LINGUIST List 15.2565

Wed Sep 15 2004

Review: Syntax/Morphology: Aboh (2003)

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  • Luis Vicente, The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences

    Message 1: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences

    Date: Tue, 14 Sep 2004 14:16:56 -0400 (EDT)
    From: Luis Vicente <>
    Subject: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences

    AUTHOR: Aboh, Enoch Olad� TITLE: The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences SUBTITLE: Clause Structure and Word Order Patