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Review of  The Syntax of Verb Initial Languages

Reviewer: Mark R. Campana
Book Title: The Syntax of Verb Initial Languages
Book Author: Andrew Carnie Eithne Guilfoyle
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): Balochi, Southern
Gaelic, Scottish
Hebrew, Ancient
Salish, Straits
Irish, Old
Malagasy, Plateau
Language Family(ies): Kanjobal-Jacaltec
Issue Number: 12.1549

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Carnie, Andrew, and Eithne Guilfoyle, eds. (2000) The Syntax of Verb
Initial Languages. Oxford University Press, 256pp. Hardback ISBN:
0-19-513222-X, $45.00; paperback ISBN: 0-19-513223-8, $24.95.

Reviewed by: Mark Campana, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies

1. Introduction (Andrew Carnie & Eithne Guilfoyle)

The editors of this book have collected a fine assortment of essays from
various theoretical perspectives. From Irish to Austronesian, many
different languages are represented, with new data and conclusions for
the interested reader/researcher to compare. The introduction sets the
tone, giving brief descriptions of each essay and drawing attention to
the major issues in the study of verb initial languages.

The book combines the references cited in each essay. Many papers are
heavily footnoted (i.e. refereed), and in most cases it is recommended
that they be read after the text has been digested. There is a lot of
cross-referencing between papers, an indication of genuine collaboration
towards finding out what makes these languages tick.

2. Celtic Initials (Randall Hendrick)

SYNOPSIS: This paper provides an overview of Celtic languages (Irish,
Breton, Welsh, Gaelic), and is designed to show how variation can be
acccounted for. At the same time, it emphasizes that several properties
of these languages are unrelated to their being verb inital per se. One
major question has to do with the structural position of the
subject--internal to the VP or in some other category outside of it.
Preverbal particles are divided up by function (tense, mood, negation,
subordinators) and allotted separate positions within COMP; these
combine differently in each of the languages. Synthetic vs analytic
agreement and its correlation with covert vs overt pronouns is seen to
follow from the interaction of three principles (Identify, Avoid
Agreement, and Avoid Pronoun) which have different rankings in
Welsh/Breton and Irish/Gaelic. This (basically OT) account effectively
divorces the issue of agreement from verb movement, in contrast to
previous treatments.

COMMENTARY: Hendrick demonstrates convincingly that Celtic subjects do
not remain in VP, despite some evidence to the contrary. The question
of whether objects also raise is unresolved but unavoidable, given his
subsequent comparison of verb movement to that of nouns (Massam
addresses this issue head-on in her article). His treatment of COMP as
a three-tiered category makes good sense given the specific facts of
different languages. In this regard, he also succeeds in de-emphasizing
the 'cluster-approach' to verb-initial languages. On the other hand, it
seems unlikely that agreement is totally unrelated to verb movement;
generally-speaking, the status of OT like principles is unclear in a
purely Minimalist account.

Chapter 3: 'VSO order as raising out of IP? Some evidence from Old
Irish' (Andrew Carnie, Heidi Harley, and Elizabeth Pyatt)

SYNOPSIS: This paper weighs the comparative evidence of verb-raising to
COMP (as in traditional analyses) vs raising to a lower projection of
INFL in Old- and Modern Irish (OI, NI, respectively). Somewhat
surprisingly, both are attested in OI. The authors first consider the
V-to C approach in light of Germanic V2 phenomena, the major difference
being the obligatory presence in SPEC, CP of a sentential XP constituent
in the latter. Embedded VSO order in NI rules out this approach, but
data from OI (absolute vs conjunct verb-forms, prosodically separate
preverbs, the positioning of object enclitics) indicates that COMP must
indeed be filled with lexical material. When a preverb satisfies this
requirement the verb still moves to INFL, however, raising various
issues which are then addressed. The paper concludes with some
speculation as to how languages may differ in terms of what counts as
'lexical', and other independent parameters.

