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Folia Linguistica 2017; 51(2): 483–504
Corinna Handschuh*
Nominal category marking on personal
names: A typological study of case
and definiteness
Submitted June 30, 2016; Revision invited September 15, 2016;
Revision received November 30, 2016; Accepted December 15, 2016
Abstract: This paper investigates differences in encoding the two nominal categories case and definiteness between proper nouns (more precisely anthroponyms) and common nouns, based on a maximally diverse 40-language sample.
These differences can be found in a number of unrelated languages, though the
majority of languages appear to not distinguish between proper and common
nouns. However, this generalization has to be taken with a grain of salt, since
the paper illustrates that differences between the two types of nouns can be very
subtle and can thus be easily overlooked or left untreated in written grammars.
Differences are either manifested in the overall absence of marking of a category
on one type of nominal, or in distinct forms and/or conditions for the encoding.
Keywords: personal name, common noun, case marking, definiteness, typology
1 Introduction
Proper nouns are usually considered a subtype of nouns (or nominals), though
opinions differ as to their exact status and their centrality to the category. They
have been analyzed as prototypical members of the category of nouns (Broschart
1991: 124–125; Van Langendonck 2007a), as marginal members (Langacker 1991:
53), or as members of a distinct category altogether (Anderson 2004, Anderson
2007).1 However one classifies them with regard to their part-of-speech membership, proper nouns (henceforth, PN) may show distinct grammatical properties
1 More precisely, Anderson (2004: 456) “groups names, as determinatives, together with
determiners and pronouns as a member of a word class distinct from (common) nouns [ … ]
but a class which nevertheless shares with nouns the property of showing a preponderance of N
[i.e., the referential function, C.H.], which characterizes nominals in general.”
*Corresponding author: Corinna Handschuh, Allgemeine und Vergleichende
Sprachwissenschaft, Universität Regensburg, Universitätsstr. 31, 93053 Regensburg, Germany,
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from common nouns (henceforth, CN). More crucially, since (probably the
majority of) linguists use grammatical properties as the basis for assigning
words to lexical classes (e.g., Schachter and Shopen 2007: 1–2), any decisions
about the categorical status of PNs should be based on the insights from an indepth investigation of the differences between CNs and PNs with respect to these
grammatical properties. The differences between CNs and PNs can, for instance,
include the constructions in which they are each found or the frequency of
usage of constructions competing with PNs or CNs.2 In addition, morphosyntactic differences in encoding PNs vs. CNs may also derive from a certain morphosyntactic category being only overtly encoded on one of these two subclasses of
nouns or from distinct forms encoding that category.
The differences between PNs and CNs have been surveyed quite extensively
for German (e.g., Nübling et al. 2015) and a few other European languages. From
a typological point of view, Sasse (1993: 195) notes that differences in the
morphosyntactic behavior of PNs and CNs are found in numerous languages,
and PNs can thus be considered a separate class of words. He lists the Papuan
language Hua, several Austronesian and American languages, as well as
European languages. A systematic crosslinguistic survey of this topic is still
missing, despite the very extensive treatments of PNs with a crosslinguistic
mind-set by Anderson (2007) and Van Langendonck (2007b). This paper is an
attempt to remedy this situation.
Not only can PNs be differentiated from CNs based on grammatical properties in many languages, different subtypes of PNs may also exhibit distinct
behavior from one another. Names of persons (anthroponyms) and names of
places (toponyms), for instance, do not inevitably have the same grammatical
properties (Stolz et al. 2017). Anthroponyms have been argued to be the most
prototypical type of PNs and are most likely to show distinct behavior from CNs
(Anderson 2003: 365, 373; Van Langendonck and Van de Velde 2016: 33; Stolz et
al. 2017). The present study is limited to anthroponyms, while toponyms (or
other subtypes of PNs, which are, however, hardly ever discussed in grammars)
may or may not show the same morphosyntactic behavior in the languages
discussed here. To make this limitation clear, I will use the abbreviation PeN
(for personal name) when specifically dealing with anthroponyms.
2 An anonymous reviewer remarked that frequency is not typically considered to be a grammatical property. I would argue that the inherent grammatical knowledge of a speaker includes
information on whether a certain construction is typically used in a certain context or not, and it
should thus be considered a grammatical property. The publication of corpus-based grammars
in the last decades, such as Biber et al. (1999), indicates that this opinion is gaining ground in
the linguistic community.
