Greek comparatives and the surface/abstract debate

Jason Merchant (University of Chicago)
Event time: 
Friday, February 26, 2010 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Event description: 

There is an ongoing debate about the nature of syntactic representations, and in particular whether we should posit abstract structures that contain no unpronounced elements (be they individual null words or entire phrases) or whether our syntax should be more surfacist (Ginzburg and Sag 2000, Culicover and Jackendoff 2005). In this talk, I argue that surfacist approaches cannot account for a range of facts from comparatives in Greek. The argument, in brief, is that Greek *phrasal* comparatives show island effects: since island effects are computed over syntactic representations, there must be such representations even when they are not present “on the surface”.

Like many languages, Greek morphologically differentiates between the marker of the standard of comparison in phrasal comparatives such as (1a) and in clausal comparatives such as (1b):

(1) I Eleni exei perissotera vivlia  
  the Eleni.nom has more books


    a. apo ton Gianni. b. ap’oti o Giannis.
    than.phrasal the Giannis.acc   than.clausal the Giannis.nom
  ‘Eleni has more books than Giannis has.’

In phrasal comparatives, the standard marker is the preposition apo (‘than, from, of’), which assigns accusative case to its necessarily DP successor; in clausal comparatives, the marker is apoti and what follows can be of whatever category or case is required by the syntax internal to the standard clause.

Usual analyses of phrasal vs. clausal comparatives posit that phrasal comparatives are simple PP structures, while clausal comparatives such as (1b) embed an unpronounced clause in which the remnant (o Giannis in (1b)) has moved to a clause-external position followed by clausal ellipsis (Hankamer 1973, Kennedy 1997, and many others). Many analyses of phrasal comparatives (whether they posit ellipsis or not) have been proposed that handle PPs well, but there is a third way of marking the standard of comparison in Greek which introduces additional complications: the standard can be a genitive pronoun, as in (2):

(2) Pandreftike enan psilotero tis andra.
  she.married a taller her.gen man
  ‘She married a man taller than her.’

I explore the ramifications of such structures for our understanding of the mechanisms that map the syntax or comparatives to their semantics. I argue that such clitic standards are very unlikely candidates for a reduced ellipsis analysis (as proposed for phrasal standards in Merchant 2009), but that standard nonelliptical accounts of phrasal standards are inadequate.

Instead, I show that the clitic standards can be accounted for in situ using type-raising on the meaning of the comparative (or of the case itself). I argue that this approach is a natural alternative to LF-raising approaches (as in Merchant 2009, Bhatt and Takahashi to appear), but that it must be constrained (or absent) in languages like English. Such cases show that we should look for semantic variation just as we do for syntactic variation.

Event Type: 
Syntax Colloquium