Bob Frank in Leipzig
Andrew Murphy received his PhD last semester from Leipzig’s Interaction of Grammatical Building Blocks Research Training Group (iGRA). His dissertation, supervised by Gereon Müller and Fabian Heck, was defended on October 12, with Bob in attendance as an outside committee member. Entitled Cumulativity in Syntactic Derivations, Andrew’s dissertation investigates a kind of linguistic phenomenon called gang effects. According to constraint-based theories of grammar, the grammar of a language is best described as a collection of criteria, known as constraints, that should be satisfied by words and sentences of the language. Constraint-based theories often assume that these constraints contradict one another, and may be violated to varying degrees. Each constraint is assigned a certain level of importance, so that a less important constraint may be violated in order to satisfy a more important constraint.
Gang effects occur when two constraints of lower importance “gang up” to override third constraint of higher importance. For example, consider the following sentences of Russian.
- Kto kogo priglasil na užin? “Who invited whom to dinner?” (lit. “Who whom invited to dinner?”)
- Čju on kupil mašinu? “Whose car did he buy?” (lit. “Whose did he buy car?”)
The first sentence shows that in Russian, two wh-words may be placed at the beginning of a question, while in English only one wh-word may be placed at the beginning of a question. This construction is known as multiple wh-fronting (MWF). The second sentence shows that when the wh-word is an article, the wh-word may be placed at the beginning of a question without its corresponding noun. In English, on the other hand, the corresponding noun must accompany the wh-article at the beginning. This is known as left-branch extraction (LBE). While Russian, unlike English, has both MWF and LBE, it is not possible to combine the two constructions by placing two wh-articles at the beginning without their corresponding nouns. Therefore, the following sentence is not grammatically correct:
- *Kakoj čju aktër kupil mašinu? “Which actor bought whose car?” (lit. “Which whose actor bought car?”)
Andrew’s analysis of this phenomenon is that Russian has three constraints. One requires wh-words to appear at the beginning of a sentence. Another forbids MWF, and third forbids LBE. LBE is possible because the requirement that wh-words appear at the beginning is more important than the ban on LBE. MWF is possible because both wh-words are required to appear at the beginning, and this requirement is important enough to justify two violations of the ban against MWF. However, combining MWF and LBE is not possible because the ban against MWF “gangs up” with the ban against LBE to override the requirement that wh-words appear at the beginning of a question.
The next day, Bob gave a talk entitled Attention Hungry Subjects and Clause-Boundedness Effects. This talk, also presented with Matt at Yale’s Multiple questions about sluicing workshop last spring, discussed a type of sentence called sluicing. Sluicing is when a part of a sentence containing wh-words is omitted, but the wh-words are still pronounced. For example, in the following sentence, the word met may optionally be omitted.
- Some student met with some professor, but I don’t know which student (met) with which professor.
Sluicing is not possible when there are two wh-words left behind, which refer to nouns found in different clauses. For example, the following sentence is not possible because which student refers to some student, which occurs in the main clause, while which professor refers to some professor, which appears in an embedded clause.
- *Some student claimed that Sally met with some professor, but I don’t know which student with which professor.
This restriction is called the clause-mate constraint (CMC).
Bob’s talk discussed some exceptions to the CMC. For example, if Sally is replaced by a pronoun referring to some student, then the sentence is possible.
- Some student claimed that he met with some professor, but I don’t know which student with which professor.
Another exception occurs when the embedded clause contains a filler pronoun, known as an expletive pronoun. For example, the pronoun there in the following sentence does not refer to any particular place, but exists simply because the verb in the embedded clause requires a subject.
- Some student claimed that there was a problem with some professor, but I can’t recall which student with which professor.
Examining these exceptions, Bob and Matt proposed a hypothesis regarding when the CMC must be observed and when exceptions are possible. According to their analysis, the CMC is observed when the subject in the embedded clause shifts attention away from the content in the main clause. For example, in Some student claimed that Sally met with some professor, the subject of the main clause is some student, while the subject in the embedded clause, Sally, is a different student. Thus, the embedded clause shifts attention away from some student by talking about Sally, so the CMC is in effect. In Some student claimed that he met with some professor, however, the embedded subject, he, refers to the subject of the main clause, some student. Therefore, the embedded clause does not shift attention away from some student, so an exception to the CMC is possible.