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Nominal category marking on personal names
The aim of this paper is to investigate how common any special behavior of
PeNs is in crosslinguistic comparison. Based on a 40-language sample, the
encoding of the nominal categories case and definiteness is investigated. The
sample includes languages from all parts of the world and was put together in
order to map the extensive linguistic diversity of the globe in a comparably small
The paper is structured as follows: first, the method underlying the typological study is discussed (Section 2). Next, some theoretical considerations are made
concerning the marking of nominal categories on PeNs (Section 3). Afterwards, the
data from the sample is presented and discussed (Section 4), and finally, a
summary and an outlook on future research are provided (Section 5).
2 How to compare names across languages
Morphosyntactic categories such as nominative or passive are unsuitable for
language comparison due to their language-specific nature and idiosyncratic
properties in individual languages. Thus, in order to compare categories across
languages one needs to make use of so-called comparative concepts
(Haspelmath 2010). In morphosyntactic typology, semantic or discourse pragmatic structures are commonly employed. The categories S, A, and P/O –
representing the single argument of an intransitive and the more agent-like
and less agent-like arguments of a prototypical transitive verb, respectively –
are well-known comparative concepts that have been used in the study of
grammatical relations and alignment systems (Comrie 1978; Dixon 1994).
The following Section (2.1) discusses the comparative concepts employed for
this study. Afterwards, the method of sampling as well as the data sources are
described (2.2).
2.1 Defining comparative concepts
Van Langendonck and Van de Velde (2016: 18) define a comparative concept of
PN as follows: “we regard a name as a nominal expression that denotes a unique
entity at the level of established linguistic convention to make it psychologically
salient within a given basic level category”. This (quite technical) definition
captures the important facts, while being broad enough to include different
types of names, such as given names or nicknames. Another way to define the
comparative concept for PNs would be to describe the function that names serve
in communication. In principle, PNs serve the functions of reference and address
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(the latter function being limited to PeNs), though some cultures may avoid the
use of PeNs in one or both of these functions. Most notably, PNs do not predicate
any property of their referent. The two definitions can be said to be equivalent,
in that they will essentially identify identical elements as proper names in a
language. When working with grammars or texts, the decision on what is a PN
has already been made by the respective author and PNs can easily be identified
through the translation (e.g., capitalization) or a special glossing convention for
PNs (either using initials in the gloss or using PN or similar labels as a gloss).
In order to compare the marking of nominal categories on PeNs and CNs, a
comparative concept for the category common noun is needed. In several
languages, subtypes of CNs occur that can be clearly distinguished on morphosyntactic grounds. Grammatical differences between count and mass or alienable and inalienable nouns, for instance, are well known in a large number of
languages from all over the globe (Payne 1997: 40–42). The grammatical behavior of a nominal may also be affected by its animacy, especially in the encoding
of grammatical relations (see, among many others, Silverstein 1976; Bossong
1985; Bossong 1991; Dixon 1994).
For the present study, I have chosen CNs referring to persons, like “man”,
“woman”, or “child”, as the type of noun to be compared to PeNs. These CNs
have in common with PeNs that their referents are, on the one hand, highly
animate, and, on the other hand, are not likely to be considered an inherent
possession (i.e., inalienable). The inalienanability property distinguishes them
from kinship terms, which appear to exhibit many parallels to PeNs. Kinship
terms are found to be very similar to PeNs in a number of languages with
respect to their marking of case and definiteness (and other grammatical
categories, with the exception of possessor marking).3 In addition, kinship
terms are used as the preferred terms of address instead of names in many
languages/cultures (Bamberger 1974: 363), especially if the addressee is older
or of higher social status than the speaker. The relation between kinship terms
and PeNs offers many possibilities for further research. Judging from the data
gathered so far, kinship terms appear to have an intermediate position
between PeNs and CNs, behaving more similarly to one or the other in a
language. This paper, however, concentrates on the comparison of PeNs with
(non-kinship) CNs only.
3 To my knowledge, no systematic study of the inflectional parallels between personal names
and kinship terms exists. However, Anderson (2003: 364) notes a pervasive relationship
between the two that “may even be reflected in morphology”. In the languages of my sample,
there are also some instances in which (some) kinship terms behave like PeNs and unlike CNs
with respect to inflection.
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Nominal category marking on personal names
2.2 Sample design and data sources
For the present study, a sample of 40 languages has been created based on the
method proposed by Rijkhoff et al. (1993). The idea underlying this design is to
maximize the diversity within the sample. Based on a classification of the
world’s languages – the classification used in Rijkhoff et al. (1993) and in this
study is Ruhlen (1991) – distinct language phyla are established. Then, the
number of languages (extinct and extant) and the internal diversity (number
of and genetic distance between the branches) for each phylum are calculated.
