Referential hierarchies: A new look at some historical and typological patterns

Gildea, Spike; Zúñiga, Fernando (2016). Referential hierarchies: A new look at some historical and typological patterns. Linguistics, 54(3), pp. 483-529. De Gruyter 10.1515/ling-2016-0007

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This paper proposes a diachronic typology for the various patterns that have been referred to as Hierarchical Alignment or Inverse Alignment. Previous typological studies have tried to explain such patterns as grammatical reflections of a universal Referential Hierarchy, in which first person outranks second person outranks third person and humans outrank other animates outrank inanimates. However, our study shows that most of the formal properties of hierarchy-sensitive constructions are essentially predictable from their historical sources. We have identified three sources for hierarchical person marking, three for direction marking, two for obviative case marking, and one for hierarchical constituent ordering. These sources suggest that there is more than one explanation for hierarchical alignment: one is consistent with Givón’s claim that hierarchical patterns are a grammaticalization of generic topicality; another is consistent with DeLancey’s claim that hierarchies reflect the deictic distinction between present (1/2) and distant (3) participants; another is simply a new manifestation of a common asymmetrical pattern, the use of zero marking for third persons. More importantly, the evolution of hierarchical grammatical patterns does not reflect a consistent universal ranking of participants – at least in those cases where we can see (or infer) historical stages in the evolution of these properties, different historical stages appear to reflect different hierarchical rankings of participants, especially first and second person. This leads us to conclude that the diversity of hierarchical patterns is an artifact of grammatical change, and that in general, the presence of hierarchical patterns in synchronic grammars is not somehow conditioned by some more general universal hierarchy.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of Linguistics

UniBE Contributor:

Zúñiga, Fernando


400 Language > 410 Linguistics
400 Language > 490 Other languages




De Gruyter


[4] Swiss National Science Foundation


[150] Mapudungun and Blackfoot: Inverse morphology and three-participant clauses Official URL




Fernando Zúñiga

Date Deposited:

27 Jul 2016 15:06

Last Modified:

11 May 2017 02:30

Publisher DOI:





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