Derivational cycles: syntax seminar

By the way, I am also attending a seminar in syntax (specifically, theories of derivational cycles) held by Norbert Hornstein and Juan Uriagereka.  Unfortunately, it overlaps with Philip Resnik’s sentiment analysis seminar, and technically being CS and all, I attend Philip’s class fully and then barge in an hour late to the syntax seminar.  That means I have a devil of a time picking up the thread of the conversation, but so far—as it has focused on a historical review of cyclicity in the syntax literature, much of which I am already familiar with—I don’t yet feel like I am suffering.

For those not as familiar with theoretical syntax and wondering what a “derivational cycle” might be…hoo, boy.  One of the criticisms of theoretical linguistics of the so-called “Chomskyan” variety (that UMD linguistics practices with gusto) is that it has its head in the formalistic clouds, far away from language, but never far enough away that it can be described with a great deal of mathematical precision.  Cyclicity in syntax is both a prime example of this, and one of the most important and IMO convincing and interesting aspects of the approach.

But one simple way of thinking about it is that there are definite limitations to the scope of question words in a sentence, and that these limitations happen in “cycles” roughly—but not strictly—defined by nested clauses.  Making the case requires a lot of examples and reams of PhD theses, but here’s an illustrative pair:

  • Why was the man sleeping in the boat?
  • What boat was the man sleeping in?

We can extend both questions by adding another clause-embedding, in a sense recursively (to appeal to CS sensibilities).

  • Why did you tell the reporter that the man was sleeping in the boat?
  • What boat did you tell the reporter that the man was sleeping in?

In the “why” case, the shorter question asks the reason for sleeping in the boat, but the longer question no longer allows that interpretation.  We are instead forced to interpret that it was asking why “you [told] the reporter” about it.  In other words, introduction of the “that” seems to have had an effect of “blocking” the question from applying to the later clause.

But not so for “What boat”!  There is therefore something special about the introduction of a clause boundary in English that blocks some interpretations of questions but not others.  We can extend these examples further, and into other languages.  As clauses can be nested further, we can suggest that these phenomena are therefore in some sense cyclic or recursive, yet apply to very abstract human faculties of interpretation.

This particular class was a review of Chomsky’s classic Barriers monograph (in a nutshell, how clause boundaries act as barriers to certain interpretations) followed by a review of Lasnik and Saito’s work (that’s UMD’s Howard Lasnik) on “proper government”, which elaborates on some of the conditions that permit barriers to form through characteristics of abstract variables called “traces”.  Each of these, however, would take me hours to summarize, so I won’t, at this point.


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