Category Archives: syntax

Friday, March 3rd at 3:30 PM: Brian Joseph at LVC

LVC is very pleased to be hosting Brian Joseph of OSU this Friday, March 3rd. We hope you can join us for his talk at 3:30 PM in Rosenwald 301. As always, there will be a small reception following the talk.

Social and Semantic Factors in the Diffusion of Morpho-Syntactic Change — Evidence from the Infinitive in Greek and the Balkans”

Brian Joseph
Ohio State University

A key feature differentiating latter Greek from Classical Greek is the demise of the verbal category and set of verbal forms known as the infinitive.  Starting in Koine Greek of the Hellenistic period, we see a gradual erosion of the domain of the infinitive – both as to use and as to form – culminating in the modern form of the language with no infinitive at all.  Rather, there is only finite subordination with verbal forms marked for person, number, and aspect, and in some instances tense.  Moreover, this retreat of the infinitive and spread of finite subordination is found throughout all of the Balkan languages. I trace here the spread, i.e. the diffusion, of the loss of the infinitive within Greek, first examining the semantic factors that play a role in the progression of infinitive-loss and tying it to event structure.  I then shift gears and look at a seemingly anomalous late retention of the infinitive in Jewish Greek of Constantinople, and tie that to the social circumstances of Jewish languages in general.  In this way I provide some insight into both the semantic and the social side of the diffusion of a key morpho-syntactic change in Greek and other languages in the Balkans.

Poster with Event Details

Friday, February 24 at 1 PM: Adam Singerman (UChicago) – Joint with Morph&Syn

Please join us this Friday, February 24th at 1PM in Rosenwald 208 for a joint meeting of LVC and the Morphology & Syntax workshops. Our speaker will be Adam Singerman.

Finite embedding and quotation in Tuparí

Adam Roth Singerman
University of Chicago

Tuparí (Tupían; Brazil) has innovated a finite embedding construction that bears the structural hallmarks of an internal headed relative clause. What makes this construction typologically unusual is that it instantiates an apparent violation of the Final-over-Final Condition (a proposed universal discussed at length in recent work by Biberauer, Holmberg, Roberts, and Sheehan): the Tuparí configuration shows a left-branching syntactic projection dominating a right-branching one.

This talk will present the main descriptive and analytic generalizations concerning finite embedded clauses in Tuparí and will examine the implications for current theories of syntactic disharmony: Biberauer et al’s FOFC and Hawkins’s Performance-Grammar Correspondence Hypothesis. In particular, I will show that the Tuparí facts are more problematic for the PGCH than for FOFC (even if FOFC’s appeal to innate constraints in UG is not fully satisfactory as an explanatory mechanism). 

The talk concludes with an examination of the origins of finite embedded clauses in Tuparí. While such clauses transparently involve the grammaticization of a demonstrative third person pronoun as a clausal subordinator, there is evidence that the backwards syntactic dependencies visible in direct quotation have also played a role.


Friday, November 11 @ 3:30 PM: Nicole Rosen (UManitoba)

Please join the Language Variation and Change Workshop this Friday, November 11th at 3:30 PM in Cobb 116, for a talk from our invited speaker, Nicole Rosen. Details below.

“Nominal Contact in the Michif Language”

Nicole Rosen
University of Manitoba

Michif is an endangered Metis language with its roots in the Fur Trade in Canada, where it arose through the intermarriage of Cree and French people in Canada’s Red River Valley. It is considered a contact language, mixing Plains Cree and French. Michif has received considerable attention in the language contact literature due to its seemingly unusual syntactic and phonological patterns arising from the French-Plains Cree contact situation in which it was created. Bakker (1997) described the language as being formed through a process called language intertwining, resulting in a mixed language posited to have an NP/VP split, where French lexical items pattern like French and Cree lexical items pattern like Plains Cree. Since this time, the accepted view of the language is that the French-source DPs behave like French, while the Cree-source VPs behave like Plains Cree. In this talk I will argue against this received view, showing that this analysis of Michif holds only at a very superficial level. Once we examine the constituency of the DP and investigate the underlying structure in a more rigorous manner, the picture becomes quite different. Using evidence from gender, number and DP constituency, I show that the Michif DP in fact shows very little structural similarity to its parent French DP. As a result, with the one domain said to be French no longer looking French-like, we are left with a language which follows regular Algonquian-type syntax and semantics, with some particularities to allow for the introduction of French elements and some resulting Michif-specific innovations. Although it may be useful to historical linguists to describe its creation as V-N language mixing, I argue that this designation holds little insight into synchronic patterning of the Michif grammar, and that there is little motivation for this exoticization of the language, which patterns according to structures already available cross-linguistically.

Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez @ LVC on Friday, December 4th

Friday, December 4th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 301

Understanding Basque Differential Object Marking from Typological, Contact and Attitudinal perspectives

Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Differential Object Marking (DOM) has enjoyed abundant scholarly interest insomuch as theoretical explanations of its key parameters (Aissen 2003; Malchukov and Swart 2008; Hoop and Swart 2007), language-specific constraints (Leonetti 2004; Seifart 2012; Sinnemaki 2014) and synchronic and diachronic accounts in various languages (Morimoto and Swart 2004; Robertson 2007). However, less attention has been paid to the role that language contact plays in the emergence of DOM or the processes that lead to its variable use in contact settings. Basque DOM has been characterized as the product of intense contact with Basque-Spanish leísmo (Austin 2006; Rodríguez-Ordóñez, 2015), but its variable use and the role that attitudes play in its use remain understudied.

Using spontaneous speech of 70 Basque-Spanish bilinguals and 19 Basque-French bilinguals in combination of experimental techniques on production and perception, I provide evidence to the argument that Basque DOM involves a process of replica grammaticalization (Heine and Kuteva 2010) in which contact features and typological constraints work interactively, particularly dependent upon the language dominance of the speaker. The low use among L2 speakers is explained through the attitudinal results; Basque DOM is considered ‘defective’ and ‘non-authentic’ in Standard Basque, the variety of L2 and early sequential bilinguals. It is proposed that these speakers do not use Basque DOM so that their ‘authentic Basque identity’ is not fully questioned.

The present study builds upon theoretical and methodological implications: first, it argues that a multi-disciplinary study of contact-phenomena advances our theory on the interplay of language as ‘human faculty’ and ‘social competence’ in which bilinguals engage in a linguistic task that involve cognitive processing mechanisms and the ability to implement societal norms (Matras 2010). Second, it advocates for the formal study of language attitudes as an integrated part of a theory of contact-linguistics.

2nd June: Claire Halpert (UMinnesota)

Monday, June 2nd @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Nominal Licensing and vP

In this talk, I discuss aspects of nominal distribution patterns in several Bantu languages.  While Bantu languages have been claimed to lack case-licensing altogether (e.g. Harford 1985, Diercks 2012, a.o.), I outline a research path for investigating structural licensing of nominals in Bantu. Using Zulu as a starting point, I show that nominals lacking an augment morpheme (initial vowel) are restricted to certain structural positions within DP, PP, or vP. I argue that licensing at the vP-level is syntactic in nature, a form of case-licensing, connected to another morphosyntactic process that targets the vP domain: the conjoint/disjoint alternation.  At the same time, there are secondary semantic/interpretive properties that correlate with this type of licensing in Zulu. I show that beyond Zulu, we find similar nominal distribution patterns in other Bantu languages.  In  Kinande and Luganda (e.g. Progovac 1993, Hyman and Katamba 1993), for example, augment vowel distribution seems to operate on related, but non-identical principles, to Zulu.  In Otjiherero (Kavari et al 2012), augments do not seem to play a role in nominal distribution and licensing, but the tonal melodies with which nominals are marked follow the same syntactic patterns as augment distribution in languages like Zulu. The emerging picture, therefore, is one in which nominal case-licensing at the clause level seems to be closely tied to the vP domain in multiple Bantu languages.  I suggest that we can find some similar profiles to the type of interaction between structural licensing and interpretive properties that we see in Bantu in languages with more robust systems of morphological case, including Russian genitive of negation, Finnish partitives, and certain uses of genitive in Japanese dialects (e.g. de Hoop 1996, Kiparsky 1998, Partee and Borschev 2004, Ochi and Saruwatari 2014).

28 April: Laura Staum Casasanto (UChicago)

Monday, April 28th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Processing Difficulty and the Envelope of Variation