COMMENTARY: The arguments for V-to-C raising in IO are both exhaustive
and compelling. At the same time, there is little beyond theoretical
considerations and the ultimate verb-initial 'fact' to convince the
reader that movement also takes place to INFL. The prosodic evidence
relating to syntactic structure is particularly persuasive. While
comparisons with other languages received careful attention, the history
of Irish did not; a plausible scenario of change from OI to NI in terms
of the theoretical constructs of the paper would have made it more

Chapter 4: 'Tense and N-features in Irish' (Eithne Guilfoyle)

SYNOPSIS: In this paper, Guilfoyle seeks to account for word order in
Irish tensed (VSO) and English (SVO) clauses, as well as Irish
non-finite clauses (SVO) by means of differences in Event Structure.
Drawing on work by Van Voorst (1998), she notes that whereas English
subjects can be non-initiators of events, Irish subjects are more
restricted: their features must be checked in Tense Phrase, rather than
the higher AGR.s (English). Owing to their noun-like character,
infinitives do not project initiator positions per se; their subjects
are checked in Aspect Phrase instead. The analysis is geared towards
acquisition, where it is observed that children often use truncated
verbal expressions, more or less taking event initiators for granted.
Given further linguistic evidence, they may easily adopt a broader
spectrum of possible subjects, as in English and/or tensed Irish (VSO)

COMMENTARY: This article is conceptually appealing, both theoretically
and in addressing first language acquisition data (often overlooked in
Minimalist treatises). Some of the details refer to previous work,
however, and this leads to some confusion with regard to properties of
non-finite clauses. The mediation of Aspect Phrase (or AGR.o) appears
to weaken the claim that infinitives (verbal nouns in Irish) do not
project a higher position for event initiators; in addition, this
category must be used for checking objects. Still, the path of
predicted language selection is clear, and provides a hopeful means of

Chapter 5: 'VSO and left-conjunct agreement: Biblical Hebrew vs. Modern
Hebrew' (Edit Doron)

SYNOPSIS: Edit Doron's paper examines a curious feature of Biblical
Hebrew, the fact that only the left conjunct of a coordinate subject NP
triggers agreement on the verb (LCA). A similar effect can be observed
in other languages with VS order, including the English 'there'
construction. By selectively applying the EPP feature, LCA follows as a
local reflex of Agree, the subject essentially remaining in situ. SVO
and OVS orders (as well as non-expletive constructions in Modern Hebrew)
do not exhibit LCA, leading to the conclusion that the subject moves to
SPEC, TP (as in e.g. Standard Arabic, Irish). In this regard Hebrew
patterns with Germanic, where the verb either raises to TP (SVO) or a
focus position between TP and COMP.

COMMENTARY: The very existence of LCA is somewhat controversial, but the
author argues convincingly that alternative analyses (in particular,
that of Aoun et al. on Standand Arabic) must acknowledge it. The
essential difference between Biblical and Modern Hebrew--i.e. that the
EPP feature is assigned lexically in the latter, but only in certain
contexts (selectively) in the former-- seems somewhat arbitrary, but the
analysis is internally consistent. Overall, it combines thorough
scholarship with skillful utilization of Minimalist theory.

Chapter 6: 'VSO and VOS: Aspects of Niuean word order' (Diane Massam)

SYNOPSIS: Massam proposes that both VSO and VOS orders in Niuean
(Polynesian) are derived by fronting the whole predicate (e.g. VP),
rather than its head (V). In Section 1 she shows that movement must
take place to a position within IP (rather than CP), based on the form
and behavior of auxiliary and negative elements. In Section 2, noun-
and preposition-initial sentences are considered, which render
traditional verb-fronting treatments inadequate. In its place a
predicate fronting analysis is proposed, driven by EPP feature-checking;
the specifier of IP is the landing site. Indefinite objects appear
adjacent to the verb, taken as a sign of incorporation. They move along
with it, resulting in a VOS order. Some adverbial particles are also
assumed to move along with VP, while others having sentential scope
appear in the inflectional complex above it. The residual differences
between VP and other predicates are then accounted for by reanalyzing a
pre nominal morpheme as a preposition, reducing predicate movement to
the single feature [-N] (shades of Remarks on Nominalizations).

COMMENTARY: The main idea of this paper (i.e. that whole predicates
raise to IP) is clear enough, but some of the details are vexing. As
the author notes, VP's can only be seen as moving if everything
contained within them has already cleared out. Indefinite direct
objects behave as predicted, but indirect objects and obliques do
not--their base position must be posited as separate. Adverbial
particles with sentential scope are placed under INFL, their relative
order unaccounted for. On one hand the structures Massam proposes are
refreshingly spare, on the other too much so--the mirror image of Travis
& Rackowski's (following) article; both address the same data. The
typological distinction between verb- and subject initial languages
([EPP] vs [D] feature checking, respectively) invites still deeper

Chapter 7: 'V-initial languages: X or XP movement and adverbial
placement' (Andrea Rackowski and Lisa Travis)

SYNOPSIS: This paper begins by applying the theories of Kayne (1994) and
Cinque (1999), setting out to derive word order effects in Malagasy and
Niuean. Different adverb-types in these languages are in the opposite
order from e.g. Italian, a problem uniquely solved by positing them as
functional heads, with iterative movement of complements into specifier
positions--a process known as intraposition. Peripheral (sentential)
morphemes belong to 'framing categories' higher up the tree, to which
the verbal complex (TP) raises. Intraposition and predicate-fronting in
Malagasy bypass the subject NP and 'islandize' non-subjects, thus
accounting for the pattern of extraction. Objects pattern somewhat
differently in Malagasy/Niuean, owing to the fixed position of AGR.O in
the latter. Overall though, objects in verb-initial languages are
grossly different from their counterparts in SVO/SOV languages, which
the authors relate to predicate- vs argument fronting, respectively.

