Switch Reference in Mongolian Studies

2. Outline of Switch-Reference in Mongolian

The following outline is entirely based on the works mentioned. I am particularly endebted to Tserenpil-Kullmann and Bayarmaa, which are the source of a good proportion of the example sentences in this post. (Many but not all sentences are so marked.)


Same-subject marking is obligatory between main and subordinate clauses through use of the reflexive suffix in:

  • ALL subordinate clauses ending in a verb in an oblique case, except where blocked by a small number of main-clause verbs.
  • MOST subordinate clauses with subordinating converbs — although some coordinating converbs don't require the reflexive suffix to mark 'same subject'.
  • SOME subordinate clauses featuring so-called postpositions — this is determined by the postposition.

Differential subject marking helps distinguish the subject of the subordinate clause from that of the main clause.

Coordinating converbs do not take the reflexive suffix. 'Same subject' in coordinate clause strings depends on the converb.

Failure to apply SR when required results in ungrammatical sentences.

The following is a characterisation of SR in Mongolian.

1. SR in Mongolian operates biclausally between a subordinate clause (the marked clause) and a main clause (the reference clause). It serves to identify the subject of the subordinate clause as being the same as or different from that of the main clause. The subordinate clause may be either a daughter clause (core argument of the sentence) or an ad-subordinate clause (e.g., adverbial clause).

SR in the sense that Jacobsen defined it (obligatorily indicated by a morpheme) does not operate over co-subordinate constructions (clause chains), although a couple of the specific converbs involved do have SR requirements.

2. SR in Mongolian involves two separate grammatical systems.

a) Possessive markers (suffixes / particles) are the most consistently observable markers of SR.

The use of the reflexive-possessive suffix (hereinafter referred to as the 'reflexive suffix') on a subordinate clause indicates retention of the subject of the main clause, i.e., a 'same-subject' relationship. The subject of the subordinate clause is then left unexpressed.

Absence of a reflexive suffix indicates 'different subject'. Non-reflexive possessive particles, which are in a complementary distribution with the reflexive suffix, explicitly indicate 'different subject' but are not always present.

Although the reflexive suffix is the most consistent and visible marker of SR, there are cases where it is unavailable to mark 'same subject', either because it is not applicable grammatically or because it is blocked by particular verbs in the main clause.

b) Differential subject marking in a subordinate clause, under which the subject of the clause bears a case other than the Nominative (either the Genitive or Accusative), plays a role in signalling a switch of subjects. Accusative or Genitive case marking on the subject of the subordinate clause sets up a contrast with the Nominative subject of the main clause, thus serving to distinguish the two as 'different subject'.

Differential subject marking in subordinate clauses correlates with two factors (Guntsetseg 2016):

While it can serve to highlight that the difference between the subject of the subordinate clause and that of the main clause, Accusative marking in the subordinate clause is not a definitive marker of 'different subject'. Differential subject marking must be interpreted within the grammatical context, taking into account that the subject of the subordinate clause may be unexpressed, the subordinate clause may contain an ordinary Accusative, or the main clause may have a fronted Accusative.

Leaving aside certain gaps and exceptions, the general operation of SR in Mongolian may be schematically represented as follows:

different subject
Subject of main clauseSubject of subordinate clauseReflexive/
possessive marking
SAME SUBJECTNominative(Omitted)Reflexive suffix
DIFFERENT SUBJECTNominativeDifferential subject markingNo marking OR
Possessive Particle

3. A requirement for 'same subject' or 'different subject' may be associated with specific converbs in both ad-subordinate and co-subordinate clauses. However, while this suggests an overall sensitivity to the 'same-subject'/'different subject' distinction, it might be best regarded as a specific grammatical property of the converbs in question.

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