Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 1-8
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ojml.2011.11001
Formal and Functional Differences between Differential Object
Marking and Differential R Marking: Unity or Disunity?
Seppo Ki tt i l ä
University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Received June 23rd, 2011; revised August 2nd, 2011; August 9th, 2011.
A number of studies (see e.g. Bossong, 1985; Aissen, 2003; Næss, 2003) have shown that the marking of objects
is influenced by animacy and definiteness. The effects of animacy are not confined to the marking of direct ob-
jects only, but the marking of Recipients/Goals is also determined by animacy in many languages. The phe-
nomenon is labeled as Differential R/Goal Marking (DRM) by Haspelmath (2005) and Kittilä (2008). Even
though both DOM and DRM are governed by animacy (and also definiteness), the two phenomena display both
formal and functional differences. For example, disambiguation, which can be claimed to be the triggering factor
of DOM in many languages, is clearly less relevant to DRM. These formal and functional differences between
DOM and DRM will be discussed in this paper. The problem will be studied in light of three formal and four
functional features. In light of the discussed features, it will be shown that DOM and DRM should not be seen as
a uniform phenomenon, but they display evident differenc es.
Keywords:Differential OBJECT Marking, Animacy, Argument Ma rking
Typically Differential Obj ect Marking (DOM) is defined as a
more elaborate marking of animate objects when compared to
inanimate bearers of the same role. Canonical examples of
DOM are found in (1) and (2):
Hindi (Mohanan, 1994: p. 63, 79)
(1a) ilaa-ne ek haar(*-ko) ut
Ila-ERG1 one necklace.NOM(*-ACC) lift/carry.PERF
‘Ila lifted a necklace’
(1b) ilaa-ne haar-ko uthaayaa
Ila-ERG necklace-ACC lift/carry.PERF
‘Ila lifted the/*a necklace’
Camling (Ebert, 1997: p. 46)
(2a) khu-wa lungto-wa pucho(*-lai) set-yu
he-ERG stone-INSTR snake(*-DAT) kill-3
‘He killed a snake with a stone.’
(2b) khana khut(-lai) ta-set-yu
You he(-DAT) 2-kill-3
‘You killed him.’
In (1) from Hindi, indefinite animate objects cannot bear ac-
cusative marking, while in (1b) the marking is obligatory. In (2),
for its part, animate objects may never be marked, while ani-
mate (human) objects may optionally take a dative affix at-
tached to them. In both cases, animate/definite objects bear
more explicit marking than inanimate/indefinite arguments in
the same function, a feature typical of DOM.
DOM has been the topic of numerous studies (see e.g. Bos-
song 1985; Aissen 2003; Næss 2003 among many others). It is
typical of these studies that they have focused on the marking
of direct ob jects only. Only rather recent ly has there been more
interest in animacy effects on indirect objects (Recipients/
Goa l s) 2. Recent studies of the topic include Haspelmath (2 007)
and Kittilä (2008). The authors define the phenomena some-
what different ly (see Section 2 for an elabo ration), but they are
both dealing with cases where the marking of R arguments is
determined b y animacy. An exa mple of Di fferential R markin g
(DRM) is given in (3):
Nkore - K iga (Taylor, 1985: p. 91, 110 )
(3a) n-ka-ha omworo empiiha
1-rp-give poor-man money
‘I gave the poor man some money.’
(3b) n-aa-ta ebitakuri omu nyungu
1-tp-put potatoes in pot
1The list of abbreviations is found at the end of the paper before references.
2In this paper the label R (argument) is used for referring to indirect
objects. The label comprises both animate R’s (the teacher sent the
book to the student) and inanimate R’s (the teacher sent the student to
the school).
I put the potatoes in the pot.’
In Nkore-Kiga, animate R’s are zero marked, as shown in
(3a). Inanimate R’s, in turn, receive prepositional coding illus-
trated i n (3b). There are di fferences in the semantic roles b orne
by R in (3), but similarly to DOM, different instances of R can
also be distinguished based on animacy. In other words, we can
define R as a general Goal o f tran sfer th at can b e eit her an imate
or inanimate depending on context.
In my paper, I will discuss differential marking of objects
from a broader perspective than is typical of studies dealing
with DOM. This means that I will combine DOM and DRM
and discuss their similarities and differences. My goal is to
show that differential marking of objects is not a uniform phe-
nomenon, but DOM and DRM represent two rather closely
related, yet different phenomena. They display both formal
and function al differences. Moreover, DRM as a phenomenon
is split and the first type of DRM resembles the other type of
DRM formally, while functionally it is closer to DOM. This
has good reasons, as will be shown below. I have confined the
dis- cussion to cases, where animacy and/or definiteness can
be seen as the primary triggering factor of the attested
changes. As is generally known, marking of objects (both
direct and indirect) is influenced by other features as well,
such as affectedness and aspect (see e.g. Næss, 2007 for direct
objects and Kittilä, 2007 for indirect objects), but these are
not considered in this paper.
