Jóhannes G. Jónsson – University of Copenhagen

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Object Shift in North American Icelandic

Jóhannes G. Jónsson (University of Iceland)

Object Shift (OS) is a well-known phenomena in Scandinavian syntax (see Holmberg 1986 and Thráinsson 2001). Nevertheless, many aspects of OS in Icelandic remain unexplored. This study on OS in North American Icelandic (NAI) is an attempt to rectify that situation but also to illustrate how an investigation of NAI can raise important questions about European Icelandic (EI). The data reported here are based on written transcripts of interviews with speakers of NAI conducted in the seventies and eighties, consisting of 484.574 words.

OS in NAI is very similar to OS in EI. In particular, it always obeys Holmberg’s Generalization in that it is dependent on movement of the main verb out of the VP. However, there are some differences, the most important one being that OS of unstressed pronouns is optional in NAI, but obligatory in EI. Thus, alongside examples like (1a-c), examples like (2a-b) are also attested in NAI:

a. Og ég gleymi því aldrei.
And I forget it.DAT never ‘And I will never forget it.’

b. og svaraði mér ekki.
and replied me.DAT not ‘and did not reply to me’

c. þegar menn skilja þetta ekki
when people understand this.ACC not

a. En mér líkaði ekki það.
but me.DAT liked not it.NOM ‘But I didn’t like it.’

b. að fólkið nú á dögum, það trúir ekki þessu
that people nowadays, it believes not this.DAT
‘that people nowadays, they don’t believe this’

Although a systematic study is lacking, it is well-known that Icelandic children have a hard time learning that pronominal OS is obligatory (but see Anderssen et al. 2010, 2012 on Norwegian). For instance, I recently heard a young boy saying (3) on national television:

Ég veit ekki það.
I know it.ACC not ‘I don’t know it.’

This suggests that the optionality of pronominal OS in NAI is due to imperfect language acquisition. At least, it is not likely that this is due to direct influence from English where main verbs do not undergo verb raising and the negation triggers do-support.

All the examples of no OS with unstressed pronouns in NAI involve the negation and the neuter pronoun það ‘it’ or the demonstrative þetta ‘this’. This may not mean much with respect to the first two items because of their high frequency in the NAI corpus. However, it is quite striking that the demonstrative has a clear tendency not to undergo OS in NAI. In all likelihood, this has to do with the fact that the demonstrative is more naturally stressed in Icelandic than e.g. personal pronouns. Pronominal OS is clearly linked to stress as all unstressed pronouns must undergo OS in Icelandic whenever they can.

The NAI corpus has some examples of a full DP undergoing OS and they seem to obey the restrictions that apply in EI, both with respect to semantics/pragmatics (Diesing 1996) and phonological weight:

a. við fáum Iceland Review alltaf.
we get Iceland Review always ‘We always get Iceland Review.’

b. en Gunnar sótti krakkana aldrei.
but Gunnar fetched kids.the.ACC never ‘but G. never picked up the kids.’

c. Ég lærði söguna ekki
I learned story.the.ACC not ‘I did not learn the story.’

Interestingly, (4c) is the only example that I have found in NAI where OS of a full DP crosses negation. Ásgeirsdóttir (2000) found that OS of full DPs across negation only occurs only about 14% of the time where it is possible; importantly, this number is higher for at least some other adverbs. Given these statistics, there should have been 8-9 examples like (4c) in the NAI corpus. Whether this suggest a real difference or not, the problem in EI and NAI may be that negation is typically unstressed, e.g. when it immediately follows the finite verb or an unstressed object pronoun. Thus, moving a full DP object to the left of negation forces an intonation pattern that is slightly awkward.


  • Anderssen, Merete, Kristine Bentzen, Yulia Rodina and Marit Westergaard. 2010. The Acquisition of Apparent Optionality: Word Order in Subject and Object Shift Constructions in Norwegian. Merete Anderssen, Kristine Bentzen og Marit Westergaard (eds.), Variation in the Input: Studies on the Acquisition of Word Order. Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Anderssen, Merete, Kristine Bentzen og Yulia Rodina. 2012. Topicality and Complexity in the Acquisition of Norwegian Object Shift. Language Acquisition 19: 39-72.
  • Ásgeirsdóttir, Þóra Birna. 2000. Andlagsstökk fullra nafnliða í íslensku. Object Shift of full DPs in Icelandic. BA-thesis, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.
  • Diesing, Molly. 1996. Semantic Variables and Object Shift. Studies in Comparative Germanic Syntax 2: 66-84.
  • Holmberg, Anders. 1986. Word Order and Syntactic Features in the Scandinavian Languages and English. Doc-toral dissertation, University of Stockholm.
  • Thráinsson, Höskuldur. 2001. Object Shift and Scrambling. Mark Baltin og Chris Collins (eds.): The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory, p. 148–202. Blackwell, Oxford.