The Rise and Decay of Non-Nominative Subjects

Posted on April 4, 2016 by

The first week back after Easter promises to be a bonanza of historical Germanic grammar, by Manchester colleagues past and present. In addition to Kersti and John’s previously announced talk on the 12th, on Thursday 14th Jóhanna Barðdal (Ghent) will be giving a talk on The Rise and Decay of Non-Nominative Subjects in Samuel Alexander A101, 1pm-2pm. This is an extra-ordinary talk timed to take advantage of Jóhanna’s visit to the area. We’ll go for lunch afterwards; all are welcome.

Here’s the abstract:

Different possible developmental paths have been identified as explaining the existence of non-nominative subjects in the Indo-European languages. In addition, in a recent typology of changes in argument structure constructions based on Germanic, several different, yet opposing, changes are reported, including processes sometimes called Dative Sickness, Nominative Sickness, and Accusative Sickness. I will report on ongoing work involving a phylogenetic trait analysis on a predefined dataset of 12 predicates found across the Germanic phyla. This is, as far as I am aware, the first application of the MULTISTATE method (Pagel et al. 2004) in historical syntax. The results clearly favor one of the models, the Dative Sickness Model, over any other model, as the Dative Sickness Model is the only model that can accurately account for both the observed diversity of case frames and the independently proposed philological reconstructions. The MULTISTATE method of evolutionary trait analysis adequately models evolutionary paths of argument structure constructions and provides the perfect testing ground for hypotheses arrived at through philological reconstruction, based on classical historical–comparative methods.

* Partly based on joint work with Michael Dunn, Tonya Kim Dewey, Carlee Arnett & Thórhallur Eythórsson


  • Pagel, M., et al. (2004). Bayesian estimation of ancestral character states on phylogenies. Systematic biology 53(5): 673-684.