The organization of the paper is as follows. In Section 2, I
will illustrate the discussed phenomena briefly. Section 3 dis-
cusses the formal differenc es of DOM and DRM, while in Sec-
tion 4 the similarities and differen ces will be discussed from a
functional perspective. Section 5 discusses the most central
findings of the paper.
The Phenomena
As noted above, the label DOM is typically used for cases
where animate/definite direct objects bear more explicit formal
coding than inanimate/indefinite direct objects. Further exam-
ples of DOM are found in (4), (5):
Sinhala (Gair & Paolillo, 1997: p. 32).
(4a) siri gunpaale*(–te) gæhuwa
‘Siri hit Gunapala
(4b) mame ee pote(*-we) kiyewwa
I that book(*-ACC) read
‘I read that book’
Badaga (Lazard, 1998: p. 189, cited from Pilot-Raichoor, 1991,
(5a) ama ondu manusa-na nooDida
he a man-ACC see.PAST.3SG
‘He saw a man.’
(5b) ama ondu kaTTE baNDi(-ya) nooDida
he a wood vehicle(-ACC) see.PAST.3SG
‘He saw a wagon’
In (4) and (5), animate objects bear more explicit marking
than inanimate objects, which renders these canonical exam-
ples of DOM. The differences in animacy are marked some-
what differently. In Sinhala, inanimate objects are never
marked, while in Badaga this is optional. The main principle,
the (potentially) more explicit coding of animate objects is,
however, the same for both languages.
DRM exhibits more heterogeneity than DOM and the phe-
nomenon has been defined in two slightly different ways by
two scholars working on similar phenomena independently of
each oth er. First, Haspelmath (2007: p. 83) defines DRM as fol-
Special (“indirective” or “dative”) R-marking is the more
likely, the lower the R is on the animacy, definiteness and per-
son scales.
An example of this is given in (6)
Drehu (Moyse-Faurie, 1983: pp. 161-162, as cited in Haspel-
math, 2007: pp. 86-87)
(6a) Eni a hamëë angeic la itus.
I PRES give him the book
‘I give him the book.’
(6b) Eni a hamëë Wasinemu la itus.
I PRES give Wasinemu the book
‘I give Wasinemu the book.’
(6c) Eni a hamëën la itus kowe la nekönatr.
I PRES give the book to the child
‘I give the b ook to the child. ’
In Drehu, R appears in a zero marked form preceding T in
case it outranks T in animacy, i.e. when R is a pronoun or a
proper name. On the other hand, R receives adpositional cod-
ing if both R and T are nouns, and when T is definite, as in
In (6), the differential marking of R arguments is deter-
mined primarily by features of R. However, features of T are
also relevant to R coding. In (6), prepositional coding of R
occurs whenever T and R are both nouns (animacy per se
does not seem to be relevant to the marking). The effects of T
are more evident in (7):
Akan (Sáàh & Ézè, 1997: p. 143f)
(7a) Ámá màà mè sìká
Ama give 1SG money
‘Ama gave me money’
(7b) *Ámámàà mè sìká nó
Ama give 1SG money the
(Ama gave me the money)
(7c) Ámá dè sìká nó màà mè
Ama take money the give 1SG
‘Ama gave me the money’
In Akan, a special serial verb construction i s used if T is defi-
nite; R i s preceded b y the verb ‘give’, whi ch can also b e seen as
a kind of prepositional marking.
In (6), (7), DRM is determined by properties of both R and T.
There are thu s no si gni ficant ch anges in th e semantic ro le bo rne
by R, but the variation follows, e.g., from ambiguity avoidance
(especiall y in cases where bo th T and R are animate). This con-
stitutes the decisive difference to the second type of DRM,
where properties of R are alone responsible for the attested
differences3. Consider
Korku (Nagaraja, 1999: p. 97)
(8a) raja ra:ma-ke sita-ke ji-khe-nec
king.NOM Ram-OBJ Sita-OBJ give-PAST-PERS
‘The king gave Si ta to Ram.’
3Hasp elmath di scusses this under the label d ifferent ial them e marking, but the t wo are in this pap er viewed as di fferentl y moti vated instan ces of the
same phenomenon.