On the basis of this internal diversity measure, for each phylum, the number of
languages is calculated that are to be included within a sample of a given size;
at least one slot is assigned to each phylum. If a phylum is represented by more
than one language, the internal structure of the branches and sub-branches of
the phylum is taken into consideration. Since language isolates constitute a
phylum of their own, all isolates must be included in the sample. The same
applies to known phyla that have become extinct. Especially in those cases no
(or insufficient) information may be available for any languages of a phylum. In
the 40-language sample, data was available for only 34 languages. No (or
insufficient) information was available for Etruscan, Gilyak, Hurrian, Meroitic,
Nahali, and Sumerian. Since slots in the sample are not reallocated to other
phyla, only the 34 languages for which information was available are included
in this study.4
The amount of information on PNs varies extensively between grammars.
Utley (1963) already noted that the treatment of PNs is virtually absent from
grammatical descriptions. The situation has not considerably improved since,
though there are some grammars that discuss the grammatical (and other)
properties of PNs in remarkable detail. In other cases, PNs are not discussed
in much detail, but the examples (and sometimes texts) provide enough
4 The following languages have been investigated based on the literature indicated: Abui
(Kratochvíl 2007), Atong (Van Breugel 2008), Basque (Hualde 2003), Boumaa Fijian (Dixon
1988), Burushaski (Smith 2012; Munshi 2016), Chemehuevi (Press 1980), Chukchi (Dunn 1999),
Finnish (Karlsson 1999), Fongbe (Lefebvre and Brousseau 2002), Goemai (Hellwig 2011),
Gooniyandi (McGregor 1990), Greater Andamanese (Abbi 2013), Hmong Njua (Harrienhausen
1990), Hup (Epps 2008), Iatmul (Jendraschek 2012), Imbabura Quechua (Cole 1982), Jamsay
(Heath 2008), Ket (Vajda 2004), Khwarshi (Khalilova 2009), Lango (Noonan 1992), Lao (Enfield
2007), Libido (Crass 2014), Mosetén (Sakel 2004), Persian (Mahootian and Gebhardt 1997),
Sandawe (Steeman 2012), Saramaccan Creole (McWhorter and Good 2012), Semelai (Kruspe
2004), Seri (Marlett 2016), Slave (Rice 1989), Tamil (Lehmann 1989), Turkish (Göksel, Aslı &
Celia Kerslake 2005), Warrongo (Tsunoda 2011), West Greenlandic (Fortescue 1984), Zialo
(Babaev 2010).
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instances of PNs in actual usage to draw my own conclusions.5 In selecting the
languages for the sample, the availability of descriptions containing information
on PeNs had to be given high priority. Therefore, at the lower levels of genealogical grouping, it was impossible to always adhere to the strict methods of
selecting individual languages employed by Rijkhoff et al. (1993). In addition,
the absence of language contact between the languages of the sample could not
always be taken into consideration, though this is of course a well-known factor
for introducing non-independence of data points into the sample (Dryer 1989).
3 The marking of nominal categories
Under nominal categories will be subsumed the types of morphosyntactic marking frequently found on nouns (or on noun phrases) across languages. The
categories traditionally distinguished for nouns are case, number, gender, definiteness, and possession. In this paper, only the categories case and definiteness
are discussed; the other categories have been excluded for the reasons given in
Section 3.3.
A morphological category is marked in a particular language if in that
language, different feature values for that category are distinguished by overt
marking. In the following, the term marking is not restricted to inflection
through concatenation of bound morphemes but it also encompasses free
elements, stem changes, and suprasegmental marking (see Bickel and Nichols
2007: 172–174). Furthermore, one feature value within a category may be
expressed through the absence of any overt marking. Following the terminology introduced by the Prague School (e.g., Jakobson 1939), this feature value
is often referred to as unmarked. More recently, the term zero-coded has been
introduced, since the terms “marked” and “unmarked” are used in linguistics
for a number of distinct, though related, concepts (Haspelmath 2006).
Whenever a zero-coded feature value contrasts with overtly coded feature
values of the same category, zero-coding is also considered as marking of
that category.
An individual marker can have more than one function and thus encode
more than one grammatical category. Overlap between the categories case and
definiteness is, for instance, found in languages that exhibit differential object
marking (DOM). These languages do not mark all (direct) objects alike. Often an
overt marker of the object role is only found with a subset of objects that have
5 However, interesting patterns that exist in these languages may not have been represented in
the examples available.
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Nominal category marking on personal names
certain referential properties, most likely definiteness/specificity and/or animacy. This pattern can be demonstrated by the following examples from
Turkish (1).
a. Melek bir erkek bul-uyor.
Melek one man search-PRS
‘Melek is looking for a (/any) man.’
(constructed example)
b. Melek bir erkeǧ-i
Melek one man-ACC search-PRS
‘Melek is looking for a (certain) man.’