COMMENTARY: This paper is a veritable tour-de-force, turning
conventional mechanisms like head movement and adjunction on their side
in deriving adverb placement (word order generally). The framing
categories proposed by the authors are particularly clever, their
two-tiered structures conforming precisely to Koopman's (1996) extended
functional categories (required by the current incarnation of the
Doubly-filled COMP Filter). Things get a little squishy in their
treatment of objects, though: for Malagasy, AGR.O can be inserted
randomly to explain their distribution, while for Niuean it is fixed
(above TP no less). The rationale behind this move--ostensibly to
downplay the role of agreement in feature checking--is oblivious to
AGR.S. Aware of these problems, the authors argue vigorously for their
view, introducing yet more data from other languages (some of them SVO
and Austronesian). If anything, the paper promises more than it can
deliver, and someone is going to have to check the myriad predictions
that flow from it.

Ultimately one has to wonder if intraposition and the other operations
commandeered to produce the desired effects aren't too much for one
language to bear (let alone its speakers to acquire); one might just as
easily look for variations in Kayne's and/or Cinque's theorems.

Chapter 8: 'VP remnant movement and VSO in Quiavini Zapotec' (Felicia

SYNOPSIS: One of the major themes of this volume is that VP's--rather
than V's--are the constituents that undergo fronting, thus deriving
verb-initial order. This is the thesis of Lee's paper as well, where
sentential clitics also attract PP's and DP's in Quiavini Zapotec (QZ).
As in the contributions of Massam, Travis & Rackowski (both this
volume), Cinque's (1999) theory of adverbs and Kayne's (1994) of
asymmetry play an important role in the analysis. A 'VP remnant'
implies that NP and CP arguments have moved to their licensing positions
prior to movement of their containing phrase. Subject 'agreement'
provides further evidence for this approach, given that the suffixes are
really clitics in argument (SPEC) position.

COMMENTARY: There are some surprising details to be found in this
account. Adverb Phrases occupy functional category (SPEC) positions,
from which adverbial heads then attract lexical categories (DP, VP,
etc.) to their own SPEC positions (technical difficulties are overcome
by appealing to a latter-day version of the Doubly-filled COMP Filter).
CPs must also vacate argument positions before the VP-remnant raises,
but really only to avoid being carried along as well. In the appendix
it is claimed that head movement could not produce the same (correct)
results while adhering to the strictest tenets of adjunction, etc.
Still, the various options introduced in the paper itself do not exhaust
all the possibilities. Overall, this paper accommodates the facts of QZ
quite nicely, but leaves room for alternative approaches.

Chapter 9: 'Locus Operandi' (Ray Freeze and Carol Georgopoulos)

SYNOPSIS: In this paper, Freeze & Georgopoulos make the case that
locative constructions (existentials and possessives--including those
with 'have') bear on issues of underlying word order. Specifically,
they propose an analysis in terms of head parameters and precedence at
odds with Kayne's (1994) theory of asymmetry. Two correlations between
construction-type and word are noted: that verb initial languages lack a
word for 'have' (as in English 'Mary has a car'), and that SOV languages
lack existential proforms (akin to pleonastic 'there'). SVO languages,
on the other hand, have both these properties. Essentially these facts
relate to how the feature [+loc] is realized: either as a clitic (in the
case of proforms), or as 'have' when a preposition incorporates to it.
Movement of this sort is further restricted by linear precedence and/or
pragmatic factors.

COMMENTARY: In some respects this paper is a rewrite of Freeze (1992a),
and several of the key assumptions are 'pre-cooked', with little
opportunity to verify independently. While perhaps underappreciated,
that work still stands as a challenge to the mainstream (generativist)
view that e.g. existential proforms are divorced from co-occurring
locatives in most languages of the world. The latest generalizations
being gleaned from it may or may not offer the conclusive proof for a
head-driven/linear theory of underlying structure, however. Somewhat
disappointing is the authors' treatment of Kayne (1994), which--buttressed
with a few concepts like lexical strength-- could probably speak to the
locative facts, if not in the unified way that is advocated here.

