Friday, December 24, 2021

Real Language Examples: The that-trace effect in Swedish and Finland-Swedish

Time for even more real language examples. And as usual, I have dug deep in the grammar of my native language to find a belated hannukah-gift to you, my dear readers.

In syntax, a that-trace effect is a kind of blocking, where a complementizer cannot be followed by a trace. This effect is present in English, and causes this system of sentences with various transformations to hold:

I didn't think he could sing
He, I didn't know sings in that choir (arguably not grammatical)

Unlike English, Scandinavian languages permit topicalizing elements of subclauses rather freely. In English, this seems mainly to occur with interrogative pronouns. A __ will be inserted where the moved element originally stood in example sentences:

who did you think __ would finish this?

Compare this with Swedish clauses such as these:

Evert tror jag inte __ äter fisk.
Evert think I not __ eats fish.
Evert, I don't think eats fish.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Other constituents can also be moved around:

Fisk tror jag inte Evert äter __.
Fish I don't think Evert eats.
I don't think Evert eats fish.

Here, it would be fun if we could do this to verbs as well, but alas, this is not permissible:

Äter tror jag inte Evert __ fisk.
Eats I don't think Evert fish
I don't think Evert eats fish (think this as contrasting to what he does do with fish: farm, cut fillets, cure, smoke, put in brine, make fish fingers, mong, etc, them)

Let's return to our English example "who did you think would finish this?" Let us consider two possible rewordings of this where it's "he" instead of "who", and it's just a statement.

You did think he would finish this?
You did think that he would finish this?

We find an interesting difference here, with regards to the permissibility of "that":

*who did you think that would finish this?

The hypothesis is that "that" cannot be followed by a trace of the element that has been moved left. (In essence, this means we can't have "that" and a move at the same time.) The subclause must be introduced by a null-element instead if there is a trace.

Anyways, Standard Swedish as spoken in Sweden has the same that-trace effect as English, whereas Standard Swedish as spoken in Finland lacks it. Norwegian seems also to have geographical splits on this, and Icelandic, I am happy to tell, solidly sides with my variety of Swedish. Since left-moved elements seem to be more common in Scandinavian in general, these phenomena are much more visible than in English.

Standard Swedish:
han tror jag kan simma
he thinks I can swim

As it happens, standard Swedish has V2, so this can actually correspond to _two_ different English orders. Notice that Swedish does not have person congruence on the verb:

jag tror han kan simma
I think (that) (he*) can swim (throw "he" to the left edge)
he think (that) I can swim (remove (that))
and is thus ambiguous. If Swedish did not have V2, it would be less ambiguous
he I think can swim
I he think can swim
but since Swedish does not permit this, it gets ambiguous. (There are some word order rules with regards to adverbs and auxiliaries that do, at least in part, resolve the question, but not always.)
Finland Swedish has resolved this issue in a different way, however. We don't have the that trace effect.
han tror jag att kan simma
he think I that can swim
he I think that can swim
This is as if English permitted
*who did you think that would finish this?
Since the 'att' is nearly mandatory if the subclause is not introduced by its subject, this actually fully removes the ambiguity from F-Swedish subclauses with leftwards shifted subjects.

The reason this particular difference between the two Swedish varieties has not been squashed by the education system is probably the fact that it's kind of difficult to explain something as abstract as this rule to kids.

I am kinda at awe at the level of hypocrisy "grammar nazis" reach on this thing. With one side of their face say we should make sure the language is as unambiguous as possible and with the other side of face teach that this trait of F-Swedish should be eliminated - despite the fact that it objectively reduces the amount of ambiguity. Fuck them. Seriously.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Detail #422: Variations on Reflexives

I have been reading up a lot on reflexives in different languages, and this inspired me to write a little on the different types of reflexives I have encountered, and some additional types.

1. Types of pronouns 

1.1. Gaps

Some languages have gaps in the pronominal system where the reflexives would be expected to appear. West Germanic, for instance, now entirely lacks reflexive possessives (whereas Slavic and North Germanic do have them).

