LINGUIST List 9.814

Tue Jun 2 1998

Disc: Hypotaxis

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Seth, Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis
  2. bwald, Subject: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Message 1: Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 13:42:37 -0500
From: Seth <>
Subject: Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Regarding my previous post, if anyone is seeking materials on the
function(s) and the structural representation of the participle in
Biblical Hebrew, I recommend the work "Participles in Context" by
J. W. Dyk, VU University Press, Amsterdam, 1994. I also suggest
getting your hands on "Clause Structure and Word Order in Hebrew and
Arabic" by Ur Shlonsky, Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax, 1997.
May you who have interest in Semitic hypotaxis enjoy.

Seth Jerchower
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Message 2: Subject: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Date: Mon, 1 Jun 1998 21:38:14 -0700 (PDT)
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Subject: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

The issue from which the discussion of 'hypotaxis' arises here emerges
from Sampson's attempted criticism of one of Chomsky's 'innateness'
arguments, in this case the innateness of certain processes in complex
syntax. I remember that in his 1976 debate with Piaget, Chomsky used
the sentence:
 is the man who is tall sad?

as a crucial argument against a Piagetian or 'generalised
intelligence' account of learning complex syntax. He insisted that on
the basis of such examples as:
 the man is tall -- is the man tall?
the "simplest" hypothesis that a child could come up with to acquire
question formation of
 the man who is tall is sad

would be: move the *first* verb to the beginning of the sentence,
 ****is the man who tall is sad?

He crucially claimed that no child ever goes through such a stage in
learning English, and therefore a child is 'innately' programmed to
somehow recognise the proper analysis of the inversion underlying
question formation (that its domain involves the 'highest' = largest
NP, not the first NP).

In his (characteristic) zeal to prove Chomsky wrong, Sampson
(according to Murphy's account, which seems credible to me) denied
that a child would ever produce an interrogative over a subject
relative clause without having previously heard one. There are
actually two empirical issues involved, neither of which came up in
the debate with Piaget (which remained highly philosophical with
regard to linguistic issues). 1) is it indeed the case that children
never make the wrong analysis? That has never been challenged, and I
think it's interesting to pursue why Chomsky is probably right about
this. 2) do they have to hear examples before coming up with their

With regard to 2), it is not clear to me that it has a bearing on
Chomsky's argument. After all, even if they hear examples, they have
to be able to parse them (in some sense) to get the right analysis, in
order to produce new examples. So I suppose C would still argue that
they have some innate mechanism which allows them to recognise the
right parsing. However, I think it was implied in C's argument, that
they do not even have to hear such examples in order to predict and
produce them.

Issue 1) is much more interesting. Assuming that it would never occur
to a child to come up with the "simpler" hypothesis, what stages (if
any) do they go through in acquiring the knowledge necessary to
produce examples like: is the man who is tall sad? I invite experts
on child language to comment.

>From the little I know about such issues, I suppose something like
the following. To begin with, there are several different grammatical
processes involved, copula, question inversion, relative clause
formation. And empirical research on production and in some cases
comprehension shows that children learning English do go through
various stages (hypotheses) in arriving at the adult grammar with
respect to these processes. For example, the copula at first seems to
be empty, then variable contraction (in appropriate contexts), then
replacement by full copulas, then variation between full copulas and
contraction (where appropriate). Let's leave all that aside as least

Next is relative clauses. C picked the relative clause which children
have the most difficulty with (subject rel) both in production and
comprehension. In fact, nonstandard English preserves what is more
easily parsable by English speakers, an explicit resumptive pronoun:
 the man who is tall, *he* is sad 

(That makes a BIG difference to children's comprehension, although it
is rarely tested in experiments on comprehension of RCs in various
positions.) So, we would expect that when children first acquire
inversion in the vicinity of RCs they will do something like:
 the man who is tall, *is he* sad?

avoiding the need to engage in more long distance inversion. Is(n't)
this true?

Next, from what I know, the process of inversion progresses through
stages which involve pleonasm, so that at first the child says things
 *is* the man *is* sad? *does* the man
*cries*? *did* the man *cried*?

(L2 learners also do this.) I omit the interplay of inflection with
inversion as less relevant, though, of course, it is only because they
have acquired inflection that we can see the pleonasm when there is a
'real' verb (cf. 'did he went there?'). So, I wonder, do we get
intermediate examples like:
 *is* the man who is tall *is* he (is) sad?
 *did* the man who is tall *did* he cry (+ed)?

Finally, while C's argument makes 'prepose the first verb' the
simplest when the RC has the same verb, would the same argument hold
for: 'did the man who is tall cry?', i.e.,
 *is the man who tall cried? (cf. the man who is
tall cried) 

This seems doubtful to me. C's argument seems to confine itself to
the copula as the only verb in (American) English which inverts in
question formation (as opposed to requiring an auxiliary to do that
trick). In view of what happens with other verbs, I do not see why
the child would single out the copula to produce a special hypothesis
about 'prepose the first verb'. But then do children ever form
hypotheses like: *does* he *is* tall? or does he be tall? (the
second seems more likely and exists in invariant-be dialects, where
'be' is a 'real' verb.)

So, I'm asking those who study these things closely: How do these
facets of complex syntax develop? And does that have a bearing on C's
arguments? Did he pull a fast one on the non-linguists in his debate
with Piaget (by implying that these things emerge immediately in their
mature state rather than being built up from the acquisition of
smaller pieces of grammar, something that might be more compatible
with Piaget's graduality in "constructivism", leaving aside his
specific proposals for stages in "generalised intelligence")? Or,
does Chomsky's argument hold up no matter what the facts are? (As
long as the facts are that they NEVER produce "is the man who tall is
sad?" or "is the man who tall cried?") I oppose these considerations
to both Chomsky's a priori innatism and Sampson's a priori empiricism.
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