object. Many have suggested that את developed from an emphatic particle, similar to the Greek αὐτός or Latin ipse, and that this use is retained in certain situations. Others, however, have explained the use or non-use of את as a matter of style and authorial choice.
In fact, the use of את for object marking in Biblical Hebrew is typical of a phenomenon that has been found in over 300 diverse languages, termed Differential Object Marking (DOM) by Georg Bossong. Unlike languages with full case systems, such as Classical Arabic or Latin, in DOM systems only a certain set of objects is overtly marked. While languages vary in their sensitivity to a particular parameter, the primary factors conditioning object marking seem to be the definiteness and animacy of the object.
The function of definiteness has proven complex to explain because it has roles in multiple levels of language. As a grammatical category, definiteness is generally considered binary – a given noun phrase is either marked definite or it is not. However, within the broader context of discourse, there is also a sense that definiteness can be a matter of degree based on the type of referring expression used (for instance, pronouns and proper nouns are generally taken to be higher in definiteness than noun phrases marked by the definite article).
This is especially noticeable in the interaction between definiteness and certain other grammatical processes, often termed a “definiteness effect”. For instance, in DOM languages sensitive to definiteness, there is a correlation between the relative “definiteness” of an object and the frequency of marking – the higher an object falls on the definiteness scale, the more likely it is to be marked.
In Biblical Hebrew, the study of definiteness has been somewhat neglected. The grammars suggest that definiteness in Hebrew is similar to English, and thus scholars only work with only an intuitive notion of definiteness. In my research, I will provide an overview of recent work on definiteness and use the profile of object marking to develop the notion of definiteness as a scalar within BH.
Information structure comes into play in the explanation of DOM. Some have argued that DOM serves to help differentiate the subject from the object, while others have suggested that it is related to the transitivity of a clause. However, the influence of definiteness and animacy on grammatical structures seems to be related to the pragmatic role of topic. Topics must be definite, and topic-worthiness is also related to animacy. Roles such as subject and object seem to grammaticalize the structure of a proposition related to the topic, specifically subjects are overwhelmingly definite and animate and are usually taken to be the topic by default. I will argue, therefore, that the role of DOM is not to differentiate subject from object per se, but to specially mark the grammatical role of object when it might compete with the subject in topic-worthiness.