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Department of Linguistics and Oriental Languages

Linguistics 522

Introduction to Syntax

Lecture 1


Our textbook (chapter 1) starts by posing the question: why study language?

Actually lots of answers. Anthropologists, sociologists, politcal scientists, literary theorists, all have different interests when they study language. So does a neurobiologist or a neurologist. Our point of departure is Chomsky's answer. It's a mentalist answer.

    We study language to learn about the structure of the mind. [Or the structure of the brain.]
    So in a sense our answer is closest to the neurobiologist's answer. Although we're going to use very different methods.
    We're interested in those aspects of language which shed light on the fundamental structure of the human mind. As such we're particularly interest in aspects that are common to all languages. universal aspects.
    Are there really any? Open question for now. What we can be sure of is that there are UNEXPECTED structural features which can be found in a number of unrelated languages. Already VERY interesting.

First there IS pattern in language.

We can complicate sentences in regular ways:

    John is a handsome man.
    John is a dark, handsome man.
    John is a tall, dark, handsome man.
    John is a sensitive, tall, dark, handsome man.
    John is an intelligent, sensitive, tall, dark, handsome man.
    I like the plumber in jeans.
    I like the plumber in jeans with long hair.
    I like the plumber in jeans with long hair at the back of the room.
    I like the plumber in jeans with long hair at the back of the room on the stage.
A finite number of patterns licensing an infinite number of sentences.

Canonical word order.

    English: SVO
      John read the book.
      Subj Verb Obj
    Japanese: SOV
      John ga hon o yonda
      John Nom book Acc read-past
      Subj   Obj   Verb
    Irish: VSO
      Phog Liam Sean
      Kissed William John
      Verb Subj Obj
    These are the most common.

    Others. Free word order too.

    But there are no languages in which the canonical word order is SVO for some verbs, SOV for others.

    When you pick a pattern there are certain ways in which it has to generalize. Just makes sense? It would be confusing to have different verbs have different word order? But there's already so much to learn when you learn a verb. Conjugation, conjugation group. What it means. What propositions go with it, if any. Why not word order too?

    Maybe something about the mind. Maybe something about how interpretation works. We leave that open.


Structure = patterns [Rules]

Different kinds of patterns [Rules]

    phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic

Phonological structure = how the sounds of the language are put together into larger units

    blick vs
      bnick, pnick, knick, gnick, dnick, tnick
      bmick, ...
      bngick, ...

Morph structure = how the morphemes of the language are put together into larger units

    *removeness vs. removal
    happiness, goodness, brightness, ...

Syntactic structure = how the words of the language are put together into larger units


Definitions of grammatical competence and pragmatic competence

Knowledge of patterns, rules = grammatical competence

Knowledge of what makes sense in the world, of how to use sentences in context = pragmatic competence

  • cross-eyed elephant
  • cross-eyed clam
  • cross-eyed kindness
Pragmatic competence is different because it's not clear it is tied to the idea of linguistic patterns or rules. But it's still an important kind of knowledge about language.

Definitions of grammar, grammaticality, generative grammar

    The totality of syntactic, semantic, phonological and morphological patterns (or rules) in a language is called its grammar. Notice pragmatics is excluded here, because it brings in knowledge of the world. A system of rules that generates all and only the sentences of the language is called a generative grammar. A speaker's grammatical competence is his or her knowledge of the rules of the language.

A sentence not conforming to the rules of the language is called ungrammatical.

Havcing intuitons about which senetnces are well-formed and which are not is evidence of a native speaker's grammatical competence.

Kinds of

Just because a sentence or phrase is odd doesn't mean it's ungrammatical in this technical sense.

A sentence may be phonologically, morphologically, syntactically, and semantically acceptable. But pragmatically strange.

    Look at the cross-eyed elephant. (pragmatic)
    Look at the cross-eyed kindness. (pragmatic)
    * Look at the cross-eyed from. (syntactic: ungrammatical)
    * Strive for kind-ity. (morphological)
Note use of asterisk to indicate ungrammaticality.

Definition of Performance


Linguistic use: a matter of performance

    On actual linguistic occasions other factors beside competence factors intervene.
Noisy environments, memory limitations (for both speaker and hearer), articulatory constraints, auditory constraints.

This mentalist way of looking at language looks at only a part of the picture. For instance, the anthropologist or the sociologist will be interested in language as a social activity, or as a medium of communication. Pragmatics and knowledge of the world is key. Acceptability is quite independent of communication. Using an acceptable sentence may or may not lead to a successful communicative act. And on the other hand, successful communication may or may not be acheived through the use of acceptable sentences.


A theory of language use is a theory of performance. Anthroplogists and sociologists may be more interested in a theory of language use.


Big Chomskyan claim:

    A theory of competence is prior to a theory of performance, in the sense that a theory of performance needs to include a theory of competence.

Summary thus far

    So we're seeking a rule-based theory of competence. For this course we're interested in syntactic competence.

