A Question of Alignment III: Definition of Terms

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 terms ‘subject’, ‘topic’, and ‘focus’ were already used a number of times before in this series, but it seems advisable to sketch out working definitions in order to preclude confusion before continuing to look at how Ayeri fares with regards to some of these notions. As we will see, all of subject, topic, and focus relate to different ways in which the relative prominence of certain NPs is raised; subject and topic are also closely related to each other. It ought to be noted that while LFG treats topic and focus as grammaticalized discourse functions outside of the argument-structure frame of a verb, it treats the subject as both a discourse function and an argument function; topic and focus, on the other hand, must be identified with a corresponding argument function, for instance, SUBJ or OBJ (Bresnan et al. 2016: 99–100).


First things first, the subject can be defined in a variety of ways, and maybe especially because the notion of a subject is so basic, Comrie (1989) notes that if

linguists were invariably in agreement in stating which noun phrase, in each construction in each language, is the subject, then we could, perhaps, accept this inter-subjective agreement, and devote correspondingly less energy to trying to find an explicit definition of subject. However, it turns out that, in a wide range of cases, this inter-subjective agreement is lacking. (Comrie 1989: 104)

Dixon (2010) defines a subject as “the entity about which something is affirmed or denied” (76). He goes on to explain that, ignoring copula clauses like ‘We are tired and thirsty’, every language has two varieties of clauses, intransitive ones, where the verb has just one core argument, and transitive ones, where the verb has two core arguments. A basic definition based on this is given by the chart in (1).

    1. nominative–accusative alignment (S/A—P):

    2. ergative–absolutive alignment (S/P—A):

The chart in (1) shows the definition of the notion of subject for both nominative–accusative languages and ergative–absolutive languages. Languages of the world differ based on how they prefer to treat the two nominal relations of a transitive verb in relation to intransitive verbs: they may have a strong preference to either treat the agent (A)—the entity that prototypically acts in some way—or the patient/undergoer/theme (P)—the entity which is prototypically affected by the action in some way—the same as S, the sole argument of an intransitive verb. In the former case, the language is said to have NOMACC alignment (1a) (S/A is the ‘nominative’ subject), whereas in the latter case, the language is said to have ERGABS alignment (1b) (S/P is the ‘absolutive’ subject). Comrie (1989) illustrates this difference with an example from Chukchi, which we will here contrast with English:1

  1. Chukchi (adapted from Comrie 1989: 104):

While English treats the actor of the intransitive sentence (2a) the same as that of the transitive one (2b)—both sentences use I in the nominative—Chukchi appears to use a different pronoun for the actor of the intransitive sentence (3a) than the actor of the transitive one (3b)—absolutive ɣəm versus ergative ɣəmnan, respectively. At least in Standard English, it would be ungrammatical to use the pronoun me in place of I in (2b), since me can only be used for first-person objects of the verb, but not for subjects of transitive clauses.

However, Comrie (1989) also urges to consider that grammatical relations and their representation in morphology are not always as clear-cut as in the example above. While he characterizes the prototypical subject as the intersection of agent and topic as far as cross-linguistic evidence is concerned (107), he also points out that subjects do not necessarily have to unite all the properties typically associated with them (110). This seems to be the case with Tagalog, for instance, as observed by both Schachter (1976) and Kroeger (1991), and may considerably complicate making a definitive statement.

Moreover, Comrie (1989) points out that statistically, languages of the world show a strong preference for NOMACC alignment, possibly due to the fact that human perception values actors as more relevant to discourse than patients, which is why actors are far more likely also to be pragmatic topics (120). Yet, though, dominantly NOMACC-aligned languages may show a bias towards an ERGABS treatment, for instance, of resultative constructions. On the other hand, dominantly ERGABS languages show a bias towards a NOMACC treatment, for instance, of addressees of imperatives (116–119).

According to Carnie (2013), from the point of view of constituent structure (which is key in Generative Grammar), a subject is conventionally understood as a “DP that has the property indicated by the predicate phrase. What the sentence is about. In most sentences, this surfaces in the specifier of [the tense phrase]” (221). However, as we have seen above, this notion is challenged by languages such as Tagalog (Kroeger 1991: 225). What Carnie (2013) refers to in terms of constituent structure is basically indicated by (4). For systemic reasons, Carnie (2013) refers to a DP subject which serves as the specifier of a TP. This corresponds to the subject NP and the IP here. Unlike GG, LFG treats tense as a semantic feature, not as a functional head with a fixed position in constituent structure, hence the difference in labeling.