Thus, "he saw his car" can signify the subject's car being seen by the subject, or some other third person's car being seen by the subject. In Slavic and North Germanic, there is a reflexive possessive pronoun. In examples throughout this post, I may use "sy" and "sine" for this, analogous to this structure w.r.t. Swedish: min:my::sin:sy.

Another arguable gap in most IE languages is the lack of a reflexive subject, which could make sense with subclauses and such:

"he did not know that heself would ..."

There are other imaginable situations where a reflexive nominative also makes sense, such as in split ergative languages where the nominative also is the absolutive, or in languages where some type of quirky case or differential case marking sometimes has nominative forms in object positions. Also, in the bit further down about reference, we may find other reasons.

Another imaginable gap could be a gender-specific conflation. Imagine a language where masculines and feminines have distinct reflexive form, but neuters do not, leaving

"the animal saw it"
ambiguous as to whether it's reflexive or not.

2. Person

In some languages, reflexive pronouns are person-specific, whereas in some they are entirely person-agnostic. Russian is an example of the latter, English of the former.

Thus, in Russian, reflexive arguments often are expressed by the pronoun 'sebya' in the proper case form regardless of person (although in first and second person, using the first or second person pronouns is permitted and sometimes done). In English, it's myself, yourself, himself, herself, etc.

In Swedish, first and second person use the first and second person pronouns. The semi-reflexive "själv" (obvious cognate) can follow, but is option.

jag såg mig in the mirror = I saw myself in the mirror
jag såg mig själv i spegeln = I saw myself (emphatic) in the mirror

I would go so far as to say that "själv" no longer is properly reflexive in Swedish but rather some kind of intensifier and restrictive marker. C.f.

Jag visste att jag själv skulle bli tvungen att lösa det.
I knew that I self would have to resolve it

Han själv hade inte hunnit med det, men med hennes hjälp gick det bra.
He self had not been_able_to_do_on_time with it, but with her help went it well
He would not have been able to get it done on time by himself, but with her help it went well (or maybe "alone, he would not ...")

Otherwise, 'själv' serves the other roles 'self' serves in English, altho' sometimes in the superlative: självaste kungen/kungen själv : the King himself.

The usual reflexive in Swedish only pops up in the third person, and does not distinguish number - although 'själv' would be inflected for plural if used with a plural, and neuter when used with neuters:

han såg sig (själv) i spegeln
de såg sig (själva) i spegeln
djuret såg sig (självt) i spegeln

he/they/the animal saw him/them/itself in the mirror, -a = plural adjective/pronoun congruence, -t = neuter ditto.

The richer the congruence system on the reflexives get in a language, the more likely it feels like the reflexive/non-reflexive distinction is going to be lost and be replaced by some form of proximative/obviative-like distinction instead. Once you have gender and number and the whole shebang both on the regular third person pronouns and reflexive ones, you will very seldom need a restriction on them that force them to be reflexive or not, but rather might just care about whether there's two referents that are distinct and of somewhat different prominence in the discourse.

3. Reference

3.1 Subject only 

It is not unusual for reflexive pronouns to be restricted to subjects only. Thus, sebya and its forms, as far as I can tell, only refer back to the subject. I have no idea how this works with non-nominative subjects of infinitives in Russian, but there's space for variation there.

Natural variants of this type could be absolutive-only and topic-only.

3.2 Some other kind of reference

In Swedish, the rules for the possessive reflexive are complicated, but as an acquaintance of mine would express it: 'Any NP that C-commands the phrase with the reflexive pronoun can be the possessor'.

In fact, there's a further sort of restriction where for most speakers, the regular pronouns cannot refer to the subject (whereas the reflexive ones can; the non-reflexives do seem to be able to refer to non-subjects even in positions where they can refer to non-subjects as well.) 

Two examples:

de visade honom till sitt nya rum

they showed him to sy new room

Here, the new room might be theirs or his.

John visade Peter till hans nya rum

John showed Peter to his new room

Here, the new room can only be Peter's.

