The Spanish impersonal se-construction

Constructional variation and change

  • Johan Pedersen University of Copenhagen


The aim of this paper is to analyze, synchronically and diachronically, aspects of the Spanish impersonal se construction that have not yet been satisfactorily accounted for in Spanish linguistics:
(1) se (le) empuja (al ni o)
MM DAT push ACC the boy
’They/people push (him)/(the boy)’
In particular, the paper focuses on case-marking. What remains particularly unexplained is, in the first place, why the pronominal object (the clitic) in the impersonal se-construction is in dative (le); and, in the second place, why the use of the accusative (lo/la) has been gaining ground for the last two centuries. The study has been carried out within the framework of construction grammar (e.g. Croft 2000, 2001; Goldberg 1995; Langacker 1987/91). It is argued that objects in impersonal se-constructions have a construction specific formal/semantic status in the users’ grammar, which is different from the status of objects in corresponding prototypical personal constructions. This may explain the differential pronominal case marking of the object in the two constructions. In addition, it is suggested that case marking of objects in prototypical personal constructions progressively functions as a model for case marking in the impersonal se-construction. The gradual acceptance of the accusative is thus accounted for in terms of form-meaning reanalysis of the object relation involved in this construction. Particularly, it is argued, on the basis of formal, semantic, historical and typological evidence, that this form-meaning reanalysis is motivated by the fact that the Differential Object Marker (a) tends to be reanalyzed as a General Object Marker.