Janne Bondi Johannessen and Ida Larsson

Nominal Agreement in Heritage Scandinavian

In Norwegian and Swedish, both attributive and predicative adjectives show agreement in gender and number, and the inflection of attributive adjectives also depends on definiteness. Norwegian examples are given in (1)-(2); the pattern is the same in Swedish.

(1) a.    en                    gammel                                   hest

an.SG.M          old.SG.INDEF.M        horse. SG.INDEF.M    ‘an old horse’

b.         et                     gammelt                      hus

a.SG.N            old.SG.INDEF.N         house.SG.INDEF.N     ‘an old house’

c.         Ø                     gamle                          hester

old.PL.INDEF.M         horse. PL.INDEF.M    ‘old horses’


(2) a.    den                  gamle              hest-en

the.SG.M         old.SG.DEF     horse.SG.DEF.M                     ‘the old horse’

b.         det                   gamle              hus-et

the.SG.M         old.SG.DEF     house.SG.DEF.N                    ‘the old house’

c.         de                    gamle              hestene

the.PL.M         old.PL.DEF     house.PL.DEF.N                     ‘the old horses’

In indefinite noun phrases (1a, b) determiners and adjectives agree with the noun in gender. In definite (2a,b) or plural (1c, 2c) noun phrases, on the other hand, gender is not marked on the adjective, which has the default ending -e (No.) or -a (Sw.). The noun has a definiteness suffix even when there is a definite determiner (2a, b); this is known as double definiteness. Plural adjectives always have the same form (-e/-a), independently of definiteness and gender, which is why we have given only one example in each paradigm. For more information on the noun phrase, see e.g. Julien (2005), Faarlund et al. (1997) and Teleman et al. (1999).

In acquisition and attrition, Scandinavian noun phrases clearly pose several difficulties, including double definiteness marking, agreement and gender assignment to the noun (see Hjelde 1996 for a study of gender assignment in heritage Norwegian). In a study of five expatriate Swedish speakers who have not spoken Swedish since childhood, Håkansson (1995) observes that the speakers overgeneralize the unmarked common gender form of determiners and adjectives (e.g. vår global samhälle ‘our.c.sg global.c.sg.indef society.n.sg’ for vårt globala samhälle ‘our.n.sg global.def society.n.sg’). Håkansson suggests that this is due to frequency of input: there are more common gender nouns than neuter nouns in Swedish (1995:162)  (cf. also Montrul et al. 2008 and references there). Some of the speakers make mistakes in as much as 68 % of the noun phrases, while word order is target-like. In this respect, these heritage speakers behave differently from both L1- and L2-learners: (embedded clause) word order is typically acquired later than gender and noun phrase agreement. Other studies have also confirmed that morphology is more sensitive to attrition than syntax. It seems then that syntactic complexity is not a factor for attrition in the same way as in acquisition (cf. e.g. Anderssen & Westergaard 2010). Morphological complexity and frequency of forms might on the other hand have more to say in attrition.

The speakers in Håkansson’s study are around 20 years old and literate in Swedish, and in these respects they differ from Scandinavian heritage speakers in America. The American heritage speakers are second, third or fourth generation speakers who have a Scandinavian language as their first language, but from the age they went to school they started learning English, and for most, English soon became their primary language. Since they are now old, many have not spoken Norwegian/Swedish regularly for 50-60 years, and they are not literate in Norwegian/Swedish (cf. Montrul et al. 2008). As with the speakers in Håkansson’s study, we can observe changes in both attributive and predicative agreement. The examples below are from American Norwegian heritage speakers.

(3)       Rakklennd        va      nammne   på en                      små        bi

Rockland           was    name.DEF     on   a.INDEF.SG.M  small.PL   town.INDEF.SG.M

’Rockland was the name of a small town.’ (coon_valley_WI_07gk)

(4)       nå        je         va        små

når       jeg       var       liten

when   I.SG     was      little.PL

’When I was little.’ (chicago_IL_01gk)

In the present study, we investigate attributive and predicative agreement in Scandinavian heritage speakers in America. We study the production of Scandinavian heritage speakers in America that show some signs of attrition, and that are attrited to higher degree than the young speakers in Håkansson’s study, and who show evidence of lexical retrieval delays and sometimes show changes also in word order (cf. Eide & Hjelde 2012, Johannessen to appear). We focus on adjectival agreement, and discuss the role of frequency, morphological and syntactic complexity and processing in attrition. If syntactic processing is the main factor, we expect predicative agreement to be more affected than attributive agreement, and if frequency of forms is involved we might expect that the default form with -e/a to be generalized. While there might be reason to assume that predicative agreement is more sensitive than attributive agreement, the simplifications of the system does not simply involve the generalization of the default.


Anderssen, M. & M. Westergaard. 2010. Frequency and economy in the acquisition of variable word order. Lingua 120.

Eide, K. M. & A. Hjelde. 2012. V2 and morphological paradigms in Norwegian varieties spoken in the American Midwest. Third Workshop of Immigrant Languages in America, September 2012, Penn State University.

Faarlund, Jan Terje, Svein Lie & Kjell Ivar Vannebo, 1997. Norsk referanse-grammatikk. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Hjelde, A. 1996. The gender of English nouns used in American Norwegian. In Ureland og Clarkson (eds.), Language Contact across the North Atlantic. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. Pp. 297-312.

Håkansson, G. 1995. Syntax and morphology in language attrition: a study of five bilingual expatriate Swedes. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 5:153-171.

Johannessen, J. B. To appear. Attrition in an American Norwegian Heritage speaker. In Janne Bondi Johannessen & Joseph Salmons (eds.), Germanic Heritage Language in America. John Benjamins.

Julien, M. 2005. Nominal Phrases from a Scandinavian Perspective. John Benjamins.

Montrul S., R. Foote & Silvia Perpiñán. 2008. Gender Agreement in Adult Second Language Learners and Spanish Heritage Speakers: The Effects of Age and Context of Acquisition. Language Learning 58: 503–553.

Teleman, Ulf, Hellberg Staffan & Andersson, Erik 1999. Svenska Akademiens grammatik 1–4. Stockholm: Norstedts Ordbok.