Doctoral defence: Mari Aigro “In any case? Estonian spatial cases as argument markers”

On 9 December at 11:00 Mari Aigro will defend her doctoral thesis “In any case? Estonian spatial cases as argument markers”.

Associate Professor Virve-Anneli Vihman, University of Tartu
Merilin Miljan, Tallinn University

Professor Dagmar Divjak, University of Birmingham (United Kingdom)

What are Estonian spatial cases doing in the company of verbs?

Language speakers are not often aware of the fact that using certain verbs requires using certain case affixes – the selection of which depends on the verb. The Estonian verb “vaatama“ (“watch“) requires its object to be in partitive case while “unistama” (“dream about”) takes an argument in elative case (“out of”). We as Estonian speakers know which case to use, but we do not know why we select the ones we do. What are the inner dynamics of the system around verbs and cases? Why are spatial cases (e.g. elative) used with verbs when they do not express spatial meaning, for instance “Ma unistan pitsa-st” (“I am dreaming about pizza”).

Verbs express events or states that commonly have participants. Phrases referring to these participants are known as verbal arguments. For instance, “sööma” (“eat”) takes two arguments – the eater and the eaten. Without them, the verb would not have meaning. The cases on these two phrases depend on the verb. Each verb therefore has an argument structure, i.e. selects particular cases in a particular configuration, letting us know, what is involved in the event described by the verb. “Vaatama” (“watch”) has a structure with a nominative subject and a partitive object. The structure of “unistama” (“dream about”), however, includes a nominative subject and an elative argument.

This thesis conducts corpus-based and experimental studies to investigate the role of argument structures with spatial cases in Estonian. It focusses on the three main variables of different structures: verbs, cases and argument status.

First, there is reason to think that different structures occur with different types of verbs. It is not clear, however, in what ways these verbs are distinct in Estonian. We found that verbs in spatial case argument structures (“unistama” – “dream about”) are must more stative than verbs in more common argument structures (“sööma” – “eat”). We also found that most spatial cases no longer have spatial meaning when marking verbal arguments.

Second, we asked, which spatial cases are most commonly used for marking verbal arguments and least commonly used for marking spatial meaning. The more a case marks arguments, the more grammaticalized it is. We found that elative (“out of”) and allative (“onto”) are so grammaticalized that they are infrequently used for referring to space. Instead, they are used for talking about other types of meaning and relationships, including argumenthood.

Third, the thesis investigated the strength of argument status in various functions of spatial cases. Mainstream linguistic theory often regards canonical objects (e.g. partitive objects in Estonian) as stronger arguments than non-canonical arguments (e.g. the elative argument of “unistama” – “dream about”). Our experiment showed that such structures include equally strong arguments and that case has little to do with argument status. This link is weaker for phrases expressing concrete locations, being dependant on their various semantic aspects.

All in all, the thesis provides us with an abundance of new knowledge about how Estonian spatial cases function in the service of verbs. These results are highly relative to cross-linguistic knowledge about argument status and morphologically rich languages such as Estonian are crucial for studies on the link between morphology and argument status.

The defence can be also followed in Zoom: (Meeting ID: 992 0000 8062; Password: 329308).

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