(constructed example)
As the direct object erkek in (1a) does not refer to any particular man, it is in the
zero-coded form. In (1b), a particular man is referred to, and thus the accusative
marker -i is suffixed to the noun stem encoding its role as a direct object
referring to a specific entity.6 In instances like these, the relevant marker is
classified as marking definiteness/specificity as well as case.
3.1 Case on personal names
Case is the label traditionally applied to the forms of a nominal paradigm that
indicate the role of the noun’s referent in the larger syntactic context, most
typically the clause, or, as Blake (2001: 1) phrases it, “the relationship they [i.e.,
dependent nouns, C.H.] bear to their heads”. Individual case forms are language-specific categories and their respective functions vary considerably
between languages. If one wants to compare case across languages, the only
viable approach is to identify those roles (often via a specific construction or
context) and to consider the range of functions individual case forms are found
in. Case forms that show a considerable overlap in the roles they encode are
often referred to by identical labels in different languages, but this does not
mean that case forms with identical names will have all functions in common.
Like other human (or more generally animate) nouns, PeNs can appear in a
number of semantic roles and thus are likely to be case marked (in languages
6 Without the numeral/indefinite article bir ‘one’, sentence (1b) would usually be translated
with a definite object NP. This is illustrated below in example (6b).
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that employ overt case marking). The referents of PeNs are expected to occur in
the following functions. I list the comparative concept as well as case labels
usually associated with the respective function:
– single argument of intransitive verb = S (NOM, ABS)
– more agentive argument of transitive verb = A (NOM, ERG)
– less agentive argument of transitive verb = P (ACC, ABS)
– goal/recipient argument of ditransitive verb = G/R (DAT)
– experiencer of psych-verb = usually coded like either A or G/R
– entity accompanying a participant = Comitative (COM)
– attributive possessor = Possessor (GEN)
– extra-syntactic form employed to draw attention of/identify addressee = term
of address (VOC)
While the inclusion of most of these functions in the case system is uncontroversial, the last two entries deserve some discussion. Other than the case forms
discussed above, the prototypical function of the genitive is to mark a noun’s
role, namely, the adnominal possessor, within the noun phrase and not at
clause level.7 In this paper, then, markers of attributive possessors are included
as case forms. An in-depth survey of the entire possessive construction found
with PeNs – as contrasted with CNs – should also include possessive relations
marked through juxtaposition and the respective ordering of elements. This
would be an interesting typological study on its own, though it is beyond the
scope of this paper. Here, only case-like markers found on possessors are
A form with a very different function, though often listed among the case
forms of a language, is the vocative (Daniel and Spencer 2009). As a comparative concept, term of address appears to be a more suitable label, since
the expression of the communicative function of addressing someone shows a
wide range of encoding strategies (inflectional marking, vocative particles,
special intonation patterns). In most languages, the address function is one
in which PeNs feature prominently. The same is true for kinship terms, which
often function as substitutes for PeNs in address function. Again, a complete
survey of all means to encode forms of address is not feasible within the
scope of this paper, which only includes forms of address that are part of the
case paradigm.
In what follows, I will classify a language as having case if (at least two)
distinct forms can be identified that encode and distinguish between any of the
7 Sometimes, the category case is only used for forms marking clause level functions; thus
genitives are not considered as case (e.g., by Dixon 2010: 268).
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functions listed above. This is a wider definition of case than employed in some
grammars that only consider marking of the core cases (distinguishing between
transitive A and P). Sometimes the definition is further limited to case marking
through bound morphemes. As a consequence, some languages that are explicitly said not to have case marking in their respective reference grammars will be
classified as having case.
3.2 Definiteness on proper nouns
The use of definite articles with proper nouns is a variable on which even the
(Indo-)European languages differ (and individual languages differ with respect
to different subclasses of PNs). While the combination of definite article and
(unmodified) PeN is ungrammatical in English, it is obligatory in Modern Greek
and commonly found in dialectal/colloquial varieties of German – though more
research is needed on the exact factors conditioning the presence/absence of the
article with PNs in different varieties (Werth 2014, Werth 2015). As they refer to a
unique entity, PNs are considered by most linguists – a notable exception is
Anderson (2004, 2007) – to be inherently definite. Languages appear to differ in
their treatment of such inherently definite items: they either need not (or rather
must not) be overtly marked as such, or they are obligatorily accompanied by a
marker of definiteness.
