Jim Wood publishes two papers on Icelandic

August 29, 2017

Two papers by Assistant Professor Jim Wood on the Icelandic language have recently been published.

Inverse attraction in Icelandic relative clauses, co-authored with Einar Freyr Sigurðsson of the University of Pennsylvania and Iris Edda Nowenstein of the University of Iceland, is a chapter in the book Syntactic Variation in Insular Scandinavian. The chapter describes a non-standard grammatical construction in Icelandic called inverse attraction (IA). IA concerns sentences with embedded clauses, such as the following.

  • The art works that were stolen are priceless.

The noun phrase art works is simultaneously the subject of are in the matrix, or outer, clause, as well as the object of stolen. In standard Icelandic, this noun would bear nominative case, indicating its role as a subject. This is seen in the first sentence below; the noun listaverkin ‘art works’ has nominative case. However, in non-standard varieties of the language, art works may also bear dative case, as if it belonged to the embedded clause and not the matrix clause. This is seen in the second sentence, which features the dative noun listaverkunum ‘art works.’

  • Listaverkin sem var stolið eru óskemmd.
    ‘The art works (nom) that were stolen are undamaged.’
  • Listaverkunum sem var stolið eru ómetanleg.
    ‘The art works (dat) that were stolen are priceless.’

According to modern syntactic theory, each of the sentences above contains two copies of the noun phrase art works: one associated with the matrix clause and one associated with the embedded clause. One of these copies must be deleted. In the standard construction, the copy associated with the embedded clause is deleted, while in the non-standard construction, the copy associated with the matrix clause is deleted. Jim’s chapter describes a study in which the authors conducted a survey of 130 Icelandic speakers to determine what factors affect whether the copy associated with the matrix clause can be deleted. The authors find that these factors include the cases assigned to the two copies, as well as the positions in which these two copies appear before one of them is deleted.

The Accusative-Subject Generalization is an article appearing in the journal Syntax. This paper concerns sentences in which the subject is assigned accusative case. The accusative-subject generalization (ASG) is an observation that in such sentences, the accusative subject cannot be associated with a verb that is specially marked as being intransitive. For example, consider the following sentences.

  • Bátinn braut í spón.
    ‘The boat (acc) broke to pieces.’
  • * Bátinn var brotinn/brotna/brotið í spón.
    ‘The boat (acc) was broken to pieces.’

The second sentence is not considered a valid sentence of Icelandic. Both sentences contain an accusative subject: bátinn ‘boat.’ However, the verb of the second sentence has a special suffix—either -inn, -na, or -ið—that indicates that the verb is an intransitive passive. According to the ASG, the second sentence is unacceptable because the accusative subject is the thing that is being broken. Jim’s paper claims that the ASG holds because accusative subjects are accompanied by a silent word that is associated with the verb. Jim shows that according to a theory called Distributed Morphology, this silent word causes Icelandic to obey the ASG and explains why certain verbs have different meanings based on the positions of the nouns associated with them.

The book is available from the John Benjamins Publishing Company, and the full issue of Syntax is available from the Wiley Online Library.

The photo, depicting the city of Reykjavik, Iceland, is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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