Mathias Jenny to present paper at SEALS conference

Mathias Jenny will present a paper on Differential Subject Marking in Burmese at the 22nd SEALS conference in France on Thursday 31 May 2012.

Differential Subject marking in Burmese - the uses and functions of ká

Mathias JENNY, University of Zurich & San San HNIN TUN, INaLCO Paris


Burmese is a verb-final language with postpositional (enclitic) markers indicating grammatical functions and relations. The pre-verbal slots are assigned to arguments and adjuncts based mainly on pragmatic grounds, with the main focus in the immediate pre-verbal position. Topical elements tend to occur in clause-initial position, irrespective of their grammatical function. The grammatical relation Subject can be established in Burmese based on a number of features and constructions, such as causativization and control, which target only Subjects, and some types of chaining, which allow only coreferential Subjects to be deleted (cf. Sawada 1995). There are no signs of morphological or syntactic ergativity in Burmese in any construction; the Subject subsumes the S argument of intransitive and the A argument of transitive and ditransitive verbs. Morphologically, the Subject can be described as the argument that can be expressed by a noun or pronoun without enclitic case marker. This sets the Subject apart from other arguments, such as (primary) Object, which, if expressed by a pronoun, usually must take the enclitic object/goal marker ko. Also, only Subjects may trigger optional number agreement on verbal predicates.

Canonical Subjects are unmarked, though they may optionally take the marker ká, which is also used to mark (some kinds of) topics and ablative relations, that is, it marks the referent as the source of a movement, either concrete (spatial) or abstract (temporal or other). Though the different functions of this marker may go back to a common origin, there is little overlap or ambiguity in the spoken language today. As the marker ká does not obligatorily occur with all Subjects, it cannot be analyzed as a real ‘subject marker’. Burmese thus obviously has a form of Differential Subject Marking (DSM). DSM occurs with intransitive and transitive predicates as well as with non-verbal predicates. It’s occurrence is obviously independent of the need to distinguish grammatical relations of the arguments in transitive expressions, though it can be used in this function. There also appear to be a number of constructions where the use of ká is obligatory. The present study explores and explains the conditions leading to the use of the ká marker, as well as the impacts, if any, the DSM has on syntactic constructions. The study is based on theoretical and typological considerations of differential argument marking as well as on the analysis of a corpus of spoken Burmese consisting of about 250’000 words. The main questions to be answered are “what features condition or favor the use of the DSM in Burmese, and does DSM have any impact on syntactic constructions?” DSM seems to be largely independent of the semantics and other properties of the predicate (cf. Onishi 2001:23ff) and the subject argument and to be rather sensitive to information structure and discourse pragmatics (cf. de Hoop & de Swart 2008). Possibly the DSM is more common with certain semantic types of referents and predicates, or in certain combinations thereof in a clause.


  • de Hoop, Helen & Peter de Swart. 2008. Cross-linguistic variation in differential subject marking. In de Hoop, Helen & Peter de Swart (eds.) Differential subject marking. Dordrecht: Springer, 1-16.
  • Onishi, Masayuki. 2001. Introduction: Non-canonically marked subjects and objects: parameters and properties. In Aikhenvald, Alexandra, R. M. W. Dixon & Masayuki Onishi (eds.) Non-canonical marking of subjects and objects. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1-51.
  • Sawada, Hideo. 1995. The usages and functions of particles -kou_/-ka. in colloquial Burmese. In Senri Ethnological Studies 41, 154-87.