Language  (Vol. 93, No. 1) March 2017


The syntax of extra be constructions in English

Diane Massam, University of Toronto

This paper examines the syntax of extra be constructions, common in nonprescriptive English and often considered a curiosity, such as: The problem is, is that she hates apples. It has been considered that there are many different types of extra be constructions, with the two main types being double be and single be, but this paper will argue that these distinctions are largely superficial. The paper reviews previous accounts, presents the complex data, and categorizes most cases of extra be into one unified syntactic construction, the Shared Shell Noun Construction. It is argued that such constructions are syntactically fairly ordinary biclausal specificational copular sentences, consisting of a setup clause and a resolution clause, which share an argument. A second construction is also proposed for one subset of examples, the Linking Focus be Construction, where be lexicalizes a left peripheral focus head.


Which noun phrases is the verb supposed to agree with? Object agreement in American English

Brian W. Dillon, Department of Linguistics, University of Massachosetts, Amherst

Adrian Staub, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Joshua Levy, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Charles Clifton, Jr. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

We investigate a non-canonical agreement pattern in American English in which a fronted wh-phrase appears to control agreement on an inflected auxiliary, as in “Which flowers are the gardener planting?” (Kimball & Aissen, 1971). We explore this phenomenon with five acceptability judgment experiments, and interpret the resulting data with the aid of a quantitative model of the judgment process. Our study suggests that fronted wh-phrases interfere with agreement primarily as a function of their linear and structural position, and that this effect is not significantly modulated by overt case or thematic cues in offline judgments. We suggest our findings support a model of agreement processing in which syntactic phrases compete to control agreement on the basis of their structural and linear position with respect to the inflected verb.


Dementia and Grammar in a Polysynthetic Language: An Arapaho Case Study

J. Andrew Cowell, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado

Gail Ramsberger, Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado

Lise Menn, Department of Linguistics and Institute for Cognitive Science, University of Colorado

In dementia, morphosyntax (in inflecting and agglutinating languages) is much better preserved than lexical access or pragmatics, but little is known about how dementia affects language in polysynthetic agglutinating languages with their complex verb morphology. Fortuitously, a series of narratives by a skilled Arapaho storyteller includes sessions from late in his life, when he was evidently dementing. Verb forms and clausal connectors in the speaker’s Arapaho pre-dementia and dementia narratives were sorted computationally and analyzed statistically. We found a decline in subordination and an increase in utterances missing verbs. There was a shift from using transitive active verb forms toward impersonal and passive verb forms, which require less pragmatic and syntactic computation to deploy; and a shift in subordination markers away from those requiring explicit consideration of the temporal relations between clauses.


Accounting for the learnability of saltation in phonological theory: A maximum entropy model with a P-map bias

James White, Department of Linguistics, University of College London

Saltatory alternations occur when two sounds alternate with each other, excluding a third sound that is phonetically intermediate between the two alternating sounds (e.g. [p] alternates with [β], with non-alternating, phonetically intermediate [b]). Such alternations are attested in natural language, so they must be learnable; however, experimental work suggests that they are dispreferred by language learners. This paper presents a computationally implemented phonological framework that can account for both the existence and the dispreferred status of saltatory alternations. The framework is implemented in a maximum entropy learning model (Goldwater & Johnson 2003) with two significant components. The first is a set of constraints penalizing correspondence between specific segments, formalized as *Map constraints (Zuraw 2007, 2013), which enables the model to learn saltatory alternations at all. The second is a substantive bias based on the P-map (Steriade 2009 [2001]), implemented via the model’s prior probability distribution, which favors alternations between perceptually similar sounds. Comparing the model’s predictions to results from artificial language experiments, the substantively biased model outperforms control models that do not have a substantive bias, providing support for the role of substantive bias in phonological learning.


Comparisons of nominal degrees

Galit Weidman Sassoon, Bar Ilan University

There are two fundamentally different kinds of comparison: difference- and contrast-comparisons. Adjective phrases typically occur in the former (e.g., This is {slightly, two inches} bigger than that), but not in the latter (*Tweety is {bigger, more big} than (it is) heavy; Kennedy 1999). Noun phrases, by contrast, exhibit the inverse pattern. The challenge is to account for their ability to occur in contrast-comparisons (such as This bird is more a duck than a goose), but not in difference-comparisons (#This bird is more a duck than that one is), where the mediation of a partitive particle is necessary (as in more of a duck). The problem is that postulating either semantic gradability, or even only ad-hoc, meta-linguistic gradable interpretations for nouns to capture the meaning of contrast-comparisons results in wrong predictions for difference-comparisons and for most other gradable constructions (#very duck; #too duck; #duck enough; #the most duck). The paper presents an account that exploits the psychological notion of a contrast-set to explain these data and to correctly predict the truth conditions and characteristic inference patterns of contrast-comparisons. Two main conclusions are first, that if adjectives are degree expressions, so are nouns, and second, that nouns form a different type of degree expression.


Self-organization in the spelling of English suffixes: The emergence of culture out of anarchy

Kristian Berg, University of Oldenburg

Mark Aronoff, Stony Brook University

English spelling is unphonetic: same sounds can be spelled in various and often idiosyncratic ways. It is also ungoverned: there is no authority guiding its development. However, it is not as arbitrary as one might conclude. Investigating the spelling of four derivational suffixes, we show that the spelling of English suffixes is quite consistent. Homophonous endings of morphologically simple words are spelled differently, keeping the suffix spelling distinct (cf. e.g. ‹nervous› vs. ‹service›/* ‹servous›). English spelling thus provides morphological cues for the reader. Diachronically, we show that this system emerged without explicit regulation, but as a result of self-organization. We use the Helsinki corpus to show how variation was gradually reduced for each of the suffixes. The regular spellings of today emerged gradually, through a sorting out process of competition between alternate spellings.


Historical Syntax Online


Dative Sickness: A phylogenetic Analysis of Argument Structure Evolution in Germanic

Michael Dunn, Tonya Kim Dewey, Carlee Arnett, Thórhallur Eythórsson, Jóhanna Barðdal


The loss of V-to-C in the history of Portuguese: Subject position, clitic placement and prosody

Charlotte Galves



Review Article: The Austronesian Languages by R. Blust (2013)

Edward L. Keenan, Sandra Chung


Future Issues