LINGUIST List 5.1458

Fri 16 Dec 1994

Disc: Comparative Syntax

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  1. , Comparative Syntax

Message 1: Comparative Syntax

Date: Mon, 12 Dec 94 21:04:31 ESComparative Syntax
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Subject: Comparative Syntax

While I really like most of what Scott DeLancey had to say about
syntactic reconstruction usually being based on clues buried in
the morphology (or morphophonology), I don't think this is always
the case. There is a rather famous example involving a rule of
Ancient Greek and one variety of Old Iranian (the languages of
the Gatha's, I seem to recall), whereby a neuter pl. subject
triggers sg. agreement on a verb, a pattern which is often
reconstructed for the proto-language because, as I understand it,
of its apparent oddity. This reconstruction is not logically
dependent, I don't believe, on the identity of the actual morphemes
marking gender, number, and person in these languages.

I would think that there are many such quirks of syntax which
could be the basis of a reconstruction. E.g., Polish and several
other Indo-European languages show traces of a pattern whereby an
NP referring to a group composed of males and females is
grammatically neuter. I have been playing around with the idea of
trying to reconstruct this as an old pattern which would be quite
independent of the particular number morphemes involved (b.t.w., if
anyone knows of any literature on this phenomenon, I would be
grateful for any references and will post them in summary form).

Another example (which is not so interesting, because we happen to
KNOW the history): Russian does various complicated things with the
case/number endings of the nouns and adjectives when combined with
numerals. Thus, in the nominative case, 'these Adj N' and 'two Adj
N' show different adj and noun forms in Russian, where in the
presence of a numeral from 2 to 4 the adj has to be in what looks
the gen. pl. form (unless it is feminine, when either the gen. pl.
or the gen. sg. is possible) and the noun in what looks like the
gen. sg. form (except for one or two nouns which seem to take a
special form differing in stress placement from the gen. sg.).
Closely related Polish, on the other hand, does nothing special in
this case (though both languages do other weird things with
numerals above 4, which need not concern us). I wonder if we would
not be able to conclude from such behavior that the ancestor of
these languages had a distinct paucal number (2-4 being paucal)
category, which then merged with the plural in Polish, but stayed
distinct in Russian (with the further hypothesis that some of the
paucal endings must have LOOKED like the genitive sg. ones). And
an even further hypothesis might be that the paucal was originally
dual, since paucal is a very unusual category to have. Of course,
we KNOW that this is what happened, but I wonder if we could not
have reconstructed it even if had NOT known.

So, provided the syntactic patterns are distinctive (e.g., weird)
enough, purely syntactic comparative reconstruction should be
possible (and I bet that we could even find some more examples of
it in the literature besides the Greek-Iranian one cited above).
The problem only seems impossible when we consider patterns which
are quite prosaic (and where the number of possibilities is small),
like the so-called basic word order that has been talked about so
much in this discussion. Even there, I think, that if we looked at
the DETAILED facts of word order (not just OV, VO, and the like) in
a group of languages, we might be able to reconstruct the proto-
system of word order with some degree of confidence.

And even the basic order might be reconstructable enough if we have
enough languages with enough diversity and (geographical)
dispersion between them. The fact that Classical Latin was often
verb-final, while all the Romance languages are verb-middle or
verb-initial, does not seem to be a very important counterexample,
because (a) vernacular Latin may well have been much more verb-
middle than the literary and it is only the former that is
relevant, (b) the Romance languages do not exhibit very much
diversity or dispersion. For ex., does it not seem clear that we
can reconstruct OV for Proto-Turkic and Proto-Mongolic? And VO
for Proto-Polynesian?
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