In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Switch-Reference

  • Introduction
  • Areal and Typological Surveys
  • Edited Collections
  • Language Change
  • The Nature of Subjects
  • Notions of Sentential Anaphora and Discourse Reference

Linguistics Switch-Reference
Andrew McKenzie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0138


Switch-reference (SR) describes morphemes associated with clause junctures that typically indicate whether the subjects of those clauses corefer. If the subjects corefer, the juncture expresses SS (same-subject) marking. If the subjects are disjoint, they are marked with DS (different-subject) marking. In clauses without overt nominal expressions, SR is often the only indication in a discourse of who is doing what. While SR typically involves subject reference, in many languages, SR can ignore subjects altogether. In these “noncanonical” cases, SR is usually sensitive to continuity or discontinuity of the events in the discourse. SS and DS are still used as abbreviations even if subjects are not involved. While linguists had noticed SR early in the 20th century (e.g., Edward Sapir’s grammar of Southern Paiute in 1930) that conjunctions in a few languages were sensitive to subject coreference, William Jacobsen was the first to notice SR cross-linguistically and to propose it as an actual morpheme, in his “Switch-Reference in Hokan-Coahuiltecan” (Jacobsen 1967, cited under Early Descriptive Accounts from North America). Since then, it has been found in countless languages all over the world outside Europe. The literature on SR can be difficult to classify because much of it has a toe in three distinct streams. First is descriptive work on SR, which can be split on the basis of language and language area. Virtually all SR languages require fieldwork, and the literature on SR reflects the areal focus of field linguists. Second, SR highlights the interface between modules of the grammar by directly involving the syntax, semantics, and the discourse. Third, SR study offers a space where descriptive, formal, and functional traditions converse with each other.

Areal and Typological Surveys

SR systems are found in hundreds of languages. A primary step toward understanding it as a universally available structure involves finding patterns in its form and usage. No survey or study of SR worldwide has been published, but several surveys have been published about certain areas, starting with Austin 1981. The areal nature of these surveys reflects the understanding that the systems vary typologically from one region to another. SR systems tend to be found in areal clusters, and each survey focuses on one cluster. Roberts 1997 extensively covers Papua New Guinea, and Jacobsen 1983 and McKenzie 2015 offer surveys of North America. SR is virtually completely absent from Mesoamerica, so no survey can be made. No one to date has surveyed the South American cluster in as much detail, but Ciccone and Nercesian 2015 provides a nice overview. Around the world, some tendencies have been noted in SR systems. One salient tendency is areal diffusion, first noted in Austin 1981 for Australia (Dixon 2002 updates Peter Austin’s findings). Another observation is that SR appears with nearly every type of clause juncture. McKenzie 2015 explicitly points out that SR occurs with coordination, subordination, and clause chaining. Ciccone and Nercesian 2015 describes clause diversity in South American SR languages, also noting a variety of clause types.

  • Austin, Peter. 1981. Switch-reference in Australia. Language 57.2: 309–334.

    DOI: 10.2307/413693

    Influential survey of SR systems in Australian languages. On the basis of geographic proximity and genetic dissimilitude of SR languages there, Austin proposes that SR spreads by areal diffusion.

  • Ciccone, Florencia, and Verónica Nercesian. 2015. Seguimiento referencial en lenguas sudamericanas: Mecanismos sintácticos/pragmáticos y distribución geográfica. In Language contact and documentation / Contacto lingüístico y documentación. Edited by Bernard Comrie and Lucía Golluscio, 239–284. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Uses geographic distribution of SR languages in South America to argue for areal diffusion, and classifies local languages on the basis of the type of SR or other reference-tracking system.

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2002. Australian languages: Their nature and development. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486869

    Sections on SR are mainly a recap of Austin 1981, but with a focus on ergativity and updated maps.

  • Jacobsen, William H., Jr. 1983. Typological and genetic notes on switch-reference systems in North American Indian languages. In Switch-reference and universal grammar: Proceedings of a symposium on switch reference and universal grammar, Winnipeg, May 1981. Edited by John Haiman and Pamela Munro, 151–183. Typological Studies in Language 2. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Arranges information about SR systems in over thirty languages with SR in the North American linguistic region. Makes interesting typological generalizations that permit asking the question of the origin of SR morphemes.

  • McKenzie, Andrew. 2015. A survey of switch-reference in North America. International Journal of American Linguistics 81.3: 409–448.

    DOI: 10.1086/681580

    Supplemental material online. Catalogues SR morphemes in nearly seventy languages with SR. Survey targets major empirical and theoretical questions that have emerged in the SR literature since Jacobsen 1983. Article summarizes the survey, while the supplemental material contains the survey itself: tables listing SR languages and their known properties pertaining to SR.

  • Roberts, John R. 1997. Switch-reference in Papua New Guinea. In Papers in Papuan linguistics: No. 3. Edited by Andrew Pauley, 101–241. Pacific Linguistics A87. Canberra, Australia: Australian National Univ.

    Catalogues SR systems representing more than fifty families of languages in the eastern half of New Guinea. Emphasizes interactions of SR morphemes with agreement and tense-aspect-mood (TAM) morphology on medial linking verbs.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.