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Differential Object Marking

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Title: Differential Object Marking  
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Differential Object Marking

Differential object marking (DOM) is a linguistic phenomenon that is present in more than 300 languages; the term was coined by Georg Bossong.[1][2] In languages where DOM is active, direct objects are divided in two different classes, depending on different meanings, and, in most DOM languages, only one of the classes receives a marker, the other being unmarked (but there are languages, like Finnish, where both types of objects are marked with different endings).


A well-known DOM language is Spanish. In Spanish, direct objects that are both human and specific require a special marker (the preposition a "to"):[3][4][5][6]

  • Pedro besó a Lucía. = Peter kissed Lucy. (Literally, "Peter kissed to Lucy")

Inanimate direct objects do not usually allow this marker, even if they are specific:

  • Pedro besó el retrato. = Peter kissed the picture.

Yet, some animate objects that are specific can optionally bear the marker:

  • Pedro vio (a) la gata. = Peter saw (to) the cat-FEM

Other languages

Other examples of languages with differential object marking are Persian, Turkish, Copala Triqui, Khasi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kham, and Amharic. In Turkish, the direct object can either have accusative case or have no (visible) case at all; when it has accusative case, it is interpreted as specific (e.g. one specific person), and otherwise it is interpreted as nonspecific (e.g. some person).[7]

This is different from what happens in non-DOM languages, where all direct objects are uniformly marked in the same way; for instance, a language could mark all direct objects with an accusative ending (as in Latin); other language could leave all direct objects without overt marker (as in English).

Research on DOM

Although the phenomenon has been known for a very long time, it was considered a minor quirk in a few languages until Georg Bossong, during the eighties, presented evidence of DOM in more than 300 languages.[8][9] Since then, it has become an important topic of research in grammatical theory. This is a selection of works that deal with the phenomenon:

  • Aissen, Judith. 2003. Differential object marking: Iconicity vs. Economy. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 21:435–448.[1]
  • Bittner, Maria. 1994. Case, scope, and binding. Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory v. 30. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.[2]
  • Bossong, Georg. 1983–1984. Animacy and Markedness in Universal Grammar. Glossologia 2–3:7–20.[3]
  • Bossong, Georg. 1985. Empirische Universalienforschung. Differentielle Objektmarkierung in der neuiranischen Sprachen. Tübingen: Narr.
  • Bossong, Georg. 1991. Differential object marking in Romance and beyond. In New Analyses in Romance Linguistics, Selected Papers from the XVIII Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages 1988, eds. D. Wanner and D. Kibbee, 143–170. Amsterdam: Benjamins.[4]
  • Bossong, Georg. 1997. Le Marquage Différentiel de L'Objet dans les Langues d'Europe. In Actance et Valence dans les Langues d'Europe, ed. J. Feuillet, 193–258. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyte.
  • Brugé, Laura, and Brugger, Gerhard. 1996. On the Accusative a in Spanish. Probus 8:1–51.
  • De Swart, Peter. 2007. Cross-linguistic Variation in Object Marking, University of Nijmegen: PhD Dissertation.[5]
  • Heusinger, Klaus von, and Kaiser, Georg A. 2003. Animacy, Specificity, and Definiteness in Spanish. In Proceedings of the Workshop Semantic and Syntactic Aspects of Specificity in Romance Languages. Arbeitspapier 113, eds. Klaus von Heusinger and Georg A. Kaiser, 41–65. Konstanz: Universität Konstanz.[6]
  • Heusinger, Klaus von, and Kaiser, Georg A. 2005. The evolution of differential object marking in Spanish. In Proceedings of the Workshop “Specificity And The Evolution / Emergence of Nominal Determination Systems in Romance”, eds. Klaus von Heusinger, Georg A. Kaiser and Elisabeth Stark, 33–70. Konstanz: Universität Konstanz.[7]
  • Iemmolo, Giorgio. 2010. Topicality and differential object marking. Evidence from Romance and beyond. Studies in Language 34:2, 239–272.
  • Leonetti, Manuel. 2004. Specificity and Differential Object Marking in Spanish. Catalan Journal of Linguistics 3:75–114.[8]
  • Öztürk, Balkiz. 2005. Case, Referentiality and Phrase Structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.[9]
  • Pensado, Carmen ed. 1995. El complemento directo preposicional. Madrid: Visor.[10]
  • Rodríguez-Mondoñedo, Miguel. 2007. The Syntax of Objects. Agree and Differential Object Marking, University of Connecticut: PhD Dissertation.[11]
  • Torrego, Esther. 1998. The dependencies of objects. Linguistic Inquiry Monographs, 34. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.[12]


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