Interplay between Case, Animacy and Number: Interpretations of Grammatical Role in Estonian

Merilin Miljan, Elsi Kaiser, Virve-Anneli Vihman


This paper reports on a psycholinguistic experiment investigating information used in incremental interpretation to assign grammatical roles to case-marked nouns. The three core grammatical cases in Estonian – nominative, partitive and genitive – are syntactically ambiguous, in that they may function in various grammatical roles depending on the context. Our study probed what grammatical functions Estonian speakers assign to nouns marked in these cases prior to any knowledge of the syntactic structure of the clause. We investigated the effect of animacy and number, in combination with case-marking, on grammatical role assignment of clause-initial nouns. Results show that these cases are underspecified, and that the interpretation of nouns, when presented without prior context, involves semantic cues like animacy and number, which interact with morphological case to guide the assignment of grammatical functions.

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