On variable object marking and cognitive salience

The use of central syntactic objects—in traditional functional terms, direct and indirect ones—is a rich source of formal and meaningful variation in Spanish, which accords them a prominent position in our current line of research. Together with the fact that they can establish verbal agreement through coreferential clitics under a variety of circumstances, they are also variably indexed with the preposition a (roughly ‘to’) in a rather peculiar fashion.

(1a) Encontré Ø las llaves ‘I found the keys’

(1b) Encontré a mi vecino ‘I found [to] my neighbor’

Variability is usually restricted to contexts with just one central object whose functional-cognitive status can oscillate to an extent. When there are two objects, the solution will almost necessarily be to mark one of them and leave the other unmarked (Devolví el libro a su dueño ‘I returned the book to its owner’). In fact, clauses with two a-marked central objects (e.g. Presenté a María a Ana ‘I introduced [to] Mary to Anne’) can be difficult to process, due to the apparent impossibility to discern the syntactic-semantic role played by each referent. This also explains why the preposition is considered mandatory with so-called indirect objects, but only in some cases with direct ones. In a gradual model of syntactic functions, the preposition can be characterized as a formal feature that helps displace a given element towards a functional prototype, in this case that of indirect object.

As any other phenomenon involving clause structure and function allocation, variable object marking can be analyzed as reflecting variations in the discursive salience of referents. It is necessary with first- and second-person objects (a mí, a nosotros ‘to me, to us’) as well as with personal pronouns and proper nouns in general. As for third-person lexical objects, traditional descriptions have linked the formulation of a with their human or animated nature, as well as with their definiteness or specificity. This should explain why, even if it is usually required with human objects, it appears to be optional or dispreferred when the latter are nonspecific. Compare the following pair of sentences, where it is the verbal mood that gives the indication as to whether the boy in question is an already known one or not, and observe that the preposition is not equally mandatory in either case:

(2a) Busco a un chico que tiene los ojos verdes ‘I’m looking for a (particular) boy that has green eyes’

(2b) Busco (a) un chico que tenga los ojos verdes ‘I’m looking for (any) boy that has green eyes’

However, the choice of a with central objects goes far beyond a more-or-less systematic correlation with animacy or definiteness. For one thing, the latter are in themselves gradual notions, which means that the possible outcomes in particular contexts may be hard to predict. It is interesting to observe what happens with animal referents, which are placed in an intermediate zone along the notional continuum of animacy. In general, the tendency followed by human objects is mirrored: the more specific and discursively salient the referent, the more likely it will be for it to be a-marked (Quiero Ø un perro ‘I want a dog’; Quiero a mi perro ‘I love [to] my dog’). This makes the repeated absence of a in the following text somewhat atypical.

(3) Una joven fallece al intentar salvar Ø el perro de su jefe

[…] No sólo invertía su tiempo en ello sino que también cuidaba Ø los perros de su jefe en su tiempo libre. Desgraciadamente, un día, cuando precisamente paseaba Ø los animales de [sic] superior, falleció de forma trágica. (La Gaceta, 1/9/2014)

‘A young woman dies when trying to save his boss’s dog… Not only did she invest her time in it, but she would also take care of his boss’s dogs during her free time. Unfortunately, one day when she was walking her superior’s pets, she died tragically.’

In spite of such vacillation, speakers granting high prominence to some animal referent across discourse will tend to use a when encoding it as an object. A similar fact had already been observed in the study of dative clitics le and les, which are not usually applied to animal referents, but can be when there is an intention on the part of the speaker to highlight or dignify them. The use of dative clitics has been pointed out to have important connections with that of a-marking, both being the basic formal features associated with the prototype of indirect object.

(4) la persona que desea adquirir un cachorro tiene que plantearse si realmente está dispuesto a cuidarlo durante todo ese tiempo, así como a educarle, pasearle lo necesario, alimentarle y encargarse de mantener su salud. (MEDIASA: El Adelanto, 7/12/2004)

‘People who plan to purchase a puppy must decide whether they are really willing to take care of it (acc.) for a long time, as well as rear it (dat.), walk it (dat.) when necessary, feed it (dat.) and care for its health.’

Also interestingly, it is not rare even for inanimate objects to be indexed with a. In these cases it is important to take into account the relationship between the (inherent and discursive) salience of the object in question and that of the subject. We will often find an inanimate subject that is often less prominent than the object itself. In this example, the subject this figure is interpreted as a mere characterizing feature of the object yesterday, and the verb making is used in a metaphoric, non-agentive sense.

(5) [U]na temperatura mínima de 2’8 grados bajo cero a las 04:15 de la madrugada, cifra que supone un descenso de dos décimas respecto al domingo y que convierte al día de ayer en el más frío de los últimos ocho meses (MEDIASA: La Gaceta, 17/11/2004)

‘A minimum temperature of minus 2.8 degrees at 4.15 am, this figure being two tenths lower than that of Sunday and making [to] yesterday the coldest day in the last eight months.’

In short, variable object marking, due to its interaction with cognitive salience and discourse interpretation, is a syntactic phenomenon offering a wide range of possibilities for research in the creation of meaning at a variety of semiotic levels.

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