Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 5)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

To date in this series we've taken sounds and made morphemes, and taken morphemes and made words. Now it's time to take words and make sentences. This is called syntax. There a few current theories of syntax, but the one I learned as an undergrad, and the one I think most linguists hold with, is generative grammar and its offspring, X-bar theory.

"Generative grammar" basically states that everyone's born with a very rough form of linguistic programming, and that they alter this programming to match the language(s) they hear around them. No matter where someone's born, no matter what race they are, they'll have the same coding.

It follows from this that a syntactic theory that complies with generative grammar has to account for every possible word ordering in every single language. My syntax prof spent a month walking us through a progression from "incredibly simple and doomed to failure" models to "mostly useful" models to "X-bar theory", which isn't perfect but is the best we've got at the moment.

It looks more or less like the following.

Spec: specifier, or high-level qualifiers like "the", "some", and "his"

Adjunct: something that adds to a phrase's meaning without being necessary—like a prepositional phrase following a noun

Complement: something that has to be there for the phrase to make sense—like an object after a verb

Head: the core of the phrase, the word that has to be there for the phrase to even exist—noun, verb, preposition, adjective, adverb, whatever

There are three other cool things about this theory. 1) Specifiers, adjuncts, and complements can appear on either side of the X or X' *, depending on the language (French puts adjectives after nouns, English puts them before). 2) Specifiers, adjuncts, and complements can be and very often are phrases in their own rights. To get an idea what I'm talking about, click here. 3) There can only be one specifier and one complement, but you can have as many adjuncts as you want.

I like X-bar theory because it's fairly simple to manipulate, operating largely on a drag-'n'-drop principle. There are some funky things that linguists propose to solve various problems of the "this sentence appears to go against the basic syntax of the language ohgodohgod" variety. I'll get to those in a sec, but first I want to say:

This is how humans do syntax. This may or may not be how aliens, trolls, and/or dolphins do syntax. Go ahead and build your own syntactic tree, and make up your own rules, if you're dealing with non-humans, but try to keep things simple.

The Funky Stuff***
  • Because specifiers, etc. are often phrases and the only limits on adjuncts are memory and breath, you can get some fantastically long phrases by dropping phrase after phrase into the adjunct slots: The man with the dog in the basket with the fancy weave by the car with the blue paint and the dent above the door on the right with the scratch is annoyed.**
  • An X' can become X' + adjunct, or it can become X' + conjunction + X', as in "with the blue paint and the dent". There is, again, very little limit on how often you can stick conjunctions in.
  • Pronouns stand in place of noun phrases. "The blue car" becomes "it" not "the blue it". 
  • Some languages, like Italian, drop subjects because the verb endings give that info anyway. The noun phrases in the subject position are said to be filled, but unrealized. These are pro-drop languages.
  • Embedded clauses are assumed to be full sentences acting as complements or adjuncts. 
  • The top of the X-bar tree is the complementizer phrase. Complementizers are words like that and who and which, which start off embedded clauses and replace the subject noun <-- see what I did there? 
  • That subject noun swings up from a lower position on the tree, then essentially morphs into the appropriate pronoun. 
  • Below the CP is the tense phrase. Tense is, of course, "past" and "future" and various other things. The specifier of the TP is the subject of the sentence (or the gap from a swinging subject). The complement of the tense is the verb phrase. In many languages, tense swings down to attach to the verb.
  • Whenever you choose to make a phrase "more important" to the sentence, you swing it up into the complementizer slot. Tomorrow I go shopping vs I go shopping tomorrow.
  • There's a lot of invisible swinging in X-bar trees, but it works. 
  • There are probably exceptions to all the above. There are always exceptions.

I'm not going into tense here. Tense gets a whoooooole post just to itself, because it's that messy. What I will do, before I melt your brains any further, is give a quick run-down of possible word orders. Each word order will imply certain positions for specifiers, adjuncts, and complements, so do a bit of research, unless you're dealing with a non-human language, in which case anything's fair game, of course.
  1. Subject Verb Object (English, Chinese)
  2. Verb Subject Object (Arabic, Irish)
  3. Verb Object Subject (Malagasy, Fijian)
  4. Subject Object Verb (Japanese, Latin, Turkish)
  5. Object Subject Verb (American Sign Language, several Brazilian languages)
  6. Object Verb Subject (Basque, Esperanto)
There are also two ways of ordering the modifiers of nouns: "time manner place", and "place manner time". English uses the latter: I am going to the store in the car tomorrow.

I think that's it for the night. I'll be demonstrating further with Pamak next time around. Stay tuned!

*X + bar, or X-bar, hence the name of the theory
** parsing that noun phrase into sections: The man with the dog in the basket with the fancy weave by the car with the blue paint and the dent above the door on the right with the scratch . Blue = specifier, purple = phrase in complement position, red = phrase in adjunct position. Notice that there are multiple phrases in the subordinate phrases.
*** my apologies to anyone who's forgotten their parts of speech

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