Speaker: Jim Wood (Yale)

When: Monday February 1, 3:30pm

Where: Arts 145

Title: What is Case?


Case marking, in languages that have it, is a bit of mystery. It straddles the line between the systematic and the idiosyncratic. It follows regular rules, but allows a wide array of exceptions to those rules. It is trying to tell us something—even many things—about how natural language works, but what exactly is it telling us?

Standard treatments of case would have us believe that case tells us something about where a DP ends up—its final, licensing position (prior to any A’-dependencies). I will argue, to the contrary, that case tells us more about where a DP comes from than where it ends up, and that this holds even for “structural” cases like accusative.

I will make this point by probing the peculiar properties of accusative subjects in Icelandic. Although accusative subjects are often thought to be among the most idiosyncratic patterns of case marking, I will show that the various dimensions of idiosyncrasy coalesce under the following conclusion: accusative subjects are the promoted objects of hidden transitives.

This conclusion explains a range of facts that span the syntax, semantics and morphology. But it should force us to come to grips with its corollary: case can’t be about where a DP ends up, in the standard, licensing sense. A structural accusative object can, in the right circumstances, move to the subject position. What needs to be explained is why this doesn’t happen more often, and I will propose that the answer stems from the locality of A-dependencies.