Definite articles are rare crosslinguistically (Himmelmann 1997: 189). Similar
elements, marking specificity or referentiality, are found in a larger range of
languages. Himmelmann (1997: 195–198) identifies true definite articles only in
(the western branches of) Indo-European, Hungarian, the Northwest Caucasian
languages, Basque, and in some Afroasiatic languages, while articles marking
specificity are found in Austronesian and Niger-Congo languages. In other languages, attributive demonstratives can be found in contexts that would require a
definite article in English. Not surprisingly, demonstratives are a well-known source
for the grammaticalization of definite articles (Diessel 1999: 128). For English,
however, a stark contrast can be found between the definite article and demonstratives in their adnominal usage (see Hawkins 1978: 149–157).
Since the inherent definiteness of PNs implies inherent specificity and
referentiality, markers of these three categories are included in this study.
Himmelmann (1997: 6–7) uses the term D-element as a cover term for markers
of any of these categories. In his study he applies the term to free, article-like
elements only. Modeled after Himmelmann’s term D-element, I will speak of Dmarking to refer to the overt encoding – by whichever grammatical means – of
definiteness, specificity, or referentiality.
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3.3 Nominal categories excluded from the survey
Apart from case and definiteness, which have been discussed above, three
further nominal categories are found across languages, namely, number, gender, and possession. These categories are not discussed in this paper for a
number of reasons.
Firstly, number marking, in the sense applied to CNs, is considered absent
from PeNs, since they refer to singular entities. Of course, there is the possibility
of wanting to refer to a group of people bearing the same name, in which case
one would want to form a plural of that name (which is possible in English, e.g.,
I know five Peters). Contexts like this are very rarely discussed in grammars of
little described languages, and thus cannot be easily included in a typological
study. However, some languages distinguish a special kind of plural marking,
the so-called associative plural, which is predominantly found on PeNs and
kinship terms and limited to them in some languages. The associative plural
refers to a person and a group of people associated with them (usually their
spouse, family, or friends). This phenomenon has already gained some attention
in typological studies, for instance in Daniel and Moravcsik (2013), and has
therefore been excluded from the present study.
Secondly, under gender marking are here subsumed all groupings of
nouns into inherent classes that are manifested through agreement. This
includes noun class systems found in Bantu languages, and not only IndoEuropean type gender systems (see Corbett 1991). The hypothesis that the
gender assignment of PeNs will be based on semantic factors such as sex or
animacy of the referent appears to be quite convincing and holds, in general,
for the limited number of languages with a gender system in my sample. There
are some notable exceptions of languages in which gender assignment is
peculiar for PeNs or other types of PNs. Van de Velde (2006), for instance,
argues that PNs in the Bantu language Eton are genderless. A related, yet
distinct, phenomenon is the system of nominal classification (Dixon 1986). For
example, classifiers found with all other nouns in most contexts in Hmong
Njua are absent on PeNs (Harrienhausen 1990: 123). Nübling (2015) argues that
(some) PNs in German are currently transforming the original gender system
into a system of classifiers. She illustrates this with examples of brand names
which are used to refer to products of the respective brands belonging to
several semantic types. For instance, brands of motorcycles are always accompanied by the feminine article, sometimes providing minimal pairs like die
BMW ‘the [F.SG] BMW (motorcycle)’ versus der BMW ‘the [M.SG] BMW (car)’.
More extensive research on the domains of gender marking and nominal
classification may well reveal more interesting data. However, as the relevant
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Nominal category marking on personal names
research has not been carried out so far, gender and other classificatory
systems are not treated any further here.
Finally, the category of possession refers to the overt marking of the possessor of a noun on that noun, typically through a set of bound elements
indicating person and/or number and/or gender of the possessor. Overt possessor marking on PeNs is hardly ever discussed in descriptive grammars. Though I
have observed instances of possessor marking on PeNs in Turkish, I have not yet
found this structure mentioned in a grammar of Turkish, a comparatively welldescribed language. As it is nearly impossible to gather information on this
structure in written grammars, it has been excluded from the present study.
4 Case and definiteness on proper nouns
from a crosslinguistic perspective
In this section, the results from the crosslinguistic study are presented. Case and
D-marking on PeNs is surveyed in comparison to the marking found on CNs.
Essentially, four possibilities present themselves for the overt encoding of each
nominal category:
1. absent from both PeNs and CNs
2. present only on PeNs but not on CNs
3. present only on CNs but not on PeNs
4. present on both PeNs and CNs
With regard to the last possibility, i.e., a category overtly encoded on both PeNs
and CNs, a three-way distinction can be made based on the actual forms used to
encode the feature values of the category and on the conditions for the occurrence of these forms:8
a. different forms (and conditions) for PeNs and CNs
b. different conditions for PeNs and CNs
identical forms and conditions for PeNs and CNs
In the following Sections (4.1–4.3), I will illustrate these three patterns with
examples from my sample. Afterwards, the general distribution of all encoding
patterns is presented for case (Section 4.4) and definiteness (Section 4.5).