A longstanding problem in the study of syntactic variation is determining the envelope of variation. That is, what are the variants that speakers choose among when they speak? This problem is usually thought of in terms of semantic equivalency: are the variants in question really “different ways of saying the same thing,” or is their selection at least partly based on semantic or pragmatic differences among the variants? But there is another problem facing an analyst of syntactic variation before the work of determining the constraints on variation can begin. To the extent that we consider the statistical tendencies of speakers to use one variant or another part of grammar, we have to ask: Which utterances are things that should be explained via a competence grammar, and which are things that should be explained away via performance factors?
This problem is brought into focus when we study the effect of processing difficulty on variant selection. If one variant is more likely under difficult processing conditions, and another more likely under easy processing conditions, this could be a sign that one variant is an error, more likely to be made under pressure. For example, Staum Casasanto & Sag (2009) found that extra complementizers are more likely to be inserted when the distance between the complement-taking verb and the subject of the complement clause is long. It’s possible to describe this type of pattern in the same terms that we describe other effects on syntactic variant selection, such as style, register, social, semantic, or lexical effects. But to do so misses a critical point: there may be a non-arbitrary, functional relationship between the conditioning factor and the measured outcome. Not only that, but the variant that occurs in the difficult conditions may not be part of any speaker’s idiolect, in terms of grammaticality. If a variant is produced only under conditions of processing difficulty, what aspect of a speaker’s knowledge are we describing when we describe its distribution?
In this talk, I’ll present data from experiments investigating putatively processing-based syntactic variation, propose some ways of distinguishing between grammar and processing, and discuss the limitations of these methods. I’ll argue that although there are strategies we can use to classify variables as inside or outside the purview of grammar, we can only use these once we acknowledge that we need to have different notions of the envelope of variation for different types of analysis of variation.

4 November: Jeff Good (University at Buffalo)

Monday, November 4th @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Magical ideologies of language change: Connecting micro-level variation to macro-areal diversification

In many respects, historical investigation of the Bantu language family serves as a model application of the Comparative Method to a genealogical unit outside of Indo-European. The close relationship of hundreds of languages occupying the greater part of southern sub-Saharan Africa is beyond question, and there is  consensus on many important features of the proto-language. At the same time, despite more than a century and a half of scholarship, significant issues regarding the development of the family remain unresolved almost to the point of seeming intractable. No shared innovation has been found that uniquely delineates Bantu from its closest relatives, no family-wide subgrouping has become accepted, and no fully convincing explanation has been offered for Bantu’s incredibly successful spread throughout southern Africa.

This talk reconsiders these issues through the examination of the comparative linguistics of a small, linguistically diverse region of Cameroon known as Lower Fungom, which is located within the putative Proto-Bantu homeland. By treating Lower Fungom as a microcosm for Bantu, it becomes possible to explore how a local ideology that links languages to relatively ephemeral political entities results in patterns of language change which are neither tree-like nor wave-like but, rather, “magnetic”, with varieties in contact constantly converging and diverging from each other to reflect shifting patterns of solidarity and antagonism. This ideological stance is further associated with a system of beliefs wherein code choice is perceived as a means to access the magical protection associated with a given community. This fosters multilingualism and frequent language shift as strategies through which individuals can attempt to increase their spiritual security.

Through the examination of specific structural features of the languages of Lower Fungom, it will be argued that the presence of these ideological patterns can take us far in understanding why there was never a clean linguistic “break” between Bantu and its closest relatives, why clear-cut subgroups never formed, and why the family spread so successfully. More generally, it will be suggested that detailed investigation of the ways that local language ideologies relate codes to communities has a significant role to play in addressing the actuation problem in language change.

8 April: Erin Franklin (UChicago)

Monday, April 8th @ 3 PM, Wieboldt 408

Backchanneling in Russian:  Form, Function and Occurrence

Backchannels, otherwise known as listener response tokens, have been shown to occur quite frequently in the course of interactions between two speakers and they are considered to occur universally.  However as shown by Tottie, there is some evidence for backchanneling being a culturally specific phenomenon, as in her study British and American English speakers backchanneled in a significantly different manner, using both different backchannels at different frequencies (Tottie 1991).  However the exploration of this aspect of backchanneling is currently non-existent, with the vast majority of existing research focusing on varieties of English and only a handful of studies have been done on any aspect of backchanneling in any other language.  This paper is intended to be a first step in filling this gap in regards to the occurrence of backchannels in the Russian language.

The first part of the paper discusses the extent to which the current work on backchanneling can be applied to Russian data. Particular focus is paid to the particular forms that these tokens take in Russian and their functions as well as the relationship between these things.

The second part of the paper discusses a rough frequency of backchanneling in Russian and attempts to determine whether the occurrence of these tokens is prosodically or syntactically governed.  To this end, this paper analyzes a radio program “Obložka-1” hosted by Exo Moskvy, which is approximately 57 minutes long and consists of a single interview with one interviewee, two interviewers and one program host.  The backchannel rates of each of the participants are compared to each other in order to determine a potential frequency range for the phenomenon specifically in relation to English language data. The backchannels of all the participants are also analyzed in terms of the location of their occurrence in relation to the prosodic and syntactic structure of the co-occurring speech which leads to the conclusion that prosody rather than syntax is the more probably determining factor.

Finally this paper will discuss the limitations of the data as gathered and suggest possible areas for further research.