ELTE BTK Magyar Nyelvtudományi és Finnugor Intézet

Metslang, Helena (Tartu)

nyomtatható változat

Differential subject marking in Estonian existential clauses

One can distinguish the following basic clause types in Estonian: the normal (transitive and intransitive) clauses, existential, possessive, source-marking resultative and experiential clauses (cf. Erelt and Metslang 2006: 254). The subject case alternation between the nominative and partitive is observed in the existential clauses and the possessive clauses; in other clause types the subject is invariably in the nominative. In Estonian, the existential clause is mainly used to present some new referent in a spatial or temporal location (or the whole situation) in order to characterize the location, for example:

(1)    Mustamäe mäge-de-l     kasva-vad  männi-d. (Nemvalts 2000: 149)
Mustamäe hill-PL-ADE     grow-3PL   pine-NOM.PL
‘There are pines growing on Mustamäe hills.’

(2)    Mustamäe mäge-de-l     kasva-b      mände.
Mustamäe hill-PL-ADE     grow-3SG  pine.PRTV.PL
‘(?Among the other trees) there are some pines growing on Mustamäe hills.’

The paper reassesses the findings of an earlier research on Estonian (especially Nemvalts 1996 and 2000), mainly by using corpus and dictionary analysis and the studies on closely related Finnish.  It presents a study on Estonian existential subjects (e-subjects) in fiction texts which shows that in the affirmative clauses there are two major case factors that condition the marking of about 80% of e-subjects (pragmatic factors and the subject noun’s properties), a smaller proportion of e-subjects depend on a variety of other conditions (phrasal and sentential context).

The talk focuses mainly on the pragmatic factor of the speaker’s perspective on referring to the subject referent(s), see the examples above. In fact, in the existential clauses subject to this constraint, the two subject cases are easily substitutable with each other. The academic grammar of Estonian (Erelt et al. 1993: 44) states that often there is even no semantic difference between the partitive and the nominative use, and that at large the meaning difference between the two cases only becomes apparent in a particular context. Its influence on the case-marking can be paraphrased as follows: there is some amount of these referents in this location (partitive subject marking), or: there are such referents in this location (nominative subject marking). I call this account the IMC-RMC (Identification of Membership of a Class vs. Reference to the Members of a Class). The nominative marking identifies the members of the class via quality and the partitive marking identifies them via quantity. A similar, class reference vs. quantification opposition, has also been attested in differential subject and object marking phenomena in Russian (Paykin and Van Peteghem 2002).

I will also account for the following context-related e-subject marking conditions: contextual boundary on the subject referent, quantifiers in the subject phrase, verbs and verb-governed sentence patterns determining the subject case.

In the affirmative existential clauses, the fundamental factor that underlies all the layers of subject case assignment is quantitative definiteness (inclusiveness). On different levels it manifests itself in association with either certain verbs, nouns, phrases, sentence patterns or sentence functions or allows the speaker to choose freely between inclusive and non-inclusive meaning. The language of the presentation is English.

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