LFG defines a subject function, SUBJ. Which argument of the verb the subject is mapped onto is understood to be based on the relative prominence of the subject argument along some dimension compared to other arguments. For instance, NOMACC languages prefer the semantically most prominent available role of a verb’s argument structure, ERGABS languages instead pick the argument most affected by the actor’s action, and active languages focus on the argument in control of the action (Bresnan et al. 2016: 95–96). The mapping between grammatical functions like SUBJ and the lexical components that make it up also does not need to be a one-to-one correspondence, since LFG allows for the distributed exponence of grammatical features like in the example of Warlpiri in (5). The only condition is that grammatical functions be uniquely defined within their minimal f-structure (Bresnan et al. 2016: 45). As (5) shows, multiple NPs in different positions in the constituent structure may feed semantic information to a single function defined by the argument structure of the verb.

  1. Warlpiri (Bresnan et al. 2016: 325):

The subject role θ̂ is defined at least in the context of English as “the most prominent semantic role of a predicator” (Bresnan et al. 2016: 330). Furthermore, Bresnan et al. (2016) devise two a-structure features, [± o] (objective) and [± r] (restrictive). According to this classification, SUBJ is assigned the features [– r, – o], since the subject is not restricted to a certain semantic role, nor needs to have a semantic role.2 Also, subjects do not complement transitive predicators like objects do, so they are not ‘objective’. Bresnan et al. (2016)’s lexical mapping theory assumes that all languages have subjects, which goes counter to Schachter (1976, 2015)’s claim that subjects are possibly not universal (Bresnan et al. 2016: 330–331).


The notion of topic refers essentially to who or what a longer stretch of conversation is about. Givón (1983) defines the topic of a ‘thematic paragraph’—as he calls a coherent unit of discourse above the level of a single sentence—as “the continuity marker, the leitmotif” (8). The topic is thus

the participant most crucially involved in the action sequence running through the paragraph; it is the participant most closely associated with the higher-level “theme” of the paragraph; and finally, it is the participant most likely to be coded as the “primary topic”—or grammatical subject—of the vast majority of sequentially-ordered clauses/sentences comprising the thematic paragraph. (8)

This indicates that topic and subject are closely related concepts, as already mentioned above in reference to Comrie (1989). Languages employ various means to indicate topics; right- and left-dislocation, as known from English, or topic-marking particles as in Japanese and Korean, are only two among many possibilities (Dixon 2010: 174).

Topicality also interfaces with definiteness in that chain-initial topics may be definite (already introduced into discourse) or indefinite (newly introduced into discourse), while chain-medial topics and chain-final topics are always expected to be definite (Givón 1983: 10). Dixon (2010: 171) adds that topic NPs are coreferential with arguments of clauses immediately preceding or following the current clause. Moreover, the strategy of passivization (in NOMACC languages) or of antipassivization (in ERGABS languages) exists, among others, in order to keep a certain discourse item persistent in the highly topical subject position even if it would otherwise be the object of the clause. This is related in turn to the notion of syntactic pivot in clause coordination (172).


Regarding the definition of focus, Dixon (2010: 174) only mentions contrastive focus, which basically raises the prominence of a certain NP within a single clause. It is not necessary for the focussed NP to be coordinated with another NP by ‘or’. Dixon (2010) also warns that focus is often confused with topic. Perhaps this is in part also, as Bresnan et al. (2016) mention, due to the fact that English may use the topic position for either topic or focus under certain circumstances (98):

  1. Q: What did you name your cat?
    A: ROSIE I named her. (Rosie = FOC)

The answer to a wh-question is considered focused, so Rosie in (6) is the focus in ‘I named her ROSIE’. However, in the example above, Rosie is fronted, which following Givón (1983), constitutes a disruptive action used to establish a new topic of conversation: left-dislocation in languages with rigid SVO word order such as English is typically associated with low topic continuity, and left-dislocated NPs can be found most often as initiating a topic chain (32).

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Carnie, Andrew. Syntax: A Generative Introduction. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. Print. Introducing Linguistics 4.
  • Comrie, Bernard. Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. Syntax and Morphology. 2nd ed. London: Blackwell, 1989. Print.
  • Dixon, Robert M. W. Methodology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. Vol. 1 of Basic Linguistic Theory by Robert M. W. Dixon. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010–12.
  • Givón, Talmy. “Topic Continuity in Discourse: An Introduction.” Topic Continuity in Discourse: A Quantitative Cross-Language Study. Ed. Talmy Givón. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983. 1–41. Print. Typological Studies in Language 3.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹http://www.gial.edu/wp-content/uploads/paul_kroeger/PK-thesis-revised-all-chapters-readonly.pdf›.
  • Schachter, Paul. “The Subject in Philippine Languages: Topic, Actor, Actor-Topic, or None of the Above?” Subject and Topic. Ed. Charles N. Li. New York: Academic P, 1976. 493–518. Print.
  1. In English, you is the same for both singular and plural as well as subjective and objective case, which is why I replaced it with the unambiguous her in (2).
  2. This ought to make Kroeger (1991)’s analysis compatible to LFG as well.

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