8 No language has been identified in the sample that uses different forms and conditions for
PeNs and CNs. Since differences in marking are more easily spotted, I assume that some
languages classified as type a. might also employ different conditions.
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4.1 Distinct markers for the two types of nouns
In this pattern, the markers of a nominal category have distinct forms for PeNs
and CNs. A language is classified as belonging to this type if distinct markers are
at least found for one feature value of the category case, e.g., different
Accusative markers for CNs and PeNs. Austronesian languages are well known
for employing distinct forms for what is often referred to as the “article” in
grammars.9 While the form of the article used with CNs is a (2a), the distinct
form o is used with PeNs (2b) in Boumaa Fijian.
Boumaa Fijian
a. e
rai-ca a
gone a
3SG see-TR ART.CN child ART.CN old person
‘The old person saw the child.’ /‘The child saw the old person.’
(Dixon 1988: 243)
b. o
Nato saa e
rai-ci ʼea o
ART.PN Nato ASP 3SG see-TR him ART.PN Ropate
‘As for Nato, Ropate came to see him.’
(Dixon 1988: 247)
A more complex situation arises with Finnish case marking. Case forms in Finnish
are marked by inflectional affixes which are often accompanied by various changes
of the stem, namely consonant gradation and changes in the final vowel (Karlsson
1999: 38, 53). Application of the various manifestations of these changes can usually
be predicted by the form of the stem. Two notable exceptions are loanwords and,
most crucially, PNs, most of which “do not have consonant gradation” (Karlsson
1999: 53). In those instances, case is only marked via suffixes. Though there are
some PeNs that do take part in consonant gradation (for instance the two given
names Pekka and Matti, judging from Karlsson’s examples), these appear to be the
minority. In this case, I have analyzed Finnish PeNs on the basis of the majority of
cases, and have thus classified them as having forms distinct from CNs.
4.2 Identical markers, different conditions
While the pattern illustrated above will quite certainly be discussed in a descriptive grammar, behavioral differences in the usage of nominal markers are much
9 The function of this article is not to mark definiteness, but rather specificity or referentiality
of an NP (Himmelmann 1997: 197).
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Nominal category marking on personal names
harder to identify. Given the limited (or even missing) discussion of PNs in most
grammars, patterns parallel to the one discussed below are probably much more
widespread in the languages of the world. The Amazonian language Hup has a
system of differential object marking mainly based on the animacy of the
referent (Epps 2008: 170–178). While nouns referring to humans (as well as
pronouns and demonstratives) require overt case marking as direct objects
(3a), this is ungrammatical for CNs referring to inanimates (3b). Animals take
an intermediate position between humans and inanimates and can optionally be
marked with the accusative marker -ǎn. However, with PeNs overt accusative
case-marking appears to be obligatory, irrespective of the animacy of the referent. As is demonstrated in (3c), an inanimate direct object has to be in the
accusative case when it is referred to by a PeN.
Hup (Brazil, Amazonas State)
a. tãɁã́y tɨh=tæ̃́h-ǎn
woman 3SG=offspring-ACC grab-DYN
‘The woman grabs her son.’
(Epps 2008: 175)
b. tegcáɁ
Ɂãh d’óɁ-óy, […]
wood_box 1SG take-DYN
‘I took matches, […]’
(Epps 2008: 322)
c. hǎt-ǎn
Ɂãh d’óɁ-óh
alligator-ACC 1SG take-DECL
‘I took Alligator [i.e., the nickname of a canoe, C.H.].’
(Epps 2008: 173)
In the Chadic language Goemai, the definite article =hók can be combined with CNs
like réép ‘girl’ or PeNs like Patience, given that they are uniquely identifiable form
the previous discourse, as is illustrated in example (4). While such examples are
possible, “names […] only rarely occur modified in natural texts” (Hellwig 2011: 84).
Goemai (Nigeria, Plateau State)
Tó/ yí=màn
zèm ní
okay 2SG.F.CONS=know girl(SG)=DEF like 3SG.OBJ well
[Patience=hòk]NP/ zèm ní
[Patience=DEF]NP like 3SG.OBJ well
‘Okay, and so you know the girl liked him a lot (lit. the) Patience liked him
a lot.’
(Hellwig 2011: 84)
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The language isolate Burushaski appears to be another example of this type.
