A Question of Alignment II: ‘Trigger Languages’

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.


The notorious term ‘trigger language’ comes up in discussions on Conlang-L as early as 1995, where it may well have originated as an established term in the fictional-language community for what will be described below in brief. That is, I have not been able to find any earlier mentions of the term ‘trigger’ as referring to an alignment system in the archives; other mainstays of the fictional-language community, such as the ZBB, were established only about a decade later. In a message dated December 16, 1995, John Cowan writes that he wants “to propose a reform of Radilu, to make it use the Tagalog concept of a trigger” (Cowan 1995). By his definition, this entails that

each clause contains one noun phrase which is not marked for case, but rather has a distinct marking called the “trigger marker”. […] The verb carries a marking (which of course looks nothing like the noun case markers) that tells the true case of the trigger. […] This involves changing the name of “nominative” and “accusative” to “actor” and “patent” [sic], since there is no longer a “subject” or “object” as such. Of course, word order is free (Cowan 1995)

He also notes that “Usually the trigger is definite (Tagalog doesn’t have articles)” (Cowan 1995). Essentially, it seems that the motivation for Cowan’s system is that the ‘trigger’ indicates that a certain NP is definite. As we will see further on, this is similar to how Tagalog marks one of its relations on the verb, with that relation being definite. Things are more complicated in reality, though. Especially the claim that Tagalog lacks subjects and objects is problematic. However, the term ‘trigger’ seems to have currency in that, for instance, Schachter (2015) chooses it explicitly to refer to the “non-case-marked argument” (1659). In a parenthetical remark he adds that some

previous treatments have referred to the argument in question as the topic and some as the subject. However, as will become clear below, each of these labels appears to carry some inappropriate connotation, making a netural term like Trigger seem preferable […] There also seems to be good reason to reject the term focus. (Schachter 2015: 1659)

It may be noted that term ‘focus’ is used in Schachter and Otanes (1972), the main reference grammar of Tagalog. What is interesting in comparing Schachter (2015)’s and Kroeger (1991)’s respective analyses of Tagalog’s syntactic alignment is that both make the same observation in spite of coming to opposite conclusions: Tagalog is ambiguous as to whether the subject notion is vested in the NP whose role is marked on the verb or the actor, since certain syntactic constructions typically associated with subjects apply to either or both. While this ambiguity leads Schachter (1976, 2015) to ultimately conclude that Tagalog lacks a single unified relation which can be analyzed as a syntactic subject,1 Kroeger (1991) reaches the opposite conclusion by performing further tests and taking a functionalist rather than purely structuralist perspective. Thus, he concludes:

  • “Tagalog has a well-defined grammatical subject” (225). What Schachter (1976) lists as evidence against are special cases which can be explained by the high semantic and pragmatic prominence of actors more generally (Kroeger 1991: 225). Tagalog basically applies the the notion of a logical subject distinct from the syntactic subject to some constructions, though the syntactic subject is more important overall (36).
  • “grammatical relations are defined independently of phrase structure” (225);2
  • “patients can become subjects even when the agent is expressed as a direct (non-oblique) argument of the verb” (225).
  • “Subject selection in Tagalog does not work by demotion or suppression of thematically more prominent arguments. Rather, all arguments seem to be equally eligible for mapping onto the subject relation” (226).

Kroeger (1991) also provides evidence based on statistics and examples that the marked-for relation, which he classifies as being in the nominative case according to his hypothesis that it is the syntactic subject, is neither especially salient in terms of pragmatic topichood, nor does it show signs of carrying pragmatic focus specifically. He finds that rather, nominative marking works independent of discourse functions (56 ff.). All things considered, the term ‘trigger language’ is probably ill-fitting, not just for Ayeri.

The tests for typical properties associated with grammatical subjects which Kroeger (1991) performs partially extend those presented in Schachter (1976). Moreover, his conclusions build on a more modern, functionally oriented approach than Schachter’s. For this reason, I will follow Kroeger rather than Schachter. Either way, in order to compare what is going on in Ayeri, we will have to test verb agreement, syntactic pivot, relativization, control of secondary predicates, raising, and control.3 First of all, it will be helpful, however, to define some terms which will be used in the discussion further on.

  1. Cowan (1995)’s sketch may be based on Schachter (1976). Curiously, Schachter (2015) does not acknowledge Kroeger (1991) at all, nor does he refer to any other research more recent than 1985. The reason may be that Schachter retired in the early 1990s, as the UCLA linguistics department’s Department history suggests.
  2. This point especially may be a problem for generative theories of syntax.
  3. The tests which Kroeger (1991) dismisses as irrelevant to determining subjecthood in Tagalog have been omitted here if they were also not profitable to answering this question for Ayeri. The same goes for a number of tests which are specific to the grammar of Tagalog and thus have no application in Ayeri.

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