The c-command rule opens up a few other positions:

tanken i all sin förträfflighet
the thought in all (of) sy excellence = the thought in all its excellence

This could be any constituent - subject, object, prepositional object, etc. This position, however, does seem to permit for use of non-reflexive pronouns as well,

tanken i all dess förtäfflighet
the thought in all (of) its excellence

Finally, the Swedish reflexive can refer to an empty subject of an infinitive, and this also holds for the regular reflexive object pronoun

att lära sig känna sina gränser är viktigt
to learn to know sy boundaries is important

att vila sig är hälsosamt
to rest oneself is healthy

Beyond this, there is a nominalization in the plural, 'de sina', which signifies the closest family and friends.

3.3. Even further kinds of reference 

The Swedish example above is rather complicated, but we can find examples that it does not permit. Deciding whether to permit these (or to restrict some of the ones the Swedish example includes) can give some space for a conlang to grow into a detailed project.

3.3.1 Conjunctions 

"Han och sina vänner" - "He and sy friends" does not work in Swedish. It must be "han och hans vänner".

The reflexives do not work over subclause boundaries, making

"han visste att han var försenad"
he knew that he was late

mildly ambiguous as to whether it is reflexive or not. "Själv" could be added, but would sound really weird in Swedish - though more acceptable with some other verbs in the main clause and subclause. Even then, "själv" is not necessarily reflexive, as it might actually also signify that the second subject is or does something by himself.

3.3.2 Topicalization of non-subjects 

One could also imagine that topics are possible candidates for reference of reflexives, in which case you might want to be able to refer to the subject as possessed by the topic, and with a reflexive possessive at that. Or maybe even in some weird situation where the topic and the subject are the same referent, but mark different roles,

himself he gave an expensive gift.
could make much more sense in some languages' logic as
him heself gave an expensive gift.
3.3.3 Quirky case 
Of course, with quirky case you may have a non-subject in the nominative or a subject in a non-nominative case, and there may be restrictions depending on whether they're true quirky cases or not affecting whether they can or can't be the referent of a reflexive. It might be nice having objects  in the nominative be candidates for reflexive reference (and also, naturally, blocking the use of regular reflexive possessive pronouns owning the object).

3.3.4 Subordinate structures
It is imaginable that subordinate infinitives with an agent that is distinct from the subject of a finite verb may restrict the reflexives within its scope to refer to NPs within the infinite VP + the agent, or maybe even more restrictive, such that the agent may be blocked from being the referent of the reflexive. Thus
I helped him do his homework
could, in such a language, not be
I helped him do sy homework
One could also imagine a reverse effect, where the agent is within the scope of the infinitive phrase's block and prevents external reflexives from reaching it, thus if he helps his sister with her homework, it couldn't be
he helps sy sister do ...
But if the infinitive then permits reflexive reference to the agent, this would be permissible:
he helps his sister do sy homework

The situation with subclauses is of course of some interest as well, but I will not get into detail with regards to that. Similar possibilities exist as with regards to the infinitive phrase, but with a subclause you generally do not have arguments "outside of" the scope of the subclause.

4 Other considerations
4.1. Distinct reflexives for subjects and other referents
One could imagine a language that has evolved distinct forms of 'sy' and '...self' for subjects and objects (or ergatives and absolutives, or topics and non-topics, or subjects and objects and obliques, or topics and other NPs or maybe topics or subjects vs. non-subject non-topics). This seems unlikely but not impossible. I imagine this would likely include some kind of morphological marking distinguishing the two (or more) types instead of separate stems.
4.2 Antireflexive 
 I have previously considered an anti-reflexive pronoun, where the regular third person pronoun is assumed to be reflexive if there is a third person subject, and any non-reflexive reading requires an explicitly non-reflexive one.

4.3 The Finnish reflexive possessive
The Finnish reflexive possessive is fascinating in that it entirely lacks independent morphemes of its own. Normally, reflexiveness in Finnish is marked by itse + case + possessive suffix, so "itselleni" = self + to + my = to myself.

However, 'itse' does not feature in reflexive possession. 'Oma' can be used for that sometimes, but is not exclusively reflexive. In meaning it is fairly close to '(one's) own', i.e. more about exclusive possession rather than reflexive such, although both meanings do exist.

