Differential object marking

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Differential object marking (DOM) is a linguistic phenomenon that is present in more than 300 languages; the term was coined by Georg Bossong.[1][2] It is a form of differential argument marking that applies to the direct object.


In languages where DOM is active, direct objects are divided in two different classes, depending on different meanings, and, in most DOM languages, only one of the classes receives a marker, the other being unmarked (but there are languages, like Finnish, where both types of objects are marked with different endings). Direct objects that are higher in "prominence" are more likely to be overtly case-marked.[3]

The "prominence" is evaluated in the following ways:[3]

Animacy Scale: human → animate → inanimate
Definiteness Scale: personal pronoun → proper name → definite NP → indefinite specific NP → non-specific NP

These scales are also reflected in Silverstein’s person/animacy hierarchy.[4] Besides definiteness (or specificity) and animacy another known property that triggers differential object marking is affectedness. The more affected, the more definite, and the more animate a direct object is the more likely it will receive differential object marking. This is depicted in the figure on the right hand side ("Triggers of differential object marking"). Note that some languages only rely on one property (e.g., animacy) while others rely on a combination of these properties (e.g., animacy and definiteness).

Triggers of differential object marking



A well-known DOM language is Spanish. In Spanish, direct objects that are both human and specific require a special marker (the preposition a "to"):[5][6][7][8]

  • Pedro besó a Lucía. = Peter kissed Lucy. (Literally, "Peter kissed to Lucy")

Inanimate direct objects do not usually allow this marker, even if they are specific:

  • Pedro besó el retrato. = Peter kissed the picture.

Yet, some animate objects that are specific can optionally bear the marker:

  • Pedro vio (a) la gata. = Peter saw (to) the cat-FEM

Some dialectal variation has been attested regarding the use of DOM in different varieties of Spanish. Balasch finds that, while the linguistic factors conditioning the use of DOM remain the same in both Mérida (Venezuela) Spanish and Madrid Spanish, DOM appears much more often in Madrid data. [9] Furthermore, Tippets and Schwenter find that a factor known as relative animacy (the animacy of the direct object relative to that of the subject) is quite important in the implementation of DOM in varieties of Spanish such as Buenos Aires and Madrid Spanish. [10]


In languages like Turkish, Kazakh language and Sakha, more "prominent" objects take an overt accusative marker while nonspecific ones do not. Lack of an overt case marker can restrict an object's distribution in the sentence.[11] Those orders are permitted in Sakha if accusative case is overtly expressed:


a. кини яблоко-ну сии-р-∅
a. kini yabloko-nu sii-r-∅[11]
NOM apple-ACC eat
’She/he is eating the/a (particular) apple.’
b. яблоко-ну кини сии-р-∅
b. yabloko-nu kini sii-r-∅
c. кини сии-р-∅ яблоко-ну
c. kini sii-r-∅ yabloko-nu
d. кини яблоко-ну бүгүн сии-р-∅
d. kini yabloko-nu bügün sii-r-∅
NOM apple-ACC today eat
‘She/he is eating the/a (particular) apple today.’

However, when the object is nonspecific, alternative ordering is not permitted: Sakha

a. кини яблоко сии-р-∅
a. kini yabloko sii-r-∅[11]
NOM apple eat
’She/he is eating some apple or other.’
b. яблоко кини сии-р-∅
b. yabloko kini sii-r-∅
c. кини сии-р-∅ яблоко
c. kini sii-r-∅ yabloko
d. кини яблоко бүгүн сии-р-∅
d. kini yabloko bügün sii-r-∅
NOM apple today eat
‘She/he is eating some apple or other today.’

When the direct object is low on the definiteness scale, it must directly precede the verb, whereas alternative ordering is possible when the direct object is higher in prominence.

Other languages[edit]

Other examples of languages with differential object marking are Persian, Turkish, Copala Triqui, Khasi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kham, Hebrew and Amharic. A number of languages in Mozambique also show differential object marking.[12] In Turkish, the direct object can either have accusative case or have no (visible) case at all; when it has accusative case, it is interpreted as specific (e.g. one specific person), and otherwise it is interpreted as nonspecific (e.g. some person).[13]

Differential Object Marking is not only found in spoken languages, but also in sign languages. In German Sign Language, for example, animate direct objects receive an additional marker while inanimate direct objects do not.[14]

This is different from what happens in non-DOM languages, where all direct objects are uniformly marked in the same way; for instance, a language could mark all direct objects with an accusative ending (as in Quechua); other language could leave all direct objects without overt marker (as in English).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bossong 1985.
  2. ^ Bossong 1991.
  3. ^ a b Aissen 2003
  4. ^ Silverstein, Michael. (1976) "Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity". In R. M. W. Dixon (ed.) Grammatical Categories in Australian Languages.
  5. ^ Fernández Ramírez, Salvador. 1986. Gramática española 4. El verbo y la oración. Madrid: Arco/Libros.
  6. ^ Pensado 1995.
  7. ^ Rodríguez-Mondoñedo 2007.
  8. ^ Torrego 1998.
  9. ^ Balasch, Sonia (December 22, 2016). "Factors Determining Spanish Differential Object Marking within Its Domain of Variation" (PDF). Factors Determining Spanish Differential Object Marking within Its Domain of Variation. University of New Mexico. Retrieved December 22, 2016.
  10. ^ Schwenter, Tippets, Scott, Ian (December 22, 2016). "Relative Animacy and Differential Object Marking in Spanish" (PDF). ling.upenn.edu. The Ohio State University.
  11. ^ a b c van de Visser, Mario. (2006) "The Marked Status of Ergativity". PhD. Dissertation.
  12. ^ Ngunga, Armindo Saúl Atelela, Fábio Bonfim Duarte, and Quesler Fagundes Camargos. 2016. Differential object marking in Mozambican languages. Diversity in African languages pp. 333ff. Doris L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarotti, Mokaya Bosire, eds. Language Science Press.
  13. ^ See Jaklin Kornfilt and Klaus von Heusinger (2005). The case of the direct object in Turkish. Semantics, syntax and morphology. In Turkic Languages 9, 3–44
  14. ^ Bross, F. (2020): Object marking in German Sign Language (Deutsche Gebärdensprache): Differential object marking and object shift in the visual modality. In: Glossa. A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1), 63.


Although the phenomenon has been known for a very long time, it was considered a minor quirk in a few languages until Georg Bossong, during the 1980s, presented evidence of DOM in more than 300 languages. Since then, it has become an important topic of research in grammatical theory. This is a selection of works that deal with the phenomenon: