Prepositional dative marking in upper German: a case of syntactic microvariation

Guido Seiler (University of Zurich)


In several Upper German dialects, a dative NP can optionally be introduced by a preposition-like morpheme ('an' or 'in'):

'er hat's an (or: in) der Mutter gesagt'
he has it AN IN the:Dsf mother told

In the present paper I will pursue the following questions:

I will show that the occurrence of PDM is influenced by morphological, syntactic, discourse-functional and phonological factors, the relevance of which varies between the different dialect areas.


In several Alemannic and Bavarian dialects, it is possible to introduce a dative NP by a preposition-like morpheme that is homophonous with the prepositions an ('at, beside of') and in ('in, into'). Schematically:

(1) [ NPDAT ] ==> [ an/ in + NPDAT ]

I will call this construction prepositional dative marking (PDM), the morphemes an or in dative markers. On the surface, PDM exactly looks like a PP; however, the syntactic behavior of the dative markers in or an is clearly distinct from that of the homophonous true prepositions (see below, section 4). Used as dative markers, in and an are functionally equivalent; their distribution is geographically determined (See below, Section 2).

In (2)-(5) PDM is exemplified by 'an' and 'in' as dative markers in Bavarian or Alemannic, respectively:

(2) Bavarian, AN:   du   muasst  e a   deinà      frau vaschraibn lássn
  you must:2s it AN your:Dsf wife transfer     let:Inf
  'you have to transfer it [=the money] to your wife'
  (Malching; Ströbl 1970:66)
(3) Bavarian, IN:   sàg's  in der       frau
  say it IN the:Dsf woman
  'say it to the woman'
  (Upper Inn Valley; Schöpf 1866:286)
(4) Alemannic,AN:   er git     dr Öpfel   a mir,     statt     a dir
  he gives the apple AN me:D instead AN you:D
  'he gives the apple to me, not to you'
  (Glarus; Bäbler 1949:31)
(5) Alemannic,IN:   Di   isch uf d´        alt´     Eed´mburg ufpau´, di      
  this is   on the:Dsf old:Dsf [a castle]   built     which:Nsf
  wòòrschinlich i   d´       Edl´     vo    Jeeschtet´ khöört     hät.
  probably        IN the:Dp noble:p from [a village] belonged has.
  'This [chapel] is built on the old Edenburg which probably
  belonged to the nobles of Jestetten'
  (Jestetten; Keller 1970:57)

Note that PDM makes use of dative case morphology. It doesn't replace the dative case, but dative case morphology is 'recycled', i.e. used again in this prepositional construction. In other words, PDM is more a reinforcement than a substitution of the dative case.

It is generally assumed that the emergence of similar analytic constructions in modern Romance or Germanic languages (– ma m_re, to my mother) is connected with the loss of distinctive case morphology: whether the erosion of dative case endings causes the grammaticalization of directional prepositions into indirect object markers, or whether it is the grammaticalization of prepositions that forces the loss of case inflection: in both views, the causality between the absence of case morphology and the presence of prepositional encoding strategies seems to be beyond any doubt.

In Upper German, however, we can observe prepositional encodings of the IO although dative case morphology is fairly intact. Thus, an explanation of PDM as a compensatory strategy for eroded case morphology clearly fails. Nevertheless, the geographic spread, the synchronic distribution and the diachronic development of this prepositional construction are very instructive of the conditions under which it is possible for prepositional encodings of the IO to emerge and to be preferred over non-prepositional ones.

In the present paper I will first give a short overview of the geographic spread of PDM (section 2). Section 3 deals with the paradigmatic status of dative case morphology in Bavarian and Alemannic. I will then consider the syntactic behavior of the dative marker (section 4), in order to determine what type morpheme the dative marker is. Section 5 is about the distributional properties of PDM; it presents the environment factors governing the insertion of the dative marker as well as geographic differences in the occurrence of PDM.Section 6 proposes an explanation of the diachronic emergence of PDM. I will conclude with a few remarks about possible generalizations we can extract from PDM with regard to a theory of grammatical change (section 7).

This paper deals with the topic of my doctoral thesis that I will submit at Zurich University. It presents some of my findings - those I think are among the most interesting-, but it is clear that it is not possible to present all the relevant data and generalizations detected so far. On the other hand, insofar as the work is still in progress, many of the observations I am presenting here have a preliminary character and will be completed and refined in my doctoral thesis (Seiler (forthcoming)).

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