Syntax seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ, to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design, and to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.
Birds fly, fish swim, humans speak. We have a capacity to combine expressions into unboundedly large linguistic structures (sentences and phrases) that carry a specific form and a specific meaning. As the number of such structures is in principle infinite, there must be recursive procedures that define these complex objects. Syntax studies these rule systems — grammars — and does so in three ways. It seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ (e.g. how questions are formed in English versus Chinese); to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design (e.g. why no human grammars have mirror image rules); and, most recently, to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.
The syntax group engages in all three kinds of research, with special emphasis on the third, typically minimalist question. Empirically, the syntax group has done extensive work on case, agreement, ellipsis, movement and islands, control, anaphoric binding, applicative constructions, morphosyntax, linearization, binding and quantifier scope, among others. Furthermore, while we aim to be at the forefront of syntactic theory (particularly within the minimalist program), we constantly aim, in our classes and in our research, to find insight from earlier generative models developed over the past 60 years.
The Syntax/Semantics Lab meets once or twice a month, bringing together students, faculty, postdocs and visitors to discuss works in progress.
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Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"
Initial errors in the acquisition of the Japanese local- or long-distance anaphor "zibun."
Although the Japanese reflexive zibun can be bound both locally and across clause boundaries, the third-person pronoun kare cannot take a local antecedent. These are properties that children need to learn about their language, but we show that the direct evidence of the binding possibilities of zibun is sparse and the evidence of kare is absent in speech to children, leading us to ask about children’s knowledge. We show that children, unlike adults, incorrectly reject the long-distance antecedent for zibun, and while being able to access this antecedent for a non-local pronoun kare, they consistently reject the local antecedent for this pronoun. These results suggest that children’s lack of matrix readings for zibun is not due to their understanding of discourse context but the properties of their language understanding.
Chain reduction via substitution: Evidence from Mayan
Extraction out of adjuncts in K'ichean languages shows that "overt traces" are possible.
We argue that deletion is not the only way that chain links created by A′-movement can be affected at PF. Chain links can also be substituted by a morpheme. This substitution delivers a linearizable output (in a manner parallel to deletion), creating overt “traces” on the surface. We demonstrate the virtues of our proposal through the empirical lens of adjunct extraction in two Mayan languages of the K’ichean branch: K’iche’ and Kaqchikel. In these languages, extraction of low adjuncts triggers the appearance of a verbal enclitic wi. The distribution of the enclitic upon long distance extraction shows that it must be analyzed as a surface reflex of substitution of a chain link. Our proposal provides evidence that movement proceeds successive cyclically and has two additional theoretical consequences: (i) C0 must be a phase head (contra den Dikken 2009; 2017), (ii) v0 cannot be a phase head (in line with Keine 2017).
Optional agreement in Santiago Tz'utujil (Mayan) is syntactic
Agreement is optional only for complements, and is conditioned by whether the argument is a DP or a reduced nominal.
Some Mayan languages display optional verbal agreement with 3pl arguments (Dayley 1985; Henderson 2009; England 2011). Focusing on novel data from Santiago Tz’utujil (ST), we demonstrate that this optionality is not reducible to phonological or morphological factors. Rather, the source of optionality is in the syntax. Specifcally, the distinction between arguments generated in the specifer position and arguments generated in the complement position governs the pattern. Only base-complements control agreement optionally; base-specifers control agreement obligatorily. We provide an analysis in which optional agreement results from the availability of two syntactic representations (DP vs. reduced nominal argument). Thus, while the syntactic operation Agree is deterministic, surface optionality arises when the operation targets two diferent sized goals.