Chapter 10: 'Prosodic conditions on anaphora and clitics in Jakaltek'
(Judith Aissen)

SYNOPSIS: This paper addresses one of the more intractable problems of
binding theory, the licensing conditions of null vs. lexical pronouns in
Jakaltek (Mayan). Originally noticed by Craig (1977), this phenomenon
has inspired several accounts, all of which conclude with some form of
parameterization, usually in terms of surface constraints like
precedence. Aissen holds that the correct domain of null pronoun
binding is prosodic, dividing each sentence into three 'chunks' or
phrases: topic, body and tail (the latter for extraposed CPs). Simply
put, a pronoun is null if its antecedent is contained within the same
prosodic phrase; otherwise it must be lexical. Not only does this
account nicely for the facts, it helps explain why c-command plays no
role at all.

COMMENTARY: The author motivates prosodic structure only after
demonstrating how hierarchical accounts have failed to accommodate the
content (as well as the spirit) of the null/lexical distinction. This
is done via intonation junctures, based on observations made by Day
(1973); it is further supported by facts surrounding the distribution of
erstwhile sentential clitics. On the one hand this paper represents a
challenge to die-hard syntacticians bent on proving that syntactic
principles alone are responsible for binding facts; on the other, it is
a wake-up call to those same linguists, who might do well to reconsider
their favorite paradigms along the lines proposed here.

Chapter 11: 'Animacy hierarchies and sentence processing' (Seth Minkoff)

SYNOPSIS: This paper attempts to explain why, in some languages but not
in others, transitive sentences are subject to animacy restrictions. On
the one hand, individual languages vary in terms of word order and
pro-drop, which can affect how soon the processor recognizes the subject
NP. On the other, all languages seem to prefer Agents (prototypical
subjects) with a high degree of animacy. Minkoff's study compares Mam
(a Mayan language) with English, arguing that verb medial/non-pro-drop
properties of the latter enable early recognition of the subject. As a
verb initial/pro-drop language however, Mam relies on animacy to resolve
potential confusion between subjects and direct objects.

COMMENTARY: Minkoff's treatment of the basic facts is straightforward
and compelling. He demonstrates clearly that the notion of agentivity
plays an important role in the determination of subjects. The
interpretive component is none other than the processor itself, however,
whose internal organization and/or genesis is more-or-less left
unexplained. Nevertheless, it is a testable construct which would
predict that speakers of Mam require more time in resolving potential
ambiguity within a transitive sentence than speakers of English.

Chapter 12: 'Predicate raising in Lummi, Straits Salish' (Eloise Jelinek)

SYNOPSIS: This paper is a systematic description of Straits Salish, a NW
Coast language with a rich morphology. The major claim is that the
positioning of sentential constituents directly reflects information
structure, while the order of morphemes within the verbal complex
derives from head movement. In short, predicates raise (are fronted)
because they represent new information. In keeping with the author's
previous work, Straits Salish represents a typical 'predicate argument
language'. Much of the evidence is adduced from the absence of
type-shifting, whereby NP's may be referential, quantificational or
predicative, depending on the context.

COMMENTARY: A lot of theory is packed into this article, much of it no
doubt motivated in previous work. Reading through it thus requires a
suspension of criticism that would otherwise make for an interesting
story. Very little attention is given to the judgements of Salish
speakers as compared to those of English, which seem to provide the
necessary tools of analysis. Although various interesting phenomena are
covered (deictic roots, dative shift, etc.), no allowance is made for
alternative ways of viewing them. Terse.


Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. M.I.T. Press, Cambridge,

Craig, Collette (1977). The Structure of Jacaltec. University of Texas
Press, Austin.

Cinque, Guglielmo (1999). Adverbs and Functional heads: A
Cross-linguistic Perspective. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Day, Christopher (1973). The Jacaltec Language. Indiana University
Press, Bloomington.

Freeze, Ray (1992a). 'Existentials and other locatives'. Language 68;

Kayne, Richard (1994). The Antisymmetry of Syntax. Linguistic Inquiry
Monograph 25. M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA.

Koopman, Hilda (1996). 'The Spec-head configuration'. In Edward
Garrett and Felicia Lee (eds.), Syntax and Sunset. UCLA Working Papers
in Syntax and Semantics 1:37-64.

Van Voorst, Jan (1998). Event Structure. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

About the reviewer:
Mark Campana is a professor of English and linguistics
at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies (Kobe, Japan). Research
interests include the syntax and morphology of Austronesian and
Amerindian languages.


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