Burushaski has ergative–absolutive alignment. Transitive A-arguments are
marked with the ergative case-suffix -e. This marker is realized as vowel lengthening on nouns ending in short vowels and zero on those ending in long vowels
(Smith 2012: 14). Ergativity is split so that first- and second-person pronouns do
not take the ergative in future and imperative contexts in the Hunza variety, the
variety dealt with in the present paper (Tiffou and Morin 1982: 89). The ergative
ending may be absent in additional contexts according to textual data, namely,
on inanimate A-arguments and, most crucially, on PeNs (and possibly pronouns) followed by the complementizer ke (Smith 2012: 18, fn. 5). The absence
of the ergative on a PeN A-argument and the standard marking of transitive As
with -e is illustrated in example (5).
Hunza Burushaski (North Pakistan)
a. baad̪il ǰamaal ke
Badil Jamal COMPL 3M-see-3F.PST
‘Badil Jamal saw him.’
(Smith 2012: 18)
b. ǰe-e
hir i-yeč-a
1SG-ERG man 3.M-see-1 AUX.1.PRS
‘I see the man.’
(Smith 2012: 18)
4.3 Identical markers and conditions
The final pattern does not distinguish between PeNs and CNs in encoding
nominal categories. Turkish belongs to this category, as is illustrated in example
(6a), in which accusative case is marked on a PeN via the suffix -i. The same
marker is used with CNs like erkek ‘man’, as in (6b). Since PeNs always refer to a
specific entity, the accusative should always be found on names.
a. Turkish
Erkek Meleǧ-i
man Melek-ACC see-PST
‘The man saw Melek.’
(constructed example)
b. Melek erkeǧ-i
Melek man-ACC see-PST
‘Melek saw the man.’
(constructed example)
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Nominal category marking on personal names
The Seri language, considered an isolate by many (e.g., Marlett 2016: 9),
uses the same sets of definite articles on CNs and PeNs.10 These articles also
specify the orientation of their head nominal. The following example demonstrates the occurrence of the form com, used with horizontally positioned and
typically long referents, with CNs (7a) and PeNs (7b), respectively.
Seri (Mexico, Sonora)
a. Zixquisiil com
‘The child has her/his eyes closed.’
(Marlett 2016: 563)
b. Ox tpacta ma, José
totj, …
Joseph DEF.HZ RLS.get_up_from_lying_down
‘Then Joseph got up, …’
(Marlett 2016: 563)
4.4 Findings: Case marking
The map in Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of the different patterns of case
marking for CNs and PeNs in the sample.11 While the total absence of case marking
shows strong areal clustering – the pattern is found frequently in (insular and
mainland) Southeast Asia and also in Africa – languages that employ distinct case
markers for PeNs and CNs are more evenly distributed, though they are not found in
any language of the Americas or Central or South Asia. In those areas, however, we
find the two instances of special conditions for case markers to occur on PeNs.
With respect to case marking, the sample reveals the following distribution
of patterns (summarized in Table 1).12 Almost half of the languages in the sample
use identical forms for case marking on PeNs and CNs, while a third of the
languages does not mark case on either type of noun. Please note that, in this
study, case marking is not limited to inflectional marking and not only marking
of core cases is classified as such. Distinct case forms for PeNs and CNs are
found in 15 percent of the sample and 6 percent of the languages employ
10 Indefinite articles can be used with PeNs and CNs alike. This occurs, for instance, in negated
clauses. However, the constructions with indefinite article and PN are pragmatically marked
(Marlett 2016: 561).
11 The maps shown in this paper were generated with the interactive tool of the World Atlas of
Language Structures (Haspelmath et al. 2005), which was developed by Hans-Jörg Bibiko.
12 Percentages in this and the following table have been rounded to whole numbers.
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Figure 1: Distribution of types of case-marking in sample.
Table 1: Summary of patterns of case marking found in sample.
Proportion in sample
Marking pattern
Not marked on PeN and CN
Marked only on PeN
Marked only on CN
Marked with distinct forms for CNs and PeN
Marked under distinct conditions for CN and PeN
Marked with identical forms and conditions for CN and PeN
identical markers but under different conditions. No languages are found that
employ overt case marking only on one type of noun.
I will not go into any detailed analysis of which case functions differ between
PeNs and CNs here. Note, however, that of the case functions identified as most
likely to be covered by anthroponyms (see Section 3.1) all are encoded with a
different form than CNs in at least one language in the sample, in which the role
of P-argument is the most common.
4.5 Findings: Definiteness
The distribution of the different types of D-Marking is illustrated in Figure 2. The
presence of D-marking shows areal patterning. It is particularly common in the
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Nominal category marking on personal names
Figure 2: Distribution of types of D-marking in sample.
southern part of Asia, stretching all the way from Turkish to Lao, but is absent
from the Indonesian/Papuan archipelago (with the exception of Papuan Iatmul).
