Monday, November 13, 2017

Detail #360: Fun With Complementizers

Complementizers appear as heads of all clauses in some theories of syntax. In most theories of syntax, they are also at least the heads of subclauses. The idea in some theories, is that something similar to that in "I knew that she likes Victorian-era comedy" even appears as a null morpheme in the onset (or somewhere else) even of main clauses.

Now, in some languages similar things genuinely appear in some clauses, and I wouldn't be surprised if such a thing even appears in all clauses in some language out there. One common such 'main clause complementizer' is the question marker.

Here appears a thing I've seldom seen conlangers do: force complementizers to appear in certain situations with main clauses, but not in others. Maybe negative clauses require a complementizer, maybe certain kinds of statements require them.

As for 'certain kinds of statements', in Swedish, 'att' (similar to English 'that' as a complementizer) sometimes introduces a clause (whose word order then is like that of subclauses), without any main clause, where the statement expresses disdain, admiration or agreement for a fact thus stated:
att han törs!(that) he dares!
how dare he?

att hon gör!
(that) she does!
she sure does!
Using complementizers occasionally or regularly for main clauses can be an interesting way of enriching one's syntax as well. One hypothesis regarding verb fronting as a way of marking questions is that the verb actually moves to the zero morpheme question complementizer, and thus is a sort of realization of that complementizer. This of course changes details in the word order. One could have the language sometimes force the subject or object into the C position, and this would change other word order details. Maybe moving the subj to the C position breaks reflexive binding? Maybe it breaks verb congruence? Maybe moving the object breaks transitivity, making a transitive subject marked absolutive (if the language is ergative).

Of course, the presence of an explicit, non-zero complementizer could, as in Swedish, force subclause word order, if there is a difference between these in the language. Thus maybe all negative clauses have subclause word order?


  1. Interestingly, English has something that 'appears' to work this way:
    "Wow, your car goes really fast!"
    "That it does!"
    Also, interestingly, this has a similar effect to the Swedish construction.

    I don't think this English construction really works in the way you've described though. I believe that this construction has the same syntax as:
    "Cake, I like."
    Where the object is fronted. So it ends up being just a simple restatement:
    "That, it does." <-- "It does that."

    Although, the prosody of "That it does" is different from "Cake, I like", so maybe it has been reanalyzed?

    What do you think?

    1. This is a difficult - but truly interesting - question, and I guess the difficulty in part lies in the fact that since 'that' is not uniquely a subordinating conjunction but also a demonstrative, linguists may not have even thought of the possibility here that some parse it the way you suggested.

      (I bet most people who do grammatical analysis will tend to default to interpreting 'that' as being an anaphor for whatever quality "it does ____".

      SInce "that it is" and "that it does" are so limited wrt reuse of the entire structure, it's difficult to come up with test clauses where an "anaphoric that" or a "subordinating that" could be ruled out. Such a thing would be pretty awesome, though.

    2. Thanks for your reply. I'm glad you found it interesting.

      I didn't think about "that it is" but that definitely has the same prosody as "that it does" (for me at least). It is a shame that the use is so limited as you mention, now I'd really like to know. The fact that the prosody is different makes me think there might be something going on, but I don't think that gives enough confidence to claim that there's a reanalysis of the phrase occurring.

      On a separate note, I'm a big fan of your blog. I've recently stumbled upon it and I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up reading the whole thing. Nice work and please keep posting!