(8b) iñj ini-koro-ken mya kama:y-Ten Di-ga:w-en kul-khe-nej
I this-man-OBJ one work-ABL that-village-LO C send-PAST-PERS
‘I sent that man to work in that village’
Balinese (I Wayan Arka, p.c.)
(9a) Guru-ne nto ngirim buku sig/*ke anak-e nto
teacher-DEF that AV.send book to person-DEF that
‘The teacher sent a book to the person.’
(9b) Guru-ne nto ngirim buku ke/*sig Indonesia
teacher-DEF that AV.send book to Indonesia
‘The teacher sent a book to Indonesia.’
In (8), T is consistently animate, while in (9), the referent of
T is invariably inanimate. On the other hand, there are evident
differences in the referent of R. In (a), R is animate, while in (b),
R is inanimate. In Korku, the variation is between a core argu-
ment (R marked like the direct object) and an oblique. In Bali-
nese, the differences are manifested via the preposition used for
R coding; sig precedes an imate R’s, while ke is used for mark-
ing inanimate R’s. The mechanisms used for coding R argu-
ments are different in Korku and Balinese (cases vs. adposi-
tions), but the languages have in common that animacy deter-
mines the coding of R’s.
Formal Differences
In this section, I will discuss the formal differences between
DOM and DRM from a formal perspective. The differences
will be discussed in light of 3 features, namely:
1) The differences between zero and overt coding of objects
2) The differences in the syntactic status of arguments (are-
they parts of clause core or clause periphery)
3) Optionality of the differences
The formal features will be discussed in the order they ap-
pear abo ve.
Differences in Zero vs. Explicit Marking of Objects
DOM and DRM display evident differences in the role of
zero vs. explicit marking of animate and inanimate objects. As
shown in (4) and (5), in DOM either animate or inanimate ob-
jects (in the vast majority of cases, inanimate objects) are zero
marked, while the other objects (usually the animate/definite
object s) bear more elab o rate co ding. A further exa mple i s gi ven
in (10) (see also (1), (4), (5):
Amharic (Gasser, 1983: p. 110).
(10a) girma bet gäzza-ø
PN house buy.PAST-3SG.I
‘Girma bought a house’
(10b) girma bet-u-n gäzza-ø(-w)
PN house-DEF-ACC buy.PAST-3SG.I(-3SG.II)
‘Girma bought the house’
In (1), (4), (5) and (10), inanimate (and/or indefinite) objects
are zero-marked, while animate (and/or definite) objects bear
explicit coding. The languages, however, vary according to the
obligatoriness vs. optionality of the explicit formal coding. For
example, in Badaga human objects are obligatorily marked,
while inanimate objects optionally bear accusative case. In
Camling, in turn, objects ranking high for animacy may be
marked, but less animate (non-human) objects never receive
dative coding.
More rarely, DOM is also seen to include cases where both ob-
jects bear non-zero marking triggered by animacy/definiteness, cf.
Finnish (personal knowledge)
(11a) Ykä näk-i poja-t
Ykä.NOM see-3SG.PAST boy-PL.ACC
‘Ykä saw the boys’
(11b) Ykä näk-i poik-i-a
Ykä.NOM see-3SG.PAST boy-PL-PART
‘Ykä saw some boys’
In Finnish, objects of transitive clauses are never zero-
marked, but similarly to (10), the object coding varies depend-
ing on definiteness (but not animacy); definite objects bear
accusative coding, while indefinite objects are coded by the
DRM, for its part, is more heterogeneous than DOM, which
is also manifested in the role of zero vs. explicit marking. Ex-
amples are given in (12)-(14) (see also (8), (9) above):
Korean (examples courtesy of Jae Jung Song)
(12a) kica-ka enehakca-eykey chayk-ul ponay-ss-ta
journalist-NOM linguist-to book-ACC send-PAST-IND
‘The journalist sent a/the book to the linguist’
(12b) kica-ka wellingten-ulo chayk-ul ponay-ss-ta
journalist-NOM Wellington-to book-ACC send-PAST-IND
‘The journalist sent a/the book to Wellington’
(12c) kica-ka enehakca-lul chayk-ul ponay-ss-ta
journalist-NOM linguist-ACC book-ACC send-PAST-IND
‘The journalist sent a/the book to the linguist’
(12d) *kica-ka wellingten-ul chayk-ul ponay-ss-ta
journalist-NOM Wellington-ACC book-ACC send-PAST-IND
(The journalist sent a/the book to Wellington)
Indonesian (examples courtesy of I Wayan Arka)
(13a) Guru itu mengirim buku ke(pada) orang itu
Teacher that AV.send book to person that
‘The teacher sent a book to the person’
(13b) Guru itu mengirim buku ke/*kepada Indonesia
Teacher that AV.send book to Indonesia
‘The teacher sent a book Indonesia’
Kikuyu (Blansitt 1973: p. 11)
(14a) mūthuri ūriā mukūrū nīanengerire mūtumīa ihūa
Man ? old gave woman flower
p.‘The old man gave the woman the flower’
(14b) mūtumīa nīanengerire mwarī wake gwī kahīī
Woman gave daughter her to boy
‘The woman gave her daughter to the boy’
In Korean, DRM is manifested in various ways. First, there
are differences between two case markers; -eykey is used for
animate R’s and -ulo for inanimate R’s. Second, animate and
inanimate R’s are distinguished by dative shift, which is appli-
cable to animate R’s only. In Indonesian, animate and inani-
mate R’s are preceded by different prepositions. There is no
zero marking available for R arguments. Finally in Kikuyu, the
variation is very much th e same as in DOM as regard s the zero
vs. expli cit marking o f arguments; R bears more elabo rate cod-
ing in (14b) based on the animacy of T. The central difference
to DOM is found in (12) and (13), where the variation is be-
tween two explicitly marked objects, not between zero and
overt marking.
