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Structuring Itelmen Word Order

Jonathan David Bobaljik, Harvard University

September 29, 2023 · 1:30 pm3:00 pm · 1-S-5 Green Hall

Program in Linguistics

Word order in Itelmen (itl, Chukotko-Kamchatkan) is quite flexible and has not been previously studied in any depth. This talk draws on a small text corpus to investigate the role of Information Structure in conditioning the distribution of object-verb and verb-object (OV,VO) word orders. Although speakers in elicitation contexts generally assent to both orders and describe them as meaning the same, a robust pattern emerges in the corpus: O denoting new discourse entities are overwhelmingly preverbal, while given objects may occur pre- or post-verbally. In this talk, I argue that these results have a variety of implications: (i) the observed pattern converges with other evidence that Itelmen is an OV language and provides an argument that the VO order in Itelmen is not simply a calque from Russian, (ii) the Information-Structural evidence provides a means to resolve a syntactic puzzle about the analysis of perception verb complements in Itelmen, (iii) the pattern contributes to larger debates about the syntactic/grammatical representation of new versus given (or topic and focus), potentially arguing against “focus-movement” (cartographic) perspectives, and (iv) Information Structure provides a better characterization of the OV/VO alternations than competing accounts of such alternations that appeal to extra-grammatical communicative efficiency, notably those rooted in ambiguity avoidance with animate objects.


Jonathan David Bobaljik (B.A. McGill, Ph.D. MIT) is Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University. He previously held faculty positions at McGill University and the University of Connecticut. He has worked with speakers of the Itelmen language in Kamchatka since 1993. His recent publications include Universals in Comparative Morphology  (MIT Press 2012) and Bogoras’s 1901 Itelmen Notebooks (Kulturstiftung Sibirien 2023, with M. Pupynina and A. Syuryun).

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