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Cycle BCL - John Frederick Bailyn (Stony Brook University)

Mindless Syntax: Two word order puzzles and their implications for generative grammar

Jeudi 21 Septembre 2023 - 10h - Salle 213 - BCL, Campus SJA 3


In this talk, I start from two apparently innocuous differences in word order options found between a strict SVO language like English and a free word order, but also SVO, language like Russian (1). In short, although the two types of languages are not as different as one might believe (Bailyn 2012), there are two Russian word order patterns that are 100% ungrammatical in English regardless of context, information structure and other pressures. In particular, Russian allows SOV (2) and OVS (3) orders which are absolutely ungrammatical in modern English.

I briefly present both sides of the major dispute in generative theorizing with regard to such variation that has existed since Ross (1967) first proposed the Scrambling transformation - that between base-generation (Fanselow 2001) and movement approaches (Sabel & Saito 2005). We will see why the latter gained general but not universal acceptance over the former in mainstream theorizing, though not without leaving several major outstanding questions: one concerning the direction of complementation, and the others concerning subject positions and inversion constructions.

I propose an approach to syntax generation that blurs the distinction between the two camps in a potentially useful way, relying on the notion of “tree twisting” that I first presented in Bailyn (2021). This allows us a new take on inversion constructions, especially direct object inversion (OVS), as well as a more general view of syntactic operations as “mindless”, in the sense that architectural combinatorics are analyzed as entirely uninformed about interpretive and discourse effects, and therefore in no way driven by them. We end up in a world more consistent with the early generative tradition than many leading current approaches in maintaining the autonomy of syntax, at least with respect to interpretive and discourse factors.

published by Morgane Ftaïta on