Third person reflexive possession in Finnish is expressed by the possessive suffix, whenever the noun is not the subject:
Hän löysi varastetun autonsa = (s)he found her/his stolen car
Here, we actually get a slightly antireflexive construction, because if you sneak in the genitive third person pronoun, it suddenly no longer is reflexive
Hän löysi hänen varastetun autonsa = (s)he found her/his(someone else's) stolen car

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Pluralia Tantum in Dairwueh, Sargaĺk and Bryatesle

There are reasons to think Proto-BDS had pluralia tantum. However, the languages that have emerged out of it have done some interesting distinct things with them.

0. Pluralia Tantum that go back to PBDS

Although all descendant languages have developed new pluralia tantum since then, a few can be reconstructed as far back as then:

*śigdir - stars
*lixtan - any structure made from spokes
*t'undan - waves
*xajir - itching, spots
*mit'san - freckles, spots
*p'arir - mist, smoke
*t'ik'rir - fur
*t'igdar - a catamaran-style type of boat

Some cultural notes: Proto-BDS thought seems to have thought that every star consists of multiple entities, and that talking about them as agglomerates made the most sense. In Bryatesle, Dairwueh and Sargaĺk stories of encountering a shooting star generally include rather "plural" notions. It is conceivable that the origin goes back to an even earlier verb *śig, signifying 'flicker, flutter'. In this sense, even one star is "the flickers". It is also possible that the Sargalk word t'iśkɨl  - butterfly -, the Bryatesle rysih - shake, quake -, and Dairwueh sidzi - flap, slowly fall by sideways motions (like a leaf)-  originate with this verb as well.

1. Sargaĺk

In Sargaĺk, there are dialectal differences in how these are handled. In southern varieties, just set the number 'one' before them to specify that you are talking about one. The southern variety has originally had the same system as the northern and western varieties, but has simplified it a bit.

dər śixs-air - one stars.

In northern and western varieties, 'one' is further inflected with a plural congruence marker

dəy-air śixs-air : one_s star_s

the example is from a dialect that dissimilates dər-air into dəy-air

With a few other words, such as 'which', demonstratives, etc, there is a double marking: a plural marker followed by a singular marker. Far western dialects, however, just have it be in plural, followed by 'one' in plural, and finally by the word itself.

Eastern Sargaĺk has created singular forms for most non-pairwise pluralia tantum, and for the pairwise ones, "pair" - mihyor - is the singularizer. There is one further exception to this, lixtan's reflex yuśtan, which has the singularizer miśrik. A few words retain their plural morpheme as part of the root.

2. Dairwueh

Dairwueh has some lexical quirks in the use of adjective and verbal congruence, and may demand normally singular adjective stems with plural markers for these nouns, and the same holds for verbs. Non-nominative cases for some pluralia tantum are singularia tantum instead, and some speakers prefer to use singular congruence markers for these as well. For some speakers, congruence can be used to distinguish a singular referent from a plural referent.

3. Bryatesle

Standard Bryatesle uses counters to turn them into singulars; in many ways, they resemble mass nouns in Bryatesle, and in fact, the plural morphemes sometimes appear on new mass nouns. The syntactical differences between apparently plural mass nouns and pluralia tantum are that mass nouns always take some type of counter-like noun to enable numbers or certain other quantifiers, PTs do not require that for numbers larger than one and PTs always take plural congruence on verbs regardless of actual number, mass nouns always take singular congruence.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Detail #421: A Quirky Numeral Structure

Consider a language with singulars, duals and plurals. The language has a rather strict distinction between mass and count nouns, and explicitly marks different types of individuated, specific, indefinite, etc references.

Now, this entirely eliminates the need for the numerals one and two, as you would never say 'two bikes', you'd say bike-dual. You would never say 'there are two of them', you'd say 'they-plur are they-dual'.

This of course leads to problems when counting higher numbers. You have nothing to put after 'twenty' or 'thirty' when you want to form 21 and 22.

Twenty bike-SINGULAR = 21 bikes.
Twenty bike-DUAL = 22 bikes.

Probably unlikely.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Detail #420: Ambiguous Reference with Possessive Pronouns

English has some ambiguity with its possessive pronouns, but the level of ambiguity could be taken to a weirder level in this way:

reflexive third person ownership or other third person referent: singular possessive pronoun

Thus "he sees his house" can have 'his' either be reflexive or not, but "they see his house" also can signify reflexive possession.

reciprocal ownership uses a third person plural possessive pronoun

Thus "they see their house" can mean 'they see some other persons' houses' or 'they see each other's houses'.

