Chapter 59: Alignment of case marking of personal pronouns

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 59.

1. Alignment in monotransitive constructions

Like the preceding chapter, this chapter looks at the three main alignment patterns in monotransitive constructions: neutral alignment (with transitive agent A, transitive patient P, and intransitive sole argument S all treated in the same way), accusative alignment (A treated like S, P treated in a special way), and ergative alignment (P treated like S, A treated in a special way). The difference is that here we look at the way in which personal pronouns (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘we’, etc.) are treated, and we will see that they pattern rather differently from full noun phrases. As elsewhere in the world’s languages (Silverstein 1976, Dixon 1994: 83-94), we find that in the APiCS languages, too, personal pronouns show significantly more accusative patterning than full NPs, as well as less ergative marking.

In fact, there is no ergative alignment with personal pronouns attested in our languages at all: The only language with an ergative pattern of full NPs, Gurindji Kriol, shows accusative alignment with personal pronouns, for example the contrast dei (‘they’, A and S) vs. dem/jem (‘them’, P):

They saw the frog with his family.
We will take them to get witchetty grubs.

Note that when a language has a distinction between independent and dependent person forms (see Chapter 17), we consider only the dependent person forms here, because these are much more commonly used as subjects and objects.

2. The feature values

The two feature values are thus only (i) neutral alignment (i.e. no subject-object distinction in personal pronouns) and (ii) accusative alignment (i.e. a subject-object distinction). It turns out that more than half of the APiCS languages have accusative alignment, i.e. a subject-object distinction in person forms.

Neutral alignment22
Accusative alignment54

Interestingly, this effect is much stronger in the APiCS languages than in the world’s languages in general. In Comrie (2005), neutral alignment in full NPs is about twice as common as accusative alignment in full NPs, but with personal pronouns, this relationship is not reversed: Neutral alignment still prevails over accusative alignment, though by a much smaller margin. However, this difference may to some extent be due to the fact that Comrie considered only independent personal pronouns; as Siewierska (2005b) shows, when only bound person forms are considered, accusative alignment is more than twice as common as neutral alignment in the world’s languages, so the preference for accusativity is even stronger.

There is a general implicational relationship between accusative alignment in full NPs and personal pronouns: If a language has a subject-object distinction in full NPs, it also has such a distinction in person forms (Silverstein 1976). Thus, the 54 accusative languages in this chapter include all 14 accusative languages of the preceding chapter.

3. Partial distinctions

In most languages, not all personal pronouns make a subject-object distinction. A few paradigms of languages with accusative alignment are given below.

(2) Ambon Malay (Paauw 2013)

subject object
1sg beta; bet; be beta
2sg ose; os; se ose; os; se
2sg ale; al ale
3sg dia; di; de dia
3sg.formal antua; ontua; ... antua; ontua; ...
3sg.n akang akang; kang; ang
1pl katong; tong katong
2pl dorang; dong dorang; dong
3pl dorang; dong dorang; dong

(3) Ghanaian Pidgin English (Huber 2013)

subject object
1sg à
3sg ì àm
1pl wì, ɔ̀s
3pl dè, dɛ̀m dɛ̀m

(4) Guinea-Bissau Kriyol (Intumbo et al. 2013)

subject object
1sg ŋ ŋ
2sg bu u
3sg i l
1pl no nu
2pl bo bos
3pl e elis

These paradigms are quite typical, also in that they do not show a consistent pattern, i.e. no specific accusative marker can be discerned. Case-marking is thus suppletive, and for this reason, these forms are not normally treated as different (nominative vs. accusative) cases, but as different subject and object forms. (From our perspective, however, there is no difference between these two ways of talking about the contrasts.)

In some languages, the distinction is even more partial than in the three languages above. For example, in Atlantic English-based languages, typically only the first person singular and/or the third person singular makes a distinction:


1sg 3sg
Creolese ii/am
Gullah I/me ee/um
Kriol ai/mi
Nengee a/en

Note that even these very partial paradigms have been counted as exhibiting accusative alignment. A limiting case is Papiamentu, where there is only a single distinction in some varieties of the language (2nd person singular accusative bu, contrasting with the neutral form bo, only in the Curaçao variety), so this language has been considered to show neutral alignment.

4. Orgins of accusative marking on personal pronouns

The APiCS languages can be grouped into three diachronic types with respect to the origin of their accusative marking.

In the first type, the accusative forms derive from special accusative prepositions or postpositions/case suffixes. This is the case with those languages that have patient markers in full NPs, too, especially Portuguese- and Spanish-based creoles in South and Southeast Asia:

Korlai pe-l 'him' (Clements 2013) (per < Portuguese para)
Diu Indo-Portuguese a el 'him' (Cardoso 2013) (a < Portuguese a)
Sri Lanka Portuguese elis-pa 'them' (Smith 2013) (-pa < Portuguese para)
Batavia Creole kung eo 'me' (Maurer 2013b) (kung < Portuguese com)
Zamboanga Chabacano kun-éle 'him' (Steinkrüger 2013) (kun- < Spanish con)

A French-based language in which the person forms have preposition-derived accusative forms is Reunion Creole (a-mwen ‘me’, a-li ‘him’, a-nou ‘us’, etc., from French à).

In the second type, the special nominative and accusative forms were inherited from the lexifier. This is the case with many English-based languages, such as Ghanaian Pidgin English in (3) above, as well as the languages shown in (5). The English lexifier is different from the Romance lexifiers in that it has no clitic personal pronouns, so the case distinctions of the independent pronouns sometimes survived. In the Romance-based languages, the clitic personal pronouns were invariably lost, so no case distinctions generally survived from the lexifiers. (An exception is the distinction between i and li in Seychelles Creole, which seems to go back to the French il/lui contrast.) It should be noted, however, that in some of the more basilectal Caribbean English-based varieties, no case distinctions are made, and it is only due to contact with English that the distinctions are reemerging.

Accusative pronoun forms were also inherited from a source language in some of the mixed languages such as Media Lengua, Michif and Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu.

In the third type, the nominative–accusative contrast has come about by sound changes, which often affect subject pronouns more than object pronouns, so that they tend to be shorter. This can be seen in some of the forms in (4) from Guinea-Bissau Kriyol, and also in the forms in (7).


subject object
Louisiana Creole 1sg mo mwa
2sg to twa
Principense 1sg (i)n, (u)n mi, n
3sg ê li, e
San Andres Creole English 3sg ihn [ı ̃] im
3pl dehn [de ̃] dem

More reduction in the subject forms than in the object forms is also generally found in Ambon Malay (see (2) above), but the opposite may also be found (in the 3rd singular neutral form akang vs. ang).