FALL-BLOOM-WALK: The mapping of split intransitivity in Sign Language of the Netherlands
Elisabet García González & Hannah Lutzenberger
(University of Amsterdam)
Saturday (April 22nd), 12:00-12:25
Lipsius 147

Cross-linguistically, intransitive verbs are distinguished by the nature of their single argument: internal (unaccusative) or external (unergative).1 In Romance and Germanic languages, this affects whether the auxiliary ‘be’ or ‘have’ is used.2 A similar dichotomy exists in American Sign Language with different types of classifiers, i.e. morphemes indicating semantic properties of the referents. Specifically, classifier predicates (verbs of movement) with Whole-Entity classifiers are unaccusative, and the ones with Body-Part classifiers are unergative (see Figure 1).4,5 This suggests that split intransitivity represents a linguistic universal. 

  Whole-Entity Classifier: book is next to pen.
Encodes full-size object and spatial relation.
 Body-Part Classifier: elephant standing.
Encodes a body part, here limbs.

Our study investigates whether a similar dichotomy holds for Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT). We elicited classifier constructions of predicates that prototypically select different auxiliaries in Romance and Germanic languages. Moreover, an Acceptability-Judgment Task served to determine whether the argument in a classifier construction is external or internal. The results from three deaf NGT signers indicate that

  1. Classifier choice is not fully determined by verb classes, but by agentivity, dynamicity and telicity.
  2. In contrast to American Sign Language, syntactic tests do not unambiguously identify external and internal arguments in NGT.

We propose that the semantic properties of the predicate, rather than its syntactic structure, influence classifier selection. With this study we contribute to the typology of argument structure in signed and spoken languages.


  1. Levin, B., & Rappaport Hovav, M. (1995). Unaccusativity: At the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 26, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Sorace, A. (2000). Gradients in Auxiliary Selection with Intransitive Verbs. Language, 76(4), 859–890.
  3. Morgan, G., & Woll, B. (2007). Understanding sign language classifiers through a polycomponential approach. Lingua 117, 1159–1168.
  4. Benedicto, E., & Brentari, D. (2004). Where did all the arguments go?: Argument-changing properties of classifiers in ASL. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 22, 743–810.
  5. Benedicto, E., Cvejanov, S., & Quer, J. (2007). Valency in classifier predicates: A syntactic Analysis. Lingua 117: 1202–1215.