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Role-reference associations and the explanation of argument coding splits (draft)

Haspelmath, Martin

Argument coding splits such as split (= differential) object marking and split ergative marking have long been known to represent universal tendencies, but the generalizations have not been formulated in their full generality before. In particular, ditransitive constructions have rarely been taken into account, and scenario splits have often been treated separately. Here I argue that all these patterns can be understood in terms of the usual association of role rank (highly ranked A and R, low-ranked P and T) and referential prominence (locuphoric person, animacy, specificity, etc.). At the most general level, the role-reference association universal says that deviations from usual associations of role rank and referential prominence tend to be coded by longer grammatical forms. In other words, A and R tend to be referentially prominent in language use, while P and T are less prominent, and when less usual associations need to be expressed, languages often require special coding by means of additional flags (case- markers and adpositions) or additional verb coding (e.g. inverse or passive markers). I argue that role-reference association is an instance of the even more general pattern of form-frequency correspondence, and that the coding asymmetries can all be explained by frequency-based predictability and coding efficiency.

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