First: Find rules. Look at data. Consult speaker judgements of acceptability. Since we're interested in syntactic acceptability, we're particularly interested in judgements that establish a sentence as syntactically acceptable or unacceptable.

Second: Describe the rules. Collect the most general correct rules.

Find exceptions, inaccuracies. Revise and resume.

Gaps in patterns: Of great interest. Perhaps our patterns are too generally stated. The exceptions are just pointing to the fact that we're wrong. Perhaps there are two patterns interacting that are incompatible. Perhaps there are some general principles at work, governing how syntactic rules work.

  • unexpected syntactic unacceptablity
      I gave back the car to him.
      I gave the car back to him.
      I gave him back the car.
      I gave him the car back.
      *I gave the car to him back.
      *I gave back him the car.
  • unexpected interpretive gap
      I wonder who the men expected to see them.
      The men expected to see them.
In both cases the only way to explain the gaps seems to be via syntactic competence. These are the gaps that are of interest to us.
& Grammaticality

Different kinds of acceptability. Sharpening the point.

    (20a) John killed the stone.(pragmatic:needs fairy story)
    (20b) John killed Mary but she didn't die. (semantic:contradiction)
    (20c) Killed Mary John. (ungrammatical)
The preliminary idea is that if you can imagine it's true, if there's some way to revise the world to make it possible, then it's just a pragmatic issue. So typically with pragmatically unacceptable sentences it's easy to come up with science fiction story or a fairy story in which the questionable sentnec comes out perfectly sensible.

Let's go back to "cross-eyed kindness." Imagine a culture in which one's personal qualities are animate and bear independent qualities of their own. they may be strong or weak, they may be handsome or beautiful or have wings.

    His kindness has wings. It flies away easily.
    His kindness is cross-eyed. It sometimes travels in strange directions.

But now consider a culture which has a form of Coventry. [banishment, exile, ostracism]. When people are exiled from the group, no one is allowed to speak to them anymore, even their children or spouses. They are to pretend that these people don't exist. In such a case it would not be that odd to describe this situation by saying of the outcast: "His life was taken from him." And if Mary is the ruler who ordered John's exile, and John survived living off roots and berries in the forest, we might very well say:

    Mary killed John but he didn't die.
We might even say:
    John is dead. He didn't die. He was banished.
The semantic vs pragmatic is always troublesome. Mostly we don't need to worry about distinguishing semantic versus pragmatic unacceptability. Mostly we need to worry about distinguighing syntactically ill-formed from semantically or pragmatically odd.

There are lots of cases where syntactic unacceptability is clearly what's at issue:

    Boy every left.
    Killed Mary John. (ungrammatical, but not in Irish)

And yet there are also cases where the issue of syntactic versus semantic/pragmatic acceptability is not completely cut and dried. Cases of "gender" disagreement (3 genders: masc., fem. neut.)

    The boy next door never loses her temper.
    the Christian which we threw to the lion.
    the tree who we saw
From Radford, Ch 1, Ex 1
  1. John's a living dead man. (DOA, Edmund O'Brian; metaphor)
  2. My wife is not my wife. (contradiction, but...)
  3. This is a five-sided hexagon. (not possible, but...)
  4. This oats is of rather poor quality. (number agreement...)
  5. * This men is rather unhappy. (number agreement, worse...)
  6. * This oat is of rather poor quality. (mo such form...)
  7. These oats is of rather poor quality. (dialect)
  8. This oats are of rather poor quality. (ungrammatical, incompatible numbers)
  9. You can see the taste in a Fox's glazier mint.
  10. Two and two is five. (like 2, not possible, but...)
  11. I order you to know the answer.
  12. My toothbrush is pregnant again. (sf story)
Our policies. Sentences can just be necessarily false but acceptable. Let's not fuss about difference between necessary falseness and contradictory (which some people do and some people don't). So to the extent there's any problem at all with necessarily false sentences, it's pragmatic, but personally I'd like to say:
    Two is two is five
is a PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE sentence which happens to be false. the fact that it may be necessarily false, that we cant imagine a way the world might be to arrange that, that's for mathematicians to worry about. Ditto for all our false and contradictory sentences. So are there ANY good candidates for semantic unacceptability?
  • I order you to know the answer.
  • Know the answer!
  • I order you to learn the answer.
  • Learn the answer!
  • I want you to know the answer.
  • Boy the arrived.
Is Syntax just
Word order?

What do we mean by syntactic? Well we mean to pay attention to how woreds are put together to make sentences, and therefore we mean to pay attention to word order:

    boy the
is a not a Noun phrase.

But we also mean to pay attention to a set of properties of language we call structure-dependent. Rules that are structure-dependent refer only to:

  • Syntactic categories
  • Syntactic structure (phrases)
As a first cut, we can assume that know and learn don't differ in any structure dependent way. That is they're both words of the same category. So the difference between them is semantic.

Next week we get clearer on the concept of structure dependence.