Differences in Syntactic Status of Arguments
The differences i n t he zero vs. expli cit marking o f ob jects are
rather directly related to the second difference between DOM
and DRM, namely the core vs. peripheral nature of objects. In
DOM, both animate and inanimate objects can be seen as ob-
jects in case the objects are explicitly expressed (see, however,
Næss, 2003 for more drastic differences between animate/defi-
nite and inanimate/ind efinite ob jects). This means th at irrespec-
ve of their zero vs. explicit marking, objects are best seen as
direct o bjects and thus as part s of the clause co re in cases such
as (4) and (5), for example. DRM differs profoundly from
DOM in this respect. First, there are languages, such as Korku
and Ko rean, where onl y animate R’s can be seen as parts of the
clause core and inanimate R’s are best seen as non-core obliques.
These kinds of differences are found also in languages displaying
DRM in th e sense d efined b y Has pel math (see (6 ) a nd ( 7 )) . S ec -
d, in langu ages like Bali nese, th e relevant argu ments are alwa ys
obliqu es, i.e. the differences b etween core and p eriphery are not
relevant. Moreover, it is very difficult to argue for the higher
syntactic stat us o f eith er ani mate o r i nanimate R’s in ca ses such
as (9), where the only difference between R’s is the preposition
used for their marking.
The differences in syntactic status of arguments between
DOM and DRM are predicted; more significant formal differ-
ences indicate more evident differences in the status of argu-
ments. The differences also have a semantic basis, as will be
discussed in the next section. DOM and DRM have in common
that an imate objects constitute parts of clause core (in case any
object does), while only in DOM inanimate objects may be
seen as parts of clause core. The two types could therefore be
distinguished based on the formal treatment of inanimate ob-
jects. We may add that in DRM certain verbs, most notably
‘give’, usually select core-like marked R’s (in case this is pos-
sible in a given language), while other verbs (e.g. ‘send’) allow
variation. This is relevant to the discussion in this paper in that
recipients of ‘give’ are often parts of the verb valency, which
also applies to direct objects of transitive verbs (see Kittilä,
2006a for a more thorough discussion of this).
Optionality of Marking
The third type of differences discussed here is presented by
optionality. As shown above, animate objects are only option-
ally marked in many instances of DOM. This means that the
more elabo rate marking o f animat e objects is n ot an obligato ry
feature of grammar, but is often triggered rather by pragmatics
and context. The lack of marking with an animate object does
not necessarily result in ungrammaticality. In DRM, for its part,
the differences are more often grammatically required. The
freedom of choice exercised by the speaker is lacking and a
failure to mark R’s according to animacy may yield an un-
grammatical construction. This is especially evident in cases,
such as (9) and (12), where the variation is between two differ-
ent instances of overt marking. Also instances of DRM trig-
gered by animacy/definiteness of T seem obligatory if T is
animate/definite (see (7) and (14)). The only instances of op-
tionality in the case of DRM are found in languages where
DRM is manifested via dative shift, as in English or Fongbe
illustrated in (15):
Fongbe (Lefebvre & Brousseau, 2002: p. 445f, 448f, 422)
(15a) kòkú só àsón ó ná Àsíbá
Koku take crab DEF give Asiba
‘Koku gave th e crab to Asiba’
(15b) kòku só àkwé ná kùtònû
Koku take money give Cotonou
‘Koku gave money to Cotonou (a place name)’
(15c) kòkú ná Àsíbá àsón
Koku give Asiba crab
‘Koku gave Asiba crab’
(15d) *kòku ná kùtònû àkwé
Koku give Cotonou money
(Koku gave Cotonou money)
In Fongbe (and English), only animate R’s allow dative shift
and can thus be seen as part s of the clau se co re. The markin g o f
animacy-determined differences is optional in the sense that
dative shift is possible, but not obligatory, for animate R’s.
