(1) a. Jenta skrev brevet girl-DEF wrote letter-DEF ‘The girl wrote the letter’ b. Brevet skrev jenta letter-DEF wrote girl-DEF ‘The letter, the girl wrote’
The minimal pair in (1) above illustrates the essential phenomenon that triggered the work of this thesis. These sentences are very similar from a linear point of view, but represent quite different word order patterns. The sentence in (1a) is a transitive sentence with a SVO word order, whereas in (1b), we see a transitive sentence where the object has topicalized, giving us an OVS word order. Any native speaker of Norwegian would rule out thesecond structurally possible readings from (1a) and (1b) above, namely the semantically odd one, that the letter wrote the girl. The question of which factors that contribute to the disambiguation of the syntactic functions of subject and object in sentences like the above, has led to some interesting and hitherto unnoticed generalizations relating to formal and semantic propertiesof these functions, as well as their positioning within the sentence in Norwegian.
The focus of this thesis is on properties of the subject and object functions in Norwegian transitive constructions. The work presented here has originated from a problem of automatic disambiguation of syntactic functions in Norwegian, and a need to discover facets of word order and argument realization apart from solely structural criteria. Work on a morphosyntactic tagger forNorwegian has raised some interesting questions which served to trigger the work presented in the following.
In typological literature, prominence hierarchies expressing properties such as relative animacy or definiteness have been been posited to play an important role in various linguistic phenomena (Croft, 1990; Comrie, 1989).Lately, a renewed interest in typological generalizations can be found within the Optimality Theoretic community. Aissen (2003) points to the role that prominence hierarchies of definiteness and animacy might have in the choice of subject and object, and in particular the form that these might take.Through formal operations on prominence hierarchies, relations of markedness are expressed that pertain to the realization of the syntactic functions of subject and object. A key question in this thesis thus becomes whether these prominencehierarchies might also be operative in Norwegian as conditioning factors on argument realization and positioning, and to what extent? In many languages, subjects and objects must bear explicit morphological marking if they are semantically or pragmatically marked as subject or object. This however is not the case in Norwegian, which only marks pronominal objectsovertly for case, but not consistently. Even so, might it be that “the effects of hierarchy alignment which are categorical in some languages are expressed as usage preferences in others”(Bresnan, 2002), for instance in Norwegian? Do these hierarchical properties also condition word order variation?We will in the following restrain ourselves to looking at the influence of animacy and definiteness on the realization and positioning of the syntactic functions of subject and object within the sentence. Following a corpus investigation of one thousand transitive sentences we will see that these properties both contribute towards disambiguation, albeit to a varyingdegree. Animacy, in particular, restrains the possibility for word order variation, and we will see examples of so-called freezing effects on word order at a level of performance. Stochastic Optimality Theory provides us with the formal apparatus for modeling our observations within a structured and linguistically well-founded theory, and we thereby obtain a clearer picture of the influences of animacy and definiteness on the subject and object in Norwegian. In particular, this model reflects the data material and the real frequencies observed there. Also, we will see how our findings may beimplemented within the Constraint Grammar, and contribute towards an improved level of disambiguation of syntactic functions within an automatic system.