Basic Syntax Concepts (Part 3 of Biblical Language Linguistics) 

April 8, 2022 // The Biblical Languages Podcast

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In this episode of the Biblical Languages Podcast, Kevin Grasso shares core concepts that are essential for doing the task of syntax.

Introduction

Syntax is about the order of morphemes. It is highly relevant for both semantics and morphology. In our intro to semantics, we defined compositionality as the principle whereby the meaning of a complex expression is equivalent to the meaning of its parts and how they are combined. In syntax, we are dealing with how morphemes are combined, so according to the principle of compositionality, this will affect how complex expressions are interpreted. In our intro to morphology, we began with a quote from Embick's 2015 book on the Morpheme. He said, "According to the view that is developed in this book, the primitive elements are morphemes, and the system responsible for combining morphemes into complex structures is the syntax." In other words, it is syntax that is organizing morphemes, and this organization is helps to give complex structures their meaning.
 
We cannot introduce syntax without talking about which framework we are adopting. Far and away the most influential person with regard to the modern study of syntax is Noam Chomsky who is often called the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky developed a theory called generative grammar, which is essentially the enterprise of trying to specify what sentences are grammatical based on a limited set of rules. Because we can form an infinite variety of sentences, this is no small task. Crucially, this endeavor makes reference both to what is grammatical and what is ungrammatical, since we have to have rules that allow certain structures but disallow other structures. For example, we can say the cat in English as well as a cat, and while we can add the plural to make the cats, we would never say *a cats with the plural after a. The fundamental question is why do we consider a cats to be ungrammatical. Put differently, why don't we ever find that combination of morphemes in natural language in English. Syntax helps us to answer these kinds of questions.
 
There are all kinds of sub-topics we could focus on in syntax. We will focus our attention on how syntax interfaces with semantics. This leads us to the task of syntax, or what it is we are actually doing when we do syntax.
 
Question/task of syntax: "Syntax studies the level of Language that lies between words and the meaning of utterances: sentences. It is the level that mediates between sounds that someone produces (organized into words) and what they intend to say.
Perhaps one of the truly amazing aspects of the study of Language is not the origins of the word demerit, or how to properly punctuate a quote inside parentheses, or how kids have, like, destroyed the English language, eh? Instead it’s the question of how we subconsciously get from sounds and words to meaning. This is the study of syntax." (Carnie 2013:4)
 
In previous introductory episodes, we had just one sentence, but in this episode, we will have several in order to introduce different .
 
Note: * = ungrammatical

Outline

  1. Key terms
    • Phonological and logical form
    • Heads and phrases
    • Arguments and adjuncts
    • Complements and specifiers
    • Movement
  2. Ordered phrases
    • The VP
    • The IP
    • The DP
    • The CP

Key terms: Phonetic and logical form

Phonetic form - The form that morphemes take when pronounced.
 
Logical form - The order in which the morphemes are interpreted.
 
Example: Every boy hugged a girl. (two possible interpretations, same phonetic form)
 
Implications:
 
  1. The order we see or hear on the surface is not always the order in which we interpret the morphemes.
  2. Interpretation may not always be visible/audible.

Key terms: Heads and phrases

Head - The morpheme that gives the lexical or grammatical category of the whole phrase.
 
Phrase - A group of morphemes that acts as a unit.
 
Example: Ezra gave his stuffed animal to a child at 3 PM on Wednesday.
 
Implications:
 
  1. Morphemes that occur in the same phrase are interpreted together.
See: Carnie 2013:71-94

Key terms: Arguments and adjuncts

Argument - An item that completes the thought of a predicate.
 
Adjunct - An item that adds additional information to a predicate but is not required to make it a complete thought.
 
Example: Ezra gave his stuffed animal to a child (at 3 PM) (on Wednesday).
 
Implications:
 
  1. Limited number of arguments, but potentially infinite adjuncts.
  2. Arguments and adjuncts are often interpreted differently.

Key terms: Complements and specifiers

Complement - An argument that combines directly with the head of a phrase.
 
Specifier - An argument that combines with the combination of the head and complement (called x').
 
Example: Cooper threw a baseball/his support behind a candidate/a boxing match/a party/a fit (Marantz 1984)
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Implication:
 

Arguments may have different positions in the syntax, and this affects how they are interpreted, e.g. the no-agent idiom hypothesis.

Key terms: Movement

Move - When a morpheme changes location. Usually heads move to head positions and phrases move to phrase positions.
 
Example: Ezra is giving his stuffed animal to a child vs. Is Ezra giving his stuffed animal to a child?
 
Implications:
 
  1. Things move: why and are there constraints?
  2. Movement is often a signal to interpret something differently.

The ordering of functional and lexical morphemes

Ordered phrases: The vP

vP - The lexical projection that forms the core of a clause and which specifies which arguments are necessary to complete the thought of the predicate.
 
Unaccusative - An intransitive verb where the only argument in the clause is vP internal.
 
Unergative - An intransitive verb where the only argument of the verb is introduced outside of the vP.
 
Voice - Introduces or modifies the external argument of the verb.
 
Examples:
 
  1. The pot broke
  2. The engine coughed.
  3. I broke the pot.
  4. *I coughed the engine.
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Implications:
 
  1. Words can have the same surface structure in some instances but have different underlying structure that result in those structures, e.g. two different kinds of intransitives. You have to look at all the uses!
  2. Derived words (nominalization
Example: The examination of the student driver lasted one hour.
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Ordered phrases: The IP

Inflectional Phrase - The functional projection that takes a VP as an argument to anchor the event or state in time.
 
Example: He might have been being seen. (van Gelderen 2017:106-107)
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Implications:
 
  1. Different languages are going to encode different semantic categories, though the order is logical and is, therefore, presumed to be fairly universal across languages.
  2. Aspect is lower than modality/verbal mood and tense, which means we can have aspectual distinctions with different moods/tenses (e.g. in Greek).
  3. Word order of a language is dependent on the order of the specifier of IP (the subject position) and its relationship to the VP.

Ordered phrases: The DP

Determiner Phrase - The functional projection that takes an NP as an argument to anchor the noun in the discourse.
 
Example: Which of these three...? (Luke 10:36) τίς τούτων τῶν τριῶν (ἀνθρώπων)...
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Implications:
 
  1. Articles (the, a), demonstratives (this, that), quantifiers (some, all), and numbers (two, three) all need a place in the syntax and need to be logically ordered.
  2. The final output of a DP is something that can be referred to and can serve as an argument of a verb.
 
See: Noun Phrase in Generative Perspective; Borer 2005

Ordered phrases: The CP

Complementizer Phrase - The functional projection that takes an IP as an argument
 
Example:
 
  1. What did Ezra give to a child?
  2. May Ezra give his stuffed animal to a child!
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Implications:
 
  1. Any element in the CP may affect the word order of a clause.
  2. Verbs such as wayyiqtol and weqatal that cannot be subordinated have moved to the complementizer position.

Conclusion

There are many different issues in syntax and many topics that we could have covered to introduce the field. To recap, we focused our attention on the following:
 
  1. Key terms
    • Phonetic and logical form
    • Heads and phrases
    • Arguments and adjuncts
    • Complements and specifiers
    • Movement
  2. Ordered phrases
    • The vP
    • The IP
    • The DP
    • The CP
Question/task of syntax: "Syntax studies the level of Language that lies between words and the meaning of utterances: sentences. It is the level that mediates between sounds that someone produces (organized into words) and what they intend to say.
Perhaps one of the truly amazing aspects of the study of Language is not the origins of the word demerit, or how to properly punctuate a quote inside parentheses, or how kids have, like, destroyed the English language, eh? Instead it’s the question of how we subconsciously get from sounds and words to meaning. This is the study of syntax." (Carnie 2013:4)
 
In this episode, we focused on how syntax interfaces with semantics. In part one, we defined key terms. We made the distinction between a phonetic form and a logical form of sentences, since it is possible for the same sentence to have multiple interpretations. We then moved on to some important terms to discuss the structure of morphemes. We defined a head as a morpheme that gives the lexical or grammatical category of the whole phrase, and a phrase acts together as a single unit in the syntax. Next, we talked about arguments and adjuncts with arguments being elements required to complete the meaning of another morpheme and adjuncts being optional information. There are two different kinds of arguments, namely complements and specifiers, and their distinct locations in the syntax leads them to be interpreted differently. To round out our section on key terms, we discussed movement and why it sometimes occurs.
 
In part two, we discussed important phrases. First, we touched on the verb Phrase (vP) and showed how different verbs could have the same surface structure but different underlying structures. This accounts for how they behave differently in a variety of syntactic contexts. Second, we touched on the Inflectional Phrase (IP), which anchors the event or state named by the verb in time. This is what is called the functional projection of the verb, since these are different functional items that go with the verb. Third, we talked about the Determiner Phrase (DP), which is the functional projection of the noun. This helps to establish what is being referred to by the noun and helps to anchor the noun in the discourse. Finally, we discussed the Complementizer Phrase (CP). This allows for subordination and all kinds of other clause types besides plain declarative sentences, such as questions and wishes. Hopefully, this discussion has whetted your appetite to begin to explore more fully how morphemes combine in language.

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