On Korean speakers’ knowledge of unaccusativity in English
(Eunjeong Oh, Sangmyung University & Sanghoun Song, Incheon National University)
It has generally been assumed that intransitives are classified into two classes, unaccusatives and unergatives, which have distinct syntactic and semantic properties. The single argument of unaccusatives is base-generated in object position whereas the single argument of unergatives originates in subject position (Burzio, 1986; Perlmutter, 1978). Semantically, while the former bears a Theme role, the latter bears an Agent role. Despite such differences, the single argument of these two types of intransitives surfaces in subject position, thereby being identical on the surface. The unaccusative-unergative distinction is presumably universal, but languages vary as to the syntactic and morphological reflexes of such a distinction. Given the cross-linguistic variation, a learnability problem naturally arises for the L2 acquisition of unaccusativity.
This talk addresses Korean speakers’ knowledge of unaccusativity/unergativity in L2 English. More specifically, this talk will address the questions of (1) whether Korean speakers are sensitive to the unaccusative/unergative distinction in English; and (2) whether they are able to distinguish unaccusatives from transitives. With respect to the acquisition of unaccusativity, L2 researchers’ interests have primarily centered around the issue of unaccusative-unergative distinction. That said, we believe that to have a thorough picture of the phenomenon, a more fundamental question is whether Korean speakers are able to distinguish unaccusatives from transitives. This reasoning hinges on the well-known overpassivization of unaccusatives. Overpassivization refers to a phenomenon defined as non-target-like passivization of intransitives by L2 learners. Interestingly, ungrammatical passive unaccusatives (e.g., *An accident was happened) are frequently produced and judged as acceptable by learners from various L1 backgrounds (thus, these errors are language universal rather than language specific). By contrast, unergatives are rarely passivized. For such disparity, the most influential L2 account proposed is Yip’s Transitivization Hypothesis (1990, 1995), which states that unaccusatives are represented as underlying transitives in L2 learners’ grammar. From this hypothesis, the acceptance of ungrammatical transitives (e.g., *We disappeared our heads), rejection of correct unaccusatives (e.g., Our heads disappeared), and acceptance of ungrammatical passive unaccusatives (e.g., *Our heads were disappeared) are predicted.
In order to investigate the two questions, we employed the toolkit OpenSeame and used a 5-point Likert scale. 173 adult Korean speakers (31 beginners/ 59 intermediates/ 31 advanced) participated in the study. Three types of verbs were employed in the task: unaccusatives, unergatives, and transitives. Each type was represented by seven verbs, which were selected based on frequency analyses of learner corpora. Korean learners’ knowledge of unaccusative-unergative distinction was tested, using diagnostics such as overpassivization (*A baby was cried. vs. *A boy was disappeared.), causativization (*A coach ran students. vs. *A magician disappeared a bird.), and compatibility with a purpose clause (*A kid was run to catch a ball. vs. *A boy was appeared to eat a snack.). Korean learners’ knowledge of unaccusative-transitive distinction was tested by comparing the rate of a by agent phrase between transitives and unaccusatives. Researchers have argued that unaccusativity is a semantically determined, but syntactically represented phenomenon (Levin & Rappaport Hovav, 1995). Along these lines, this talk also considers two semantic properties, telicity and animacy, which are frequently argued to be associated with unaccusativity/unergativity.