I don't think this kind of idea is entirely unrealistic.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Detail #419: Direct and Indirect Object Case Marking: a Different Approach

Let us imagine a language that is similar to standard average European. Let's further imagine that word order informs us which NP is the direct object and which is the indirect one. Let's also imagine that there are two cases, emphatic oblique (-n in the examples below) and oblique (-m in the examples below).

I give you-m a-n book-n

"It is a book I give you / a book I give you"

I give you-n a-m book-m

"It is you I give a book" / "you I give a book"

When word order operations occur, however, some restrictions appear: in the initial position, recipients are -m, accusatives -n - but this does not prevent the other NP from taking the same marker after the verb.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Detail #418: Subtle Clusivity

One could imagine a language where certain constructions signal inclusivity, while others signal exclusivity, without there being any dedicated morphemes for clusivity.

1. Reflexives in two ways

In some languages, there is a reflexive pronoun that can be used for any person (see the Russian себя), whereas in others, reflexives are person-specific (myself, yourself, etc).

In Russian, in some circumstances you can use the person-specific possessive or accusative, but this is unusual. However, we could imagine a language in which first person plural uses the third-person reflexive whenever the listener is not included. This of course limits the clusivity to reflexive constructions, unless the clusivity-signaling reflexive is intentionally overused, maybe as a dative or something else like that, or just as a dummy object with intransitives.

2. Gender (dis)congruence

In a language where plural first person pronouns encode gender, in a system where, e.g. the masculine pronoun can refer to a mixed group (but feminine pronouns cannot), feminine first person plurals when speaking to males can signal clusivity. This is a pretty restrictive situation in which clusivity emerges, but maybe it could be taken one step further, such that gender congruence with a singular listener (or uniform group of listeners) becomes a way of signalling clusivity, rather than signalling the gender of the group.

3. Differential object or subject case on the first person pronoun

For some reason, I imagine a vocative case could actually double as an inclusive subject or object marker.

4. The selection of auxiliaries, especially ones that denote evidential information?

One could imagine a couple of near-synonymous auxiliaries, where one is just for whatever reason associated with the inclusive or the exclusive second person plural.

5. Differential object case on a noun phrase object

Perchance deriving from a historical "our", where the language normally would prefer reflexives possessive pronouns. However, this might disable the marking for clusivity if the subject is not also the first person pronoun, and it disables mixed clusivity in a clause (e.g. "we-excl sold our-incl harvest in town").

6. Word order

"Our house" = inclusive, "house of ours" = exclusive. "They us saw" = inclusive, "they saw us" = exclusive. This could very well be a statistical rule rather than a strict one, such that if the context leads to parsing it differently, such different parsing is permissible - but 90% of the time, this will hold.

For subjects, I imagine this might be less common, although I can also imagine that a SVO language could have VSO as an exclusive structure, since putting the verb first feels like a more "pressing" narrative, where the listener might be unaware of what happened.

7. Selecting between different semantically similar structures

E.g. something like the English perfect and the English past tense. I imagine a language could start associating such a pair with a distinction such as this, due to the situations in which one is likely to use one or the other: 'have done' seems slightly more likely to be used when telling someone who did not participate, "did" slightly more likely when talking to someone who did participate.

8. Dual or trial

One can also imagine that the dual / (trial /) plural distinction might, for second person plural under some circumstances become an inclusive/exclusive distinction instead. However, I want to keep the ability to use the dual/plural distinction itself, so - how about discongruence conveying clusivity. Dual + singular verb = exclusive, plural + dual verb = exclusive? This of course requires an unusually rich verbal morphology with regards to number, and we're also restricting it to elements that have congruence on the verb. Maybe the clusivity distinction becomes so important that in all other positions, the distinction is clearly one of clusivity, or maybe both distinctions are important enough that they're simply thoroughly ambiguous and only context serves to disambiguate between "we two" versus "we, but not you" versus "we several" versus "we and you".