Against Tense as the Licensing Head for Nominative Objects

James Lavine, Bucknell University

This paper discusses data from Lithuanian and North Russian that exhibit a "Case–in–Tiers" effect (Yip et al. 1987), the strong cross–linguistic correlation between NOM objects and the presence of oblique subjects. The basic idea is that NOM is predictably assigned (checked, valued) "downstairs" only in case it fails to be assigned "upstairs". The empirical domain of the paper concerns non–agreeing Lithuanian participial predicates in word–final /–ma/–ta/, which mark the evidential mood (as in (1a)), and non–agreeing North Russian participial predicates in word–final /–no/–to/, which mark the perfect aspect (as in (1b)).

(1) a. Lithuanian –ma/–ta

Gal Jonuko tie grybai atne&shachek;ta.

maybe Jonukas:GEN these mushrooms:NOM.PL brought:–TA

'Maybe Jonukas brought these mushrooms.' [Ambrazas et al., 1997:281]

b. North Russian –no/–to

U nas vzjato ot Van&soft;kinyx takoj ploxoj kot.

at us:GEN taken:–TO from Vankin's such bad cat:NOM

'We have taken such a bad cat from the Vankin's.' [Kuz'mina & Nemchenko 1971:35]

A plausible typological explanation for these construction types as "embryonic" ergatives is presented in Lavine 1999, though many questions remain regarding the case–assigning mechanisms involved, especially in light of Chomsky's 2001 "Derivation by Phase" [DbP] model, which proposes a strict phase–based cyclic Spell–Out approach to derivational syntax. First, I show that the oblique (or PP) marking on the subject of the Lithuanian and North Russian constructions in (1) is assigned as a lexical property of the /–ma/–ta/ // /–no/–to/ affix. This is an unremarkable instance of quirky–case assignment by a lexical head, in this case, an affix, as opposed to quirky subjects in Icelandic, which are assigned according to a lexical idiosyncrasy of a particular verb. Next, I take up the question of how NOM is assigned on the object. The licensing mechanism for NOM objects is the main theoretical focus of the paper. Of particular interest is whether NOM on the object must necessarily be valued by an Agree relation with T(ense).

Indeed, if T's uninterpretable phi–features normally value NOM case, as is standardly assumed, an Agree relation can be argued to hold between T's probe and the NOM object, provided that vo is stipulated as defective in such cases. This stipulation is necessary in order to override Chomsky's (2001) Phase Impenetrability Condition, which states that the domain of a phase–defining head is not accessible to operations outside of that phase, unless, crucially, the phase is defective and, thus, is not sent off to the interfaces. Since the predicates in (1) contain full–fledged external arguments, I will not pursue the possibility further that vo is defective in such cases.

Further argumentation against T as the source for the object's NOM case follows from the fact that T itself is defective: it is non–agreeing and, by hypothesis, lacks the phi–features that value NOM. In addition, elsewhere in both languages, NOM objects regularly cooccur with non–finite predicates. It will be shown that the NOM NPs in the constructions in (1) are well–behaved structurally case–marked objects in all respects (e.g., they undergo Genitive of Negation and Partitive Genitive formation, and can serve as the target of reflexivization).

The central claim of this paper is that the realization of morphological NOM is a clausal property: case on the object NP is determined not solely by its position in the clause, but by the structure of the rest of the clause (for languages that admit a Case–in–Tiers–like system) (see Marantz 1991 and Harley 1995). This conclusion presents an empirical challenge to the strict cyclic Spell–Out requirement of the DbP system.


Ambrazas, V. et al. (1997). Lithuanian grammar. Vilnius: Baltos lankos.

Chomsky, N. (2001). "Derivation by phase." In Ken Hale: A life in language, ed. Michael Kenstowicz, 1–52. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Harley, H. (1995). Subjects, events, and licensing. Doctoral dissertation, MIT.

Kuz'mina, I. B. and E. V. Nemchenko. (1971). Sintaksis prichastnyx form v russkix govorax. Moskva> Nauka.

Lavine, J. (1999). "Subject properties and ergativity in North Russian and Lithuanian." In FASL 7: The Seattle Meeting, ed. K. Dziwirek et al., 307–328. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications.

Marantz, A. (1991). "Case and licensing." Proceedings of ESCOL '91, 234–253.

Yip, M. et al. (1987). Case in tiers. Language 63:217–250.