The L2 Acquisition of Polish Quirky Subjects

Maggie Sikorska, University of Ottawa

This paper looks at the acquisition of the so-called “quirky” subjects (i.e. constituents that appear in structural subject position and yet are marked other than with nominative case) in L2 Polish in order to determine whether English learners will be able to incorporate into their non-native grammars the specific characteristics of “quirky” subjects.

The mapping of arguments to syntactic positions with psych verbs such as podobać się (“like/appeal”) in Ewie podoba się Kanada (“Canada appeals to Eve”) is not always predictable in that the Experiencer (Ewie), which appears to be an object due to its dative case marking, behaves like a subject with respect to a number of syntactic properties. The Experiencer behaves like a nominative subject in being able to Variable Bind as in (1) [Każdemu  dziecku]i zachciało się swojeji zabawki (“Each child wanted his toy”); to control Temporal Gerundive Adjunct Clauses as in (2) [Ewie]i zachciało się płakać [podczas oglądania filmu]i (“Eve felt like crying while watching the movie”), Adversative Adjunct Clause Construction (3) [Mimo  usilnych starań]i, Ewiei nie pracowało się dobrze z Jankiem (“Despite repeated efforts, Eve did not work well with John”) and to control Participial Adjunct Clause Construction as in (4) Siedząc przy kominku, Ewie czytało się książkę z przyjemnością (“Sitting by the fireplace, Eve read the book with pleasure”) (Dziwirek 1994). These subjecthood tests evidence native speakers’ competence in terms of whether these Experiencers qualify as quirky subjects.                                                                                                          

Based on the above, we hypothesize that English L2 learners will produce nominative subjects instead of quirky subjects in their interlanguage grammars, since English is a system without quirky Case. We propose that as part of Universal Grammar, L2 learners will be aware that there exist interpretable and uninterpretable features. If the L1 plays a role in podobać się-type constructions, as in Ewie podoba się Kanada, L2 learners will value the uninterpretable [EPP]-feature of T with the nominal that was used to delete T’s uninterpretable [φ]-features, in this example with Kanada. Secondly, we argue that if valuation and deletion of features guides the L2 acquisition process, learners should produce correct structures with quirky subjects in Polish. In order to determine whether English learners of Polish have this knowledge and whether the dative markings obfuscate the fact that the Experiencer is the most prominent argument in the structure, an intermediate group of English speakers learning Polish, at a Heritage School in Ottawa, Canada, carried out a preference task, which tested their proficiency with respect to the subjecthood tests described in (1)-(4).  

Results show that these L2 learners reject objects in syntactic structures that are only suitable for a subject. This indicates that they are sensitive to the fact that constituents that appear in the structural subject position need not be marked with nominative case to be considered a subject of that structure. Our results show that, unlike the control group, where the results show that all learners correctly distinguished quirky subjects from objects in the preference task, not all L2 learners had established the correct valuation of the uninterpretable [EPP]-feature of T. This ungrammaticality stems from the fact, and also due to their L1, that the uninterpretable [EPP]-feature of T would be valued through the nominative nominal instead of the dative nominal.

The syntactic tests allowed us to detect the problems that non-native speakers have, even when they correctly produce some subjecthood constructions; however, L2 learners do not have native intuitions and thus were unable to process some of these tests.


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