One reason for the uneven distribution of optionality may be
found in the nature of arguments involved in the variation. In
DOM, the variation is between zero marking and grammatical
case (typically accusative). Consequently, we do not lose any
non-retrievable information if the marking is omitted. The (un)
marked argument is interpreted as a direct object regardless of
its marking, since the object acquires its semantic role largely
from the verb. On the other hand, DRM is often between two
explicitly marked forms, typically semantic cases (such as alla-
tive and dative). This has the consequence that the risk of losing
important, contextually non-retrievable information is greater
than in DOM. Moreover, the markers involved in the variation
(i.e. semantic cases and adpositions) are semantically richer in
DRM, which makes them incompatible with semantically infe-
licitous objects. For example, an adposition used for coding
inanimate R’s (and consequently the semantic role of Goal)
cannot appear with animate R’s (and the semantic role of Re-
cipient) due to the semantic discrepancy between the marker
and the mar ked argument.
Functional Differences
In this section, the differences between DOM and DRM are
discussed from a functional perspective. The functions consid-
ered in cl ude the follo win g:
1) (The interplay of) Semantic role and animacy
2) Indexing
3) Discrimination
4) Effects of animacy and definiteness
These features have been chosen, since they are relevant to
argument marking in general. The features will be discussed
below in the order they appear above.
Semantic Role and Animacy
DOM and DRM display evident differences as regards their
consequences for the semantic role borne by the affected argu-
ments. In DOM, the semantic role of the object is maintained
regardless of the differences in coding, while DRM phenomena
are split in this respect (the two types are affected in different
DOM affects the marking of direct objects typically bearing
the role of patient (other roles, such as stimulus are also possi-
ble). Patients are typically inanimate and indefinite, a claim
made, for example, by Comrie (1989: p. 128). This claim is
both true and false. First, it is true that inanimate entities more
naturally bear the role of patient, since they lack the capability
of instigating events with intention. They are thus rather atypi-
cal agents, even though they can also be seen as causers of
many events (as in ‘the falling rock hit the child’). Second,
however, it is disputable whether inanimate entities are more
canonical patients than animate entities. Both inanimate and
animate entities may be affected participants, which makes
them both potential targets of events. The nature of affectedness
varies according to animacy, but it is less clear whether inani-
mate patients constitute more affected and hence more typical
patients. Even the opposite claim has been made by Næss
(Næss, 2003) who claims that animate patients are actually
prototypical (i.e. more affected) patients, which explains DOM.
Despite th e differences in th e nature and degree o f affectedness,
both animate and inanimate entities are potential patients,
which mean that differences in animacy do not have any bear-
ing on the role of the relevant participants per se.
The effects of animacy on the semantic role of the affected
argument are clearly more visible in DRM. Moreover, the two
types of DRM are clearly split in this regard. The first type of
DRM (Haspelmath, 2007) is closer to DOM as regards the in-
terplay of animacy and semantic role. This is expected, since
also th e features o f T contribute to th e changes in R cod ing. In
(7), for example, animacy of R is maintained. We may, how-
ever, speculate about the nature of reception in some cases:
does the (in)an imacy of the theme affect the nature of recepti on?
Typically we conceptualize recipient as an animate participant
that receives an inanimate theme (see e.g. Sedlak, 1975; New-
man, 1996) transferred to its sphere of control. Animate entities
(especially humans) are not as readily possessed by other ani-
mate entities. This may have consequences for the nature of
reception if the theme is animate. On the other hand, in the
second type of DRM, animacy has clear consequences for the
semantic roles borne by R. Only animate participants may be
seen as genuine recipients. This follows, since true reception
entails active participation, which is possible only for animate
entities. The lack of animacy thus implies an evident change in
the rol e borne by R. Inani mate R’s are rat her seen as go als that
are, similarly to recipients, endpoints of transfer (or motion),
but in contrast to recipients, true reception is lacking for goals.