Another interesting observation is that in many of the languages of this area Dmarking is encoded through means of differential object marking and only
found with P-arguments. None of these languages employs different markers
for PeNs and CNs. Systems that employ overt D-marking only for CNs occur in
(Western) Africa, Western Europe (only represented by Basque here, but also
known from Indo-European languages), and also in Saramaccan (French
Guiana, Suriname), which, as an Atlantic-Creole language can be expected to
correspond with West African and European languages.
Table 2 lists the absolute numbers and percentages of the D-marking patterns found. Absence of overt D-marking on any type of noun is the option most
commonly found in the sample, with close to half of the languages representing
Table 2: Summary of patterns of D-marking found in sample.
Proportion in sample
Marking pattern
Not marked on PeN and CN
Marked only on PeN
Marked only on CN
Marked with distinct forms for CNs and PeN
Marked under distinct conditions for CN and PeN
Marked with identical forms and conditions for CN and PeN
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this option. The second most common pattern, found in about a third of the
languages, is marking with identical forms for PeNs and CNs. In nearly a fifth of
the D-marking patterns overt markers are present with CNs only but not with
PeNs, with the reverse pattern being absent (note that this pattern was not found
with case marking; see Table 1). The two remaining patterns, “distinct markers”
and “distinct conditions”, are only found in a single language (Boumaa Fijian
and Goemai, as illustrated in Sections 4.1 and 4.2, respectively), each amounting
to three percent of the languages.
5 Conclusion
Several typological generalizations could be drawn from the languages investigated here. Only further research will show whether these findings will find
confirmation in a sample more representative of the linguistic diversity of the
globe, or whether they can only be seen as the result of the small number of
languages surveyed here. Still, these generalizations are interesting guidelines
for future studies. They can be summarized as follows:
1. Case- and D-marking are found to be identical for PeNs and CNs in the
majority of the world’s languages.
2. Still, differences between PeNs and CNs can be found in languages in all
parts of the world.
3. In addition, some differences between PeNs and CNs are very subtle, and
probably exist in more languages.
4. No languages have case marking exclusively in the domain of PeNs or CNs.
5. In languages that encode D-marking and case in a fused form (DOM),
identical forms are used for PeNs and CNs.
To conclude this paper, a tentative program for further research will be sketched.
For reasons discussed in Section 3.3, this paper has taken only two nominal
categories into account. In order to gain a full picture of the inflectional differences
between PeNs and CNs, a study of all five nominal categories is imperative.
Furthermore, detailed studies of the inflectional potential of other subclasses of
PNs are desirable in order to compare the results with those on PeNs presented here.
It has been noted already that differences between PeNs and CNs can be
very subtle. This is especially true for languages that have distinct conditions for
marking a nominal category on the two types of nouns. Patterns like the one
described in Section 4.2 could only be identified because of the respective
authors’ discussion of an apparently odd example. It is very likely that similar
patterns are much more frequent since they are easily overlooked or just
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Nominal category marking on personal names
classified as an unaccountable irregularity or variation. Hopefully, linguists
working on individual languages will be encouraged to examine the grammar
of PeNs more closely and look for similar (and also completely different) striking
patterns in their language of expertise. This would also enable typological
research into PeNs based on larger samples. Another desideratum for future
research is corpus-based investigations of PNs and their grammatical behavior,
including syntax, in a number of genetically diverse languages to advance our
understanding of usage frequencies of specific constructions with PNs and CNs.
Acknowledgments: The ideas and some of the data of this paper have been
presented on two occasions: first, in the theme session Morphosyntax of Proper
Names – A Typological Perspective during the biannual meeting of the
Association of Linguistic Typology in Albuquerque, 1–3 August 2015, and later
at the Workshop on Proper Names and Morphosyntax at FU Berlin, 4–5 November
2015, from which this special issue originated. I would like to thank both
audiences for their comments, questions, and a lively and insightful discussion
on both occasions. The final version of this paper has also benefited from the
comments of this issue’s editors and two anonymous reviewers. I alone, of
course, am responsible for all remaining faults and omissions.
1/2/3 = 1st/2nd/3rd person, ABS = absolutive, ACC = accusative, ASP = aspect, ART =
article, AUX = auxiliary, CN = common noun, COM = comitative, COMPL = complementizer, CONS = consequence clause, DAT = dative, DECL = declarative, DEF =
definite, DOM = differential object marking, DYN = dynamic, ERG = ergative, F =
feminine, GEN = genitive, HZ = horizontal, M = masculine, NMLZ = nominalizer,
NOM = nominative, NP = noun phrase, OBJ = object, PL = plural, PeN = personal
name, PN = proper noun, POSS = possessive, PRS = present tense, PST = past
tense, RLS = realis, SBJ = subject, SG = singular, TR = transitive, VOC = vocative.
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