Quirky subject

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In linguistics, quirky subjects (also called oblique subjects) are a phenomenon where certain verbs specify that their subjects are to be in a case other than the nominative.[1][2]

For example, a sentence like "*Me like him" is ungrammatical in Standard English because the subject is ordinarily in the nominative. In many or most modern nominative–accusative languages, this rule is inflexible: the subject is indeed in the nominative case, and almost all treat the subjects of all verbs the same. Icelandic has been argued to be the only modern language with quirky subjects, and is thus of interest to linguistics.[3]

The class of quirky subjects in Icelandic is a large one, consisting of hundreds of verbs in a number of distinct classes: experiencer verbs like vanta (need/lack), motion verbs like reka (drift), change of state verbs like ysta (curdle), verbs of success/failure like takast (succeed/manage to), verbs of acquisition like áskotnast (acquire/get by luck), and many others.[4]

In superficially similar constructions of the type seen in Spanish me gusta "I like", the analogous part of speech (in this case me) is not a true syntactical subject. "Me" is instead the object of the verb "gusta" which has a meaning closer to "please", thus, "me gusta" could be translated as "(he/she/it) pleases me".

Many linguists, especially from various persuasions of the broad school of cognitive linguistics, do not use the term "quirky subjects" since the term is biased towards languages of nominative–accusative type. Often, "quirky subjects" are semantically motivated by the predicates of their clauses. Dative-subjects, for example, quite often correspond with predicates indicating sensory, cognitive, or experiential states across a large number of languages. In some cases, this can be seen as evidence for the influence of active–stative typology.

Examples in Icelandic[edit]

In Icelandic, verbs can require a non-nominative subject. The following examples show an accusative subject and a dative subject, respectively.

Mig vantar peninga
Me(acc) need(3sg) money (acc.pl)
I need money.
Mér líkar maturinn
Me(dat) like(3sg) the food (nom.sg)
I like food.

Quirky subjects can also occur when verbs taking a dative or genitive argument occur in the passive.[5]

Stelpunum var hjálpað
The girls (dat.pl.fem) was(3sg) helped(n.sg)
The girls were helped.
Hennar var saknað
Her(gen) was(3sg) missed(n.sg)
She was missed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rögnvaldsson, Eiríkur (1991). "Quirky Subjects in Old Icelandic" (PDF). In Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson. Papers from the Twelfth Scandinavian Conference of Linguistics. pp. 369–378.
  2. ^ Fischer, Susann (2004). "The diachronic relationship between quirky subjects and stylistic fronting". In Peri Bhaskararao; Karumuri V. Subbarao. Non-nominative Subjects. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 193–212. ISBN 90-272-2970-8.
  3. ^ Faarlund, Jan T. (2001). "The notion of oblique subject and its status in the history of Icelandic". In Jan T. Faarlund. Grammatical relations in change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 99–135.
  4. ^ Jónsson, Jóhannes G. (2003). "Not so quirky: On subject case in Icelandic". In Ellen Brandner; Heike Zinsmeister. New Perspectives on Case Theory. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications. pp. 127–163.
  5. ^ Sigurdsson, Halldor (1992). "The case of quirky subjects" (PDF). In Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson. (Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax; Vol. 49). Department of Scandinavian Languages, Lund University.

Further reading[edit]