We may add that recipients and goals differ according to their
core vs. peripheral nature in events. Recipients are often inte-
gral (core) parts of events, while goals are more often periph-
eral (and optional) participants. For example, ‘give’ is not a
complete event without a (human) recipient, while with, e.g.,
‘throw’ a goal argument only specifies the endpoint of transfer.
The event is possible also without a specified goal. We are not
dealing with mere animacy differences in DRM, but animacy
has more dramatic consequences for the referents of arguments.
The more thorough formal changes discussed in Section 3.2
thus have a semantic basis in the second type of DRM.
A further function given for argument marking has been la-
beled indexing (see, e.g., Song, 2001: pp. 159-165). Indexing
means that the primary function of argument marking is not to
distinguish between agent and patient (i.e. to indicate “who is
doing what to whom”), but to highlight the semantic closeness
of arguments to the prototype of a given role. For example,
typical patients bear accusative coding, because they are close
to the patient prototype. Indexing is rather close to semantic
roles, but the notion is approached primarily from the viewpoint
of prototypes in this section. This means that the focus lies on
whether the marked arguments are better representatives of the
role they mark than the differently marked objects.
DOM phenomena have been explained by referring to in-
dexing by, for example, Comrie (1989), Aissen (2003) and
Næss (2003). Comrie (1989: p. 128) and Aissen (2003) suggest
that patients are typically inanimate and indefinite, whence the
function of DOM is to highlight the unorthodox nature of ani-
mate patients (this can be seen as a kind of reversed indexing,
the less typical ro le is more elab or atel y marked). Næss (2 003 : p.
1203), on the other hand, argues that DOM is better explained
by affectedness and thus indexing (prototypical patients are
affected participants): animate patients bear more elaborate
coding than inanimate patients due to their higher degree of
affectedness. The semantic role of the affected argument does
not chan ge in any evident way in DOM, which makes in dexing
functions possible. In other words, changes in coding do not
have the function of distinguishing between clearly distinct
roles, an d they can thus code more subtle differences.
DRM differs fro m DOM also i n this regard. In the first type
of DRM, the role of recipient is largely maintained despite the
evident formal differ ences i n t he cod in g of arguments. Indexi ng
is thus help ful for explain ing the differences in R codi ng. In the
second type of DRM, we could claim that typical goals are also
recipien ts (i.e., it is typical of go als to bear the ro le of recipient
as well), which would then exp lain thei r core-like formal treat-
ment in languages such as Korku and Korean. However, in this
case we would have to accoun t for the typical relati on between
goal and recipient, which does not seem plausible. Instead, it
seems more appropriate to claim that we are dealing with two
roles (goal and recipient) with their own kind of marking. In
order that we could speak of indexing, there should be variation
within the roles (e.g. variation between animate and inanimate
recipients), not only between them. Indexing functions do thus
not help us to explain the differences in the coding of R’s.
Discrimination refers to cases where (explicit) argument
marking has the function of expressing ‘who is doing what to
whom’, i.e. marking is employed for distinguishing between
agent and patient, or subject and object, depending on whether
we are dealing with meaning or form (see Song, 2001: pp.
It should come as no surprise that discrimination between
agent and patient has been offered as an explanation for DOM.
In case we have two animate participants, both of which are
potential (and expected) agents in the denoted event, explicit
coding of arguments is often the only (or at least the most se-
cure and unambiguous) way of distinguishing between agent
and patient. This function is very evident in the case of two
animate participants, but it does not account for the marking of
definite inanimates in an equally satisfactory manner. However,
it is clear that discrimination (ambiguity avoidance) contributes
to the occurrence of DOM.
The two instances of DRM are also here clearly split as re-
gards the discriminatory functions of argument marking. The
first type DRM is closer to DOM in this regard, and we may
explain the changes in R coding by referring to discrimination
in some cases. This is especially evident in cases such as the
teacher sent the boy to the girl with two animate objects. The
expected role of both animate participants is recipient, and ex-
plicit marking is needed for highlighting which participant
bears this role. The only difference to DOM is that we are
dealin g with discriminatio n between ani mate theme and recip e-
ent, not agent and patient. Differently from DOM, the marking
is not iconic in DRM, since changes in the nature of Theme
have con sequ ences for R co din g in cases such as (7) fro m Akan.
On the other hand, discrimination does not contribute to the
second type of DRM in any significant way. This is most evi-
dent in languages in which animate R’s bear direct object-like
coding. These languages usually also display DOM, which
often results in an identical coding of the two objects, which
clearly militates against the principles of discrimination.
Moreover, variation between two explicit ways of marking (two
adpositions or case forms) cannot be explained by discrimina-
tion, since a sufficient distinction is assured without further
changes i n marking.
Animacy vs. Definiteness
Finally, DOM and DRM can also be distinguished based on
the effects of animacy and definiteness. As has been shown
above, DOM can be triggered both by animacy and definiteness.
The same applies to the first type of DRM, where animacy or
definiteness of T can trigger formal changes in R coding. Also
the slot occupied by R on the nominal hierarchies may be rele-
vant, as (6) shows. On the other hand, in the second type of
DRM only animacy is relevant to the coding of R’s. Reasons
for this uneven distribution of animacy and definiteness will be
discussed below.
First, explicit marking of animate patients is expected, since
this often has a disambiguating function, as was noted above.
The markin g of defini te pati ents ma y appear as les s expected at
first; explicit disambiguation is not necessary between animate
agents and definite patients, because animacy usually resolves
potential ambiguity. However, as has been noted, for example,
by Comrie (1989: p. 128), subjects (A) are typically animate
and definite, while objects (P/O) constitute the opposite of this.
Indefiniteness is thus an expected feature of P, which is left
unmarked, while the opposite (the less expected case) is marked.
The effects of animacy on the coding of R in the first type of
DRM is also only natural, since the marking is in many cases
also needed for resolving disambiguation, as noted above.
Similarly to DOM, the consequences definiteness has for R
coding are not as easily accounted for, since they seem to lack a
clearly defined function, such as disambiguation. One of the
reasons for the attested changes may, however, be found in the
avoidance of two identically coded object arguments. In case a
language has definiteness-based DOM that also applies to T
arguments, the result would be two identically coded object
arguments (Theme and Recipient), which can be avoided by
modifying the marking of R.
The second type of DRM differs drastically from the types
discussed thus far. There are many languages in which animacy
determines the coding of R’s, which is understandable, since, as
noted above, animacy also has consequences for the semantic
role borne by R’s. Distinct marking of semantic roles may be
redundant in some cases, but on the other hand, it is only natu-
ral that languages accord different semantic roles a different
formal treatment. On the other hand, there are only very few
languages in which definiteness if R has formal consequences.
The only clear example of this I have come across is illustrated
in (16) from Wolaitta:
Wolaitta (examples courtesy of Azeb Amha)
(16) ?astamareé mat = aápaa ba biir-úwa
teacher:M:NOM book:M:ACC 3:LOG bureau-M:ACC
/mat=aáfa keettá yedd-iisi
book house:ABS send-3MSG:PERF
‘The teacher sent t he book to his office/to a l ibrary’
In Wolaitta, indefinite (inanimate) R’s appear in the un-
marked absolutive case, while definite (inanimate) R’s bear
accusative coding. Ani mate R’s bear dative codi ng.
As noted above, languages like Wolaitta are clearly in the
minority cross-linguistically, while animacy triggers changes in
R coding in numerous languages. This very uneven distribution
is rather straightforwardly accounted for by the nature of R’s.
Differently from Patients and Themes, R arguments have an
expected an imacy value: recipients are t ypically animat e, while
Goals are typically inanimate. Animacy is typically associated
with definiteness, which renders recipients also definite and
definiteness an expected feature of Recipients. This makes
explicit coding of definiteness superfluous and it is thus not
attested. What is also interesting that there are no languages in
which indefiniteness of R’s (i.e. the unexpected value) would
be marked, either. In a similar vein, languages where indefi-
niteness of patients is marked in DOM are also very rare. We
may also add that similar kind of marking is found for agents.
Agents are also typically animate, and inanimacy is an unex-
pected feature that receives explicit coding in a number of lan-
guages (see, e.g., Delancey, 1984). Similarly to R’s, there are
only few languages in which definiteness has consequences for
agent coding (see Meakins, 2009 for Gurindji Kriol, and Chel-
liah, 2009 for Meithei). This may be explained by the expected
animacy of agents, which renders marking of definiteness re-
dundant. Based on this, we may make the (preliminary) claim
that definiteness is relevant to coding of arguments only with
inanimate entities. Definiteness is thus marked only if it is not
an expect ed feature.
The general picture that emerges from the previous discus-
sions is that differential marking of objects is not a uniform
phenomenon, but the illustrated types can be distinguished
based on both formal and functional criteria. The formal and
functional features of the discussed types are illustrated sche-
matically in Figure 1.
As the figure shows, the three object marking types can be
distinguished from each other based on the discussed criteria.
However, on a closer inspection, more interesting similarities
and differen ces arise. First, formally the two in stances of DRM
are closer to each other than to DOM. This is not unduly sur-
prising, since the types can be distinguished based on the ele-
ment whose marking is modified. Despite this, DRM is not a
uniform phenomenon formally, but the two types also display
differences in the distribution of zero vs. explicit marking and
optionality of marking.
What is more interesting in the present context is the func-
tional motivation of the discussed types of object marking. The
picture that emerges is that DOM and DRM 1 go more to-
gether and they are clearly distinct from DRM 2. This may
appear unexpected at first given the formal features shared by
the two instances of DRM. However, the attested distribution of
functional features becomes understandable if we consider the
fact that DOM and DRM 1 can both be said to be triggered by
the featur es of th e direct ob ject (comprisi ng P atien t and Th eme),
while DRM 2 is determined by features of R alone. The main
difference between DOM and DRM 1 is that the changes trig-
gered b y the direct ob ject are expressed o n the Pat ient in DOM
and on R in DRM 1. The question that remains is why the
changes triggered by the direct object referent are marked on
different arguments. In DOM, the most natural candidate for
highlighting the differences is the direct object. In some lan-
guages (such as Tauya, see MacDonald 1990: p. 120), similar
disambiguation is achieved by modifying the Agent. In DRM 1,
in turn, there are two (in principle) equally plausible candidates
for expressing the given differences. The iconic solution would
be to mark the changes on the Theme, since Theme is the ar-
gument whose features are affected. However, as has been
noted above, formal changes occurring in DRM 1 also due to
disambiguation, which renders the Theme a non-optimal locus
Zero vs. explicit
marking + (+) –
Core vs. periphery – + +
Optionality + – (–)
Changes in seman-
tic role – – +
Indexing + (–) (+)
Discrimination + + –
Animacy + defi-
niteness Both Both Animacy
Figure 1.
Schematic illustration of the three objects marking types.
for markin g th e rele vant chan ges. T an d R are no t d ist ingui shed
in a sufficient manner in case th e Theme is marked (mod ifying
the marking of the Theme is possible, but clearly less widely
attested than marking the changes on R, see Kittilä, 2006b for a
more detailed discussion). The result is a construction with two
identically marked objects in case the given language accords
the R argument the same formal treatment as the direct object.
On the other hand, marking the R according to its role, e.g. by a
preposition, always resolves possible ambiguity, which ex-
plains why languages resort to this if additional disambiguating
mechanisms are necessary. Moreover, many languages have a
mechanism readily available for coding R (or motion in more
general terms), which can be resorted to when explicit formal
distinction is necessary.
To summarize. Differential marking of objects is not a uni-
form phenomenon that could always be described by the same
criteria. The three types of object marking discussed in this
paper share co mmon features, b ut they also d isplay differences.
DOM and DRM 2 can b e seen as the extr eme types of differen-
tial marking of objects that are clearly different phenomena
distinguishable based on most of the formal and functional
criteria discussed in Sections 3 and 4. This is only understand-
able, since features of different arguments are responsible for
the attested differences. DRM 1, in turn, can be seen as an in-
termediate between the two other types. Formally, it has more
features in common with DRM 2, while functionally it is closer
to DOM. This is easily accounted for, since formally the
changes are exp ressed on the R argumen t, but functional ly fea-
tures of T are also relevant to the attested changes. Depending
on which features (formal or functional) we emphasize, DRM 1
can be grouped with either DOM or DRM 2. Typologists (and
linguists in general) are typically looking for functional simi-
larities and differences between constructions, which would
make it more natural to view DOM and DRM 1 as subtypes of
the same phenomenon, and distinct from DRM 2. This distinc-
tion can be based on the triggering factor, i.e. features of the
direct object referent (DOM and DRM 1) vs. features of R only
(DRM 2). We can thus speak of Differential marking of objects
triggered by direct object and differential object marking trig-
gered by R. This distinction is functionally motivated and pro-
vides us with better new insights into the functions of argument
marking than a distinction based on formal features only. The
first type (DOM and DRM1) is best explained by discrimina-
tion, while the second type (DRM 2) is better accounted for by
I thank the anonymous referees of this paper for their in-
valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper. I would
also like to express my gratitude to Academy of Finland (grant
1,127,724) for providing funding for the present study.
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ABL Ablative case
ABS Absolutive case
ACC Accu s at ive cas e
AV Active voice
DAT Dative case
DEF Definite
ERG Ergative case
IND Indicative
INSTR Instrumental case
LOC Locative case
LOG Logophoric
M Masculine
NOM Nominative case
OBJ Object marker
PART Partitive case
PAST Past tense
PERF Perfective
PERS Person marker
PL Plural
PN Personal name
PRES Present tense
RP Recent past
SG Singular
TP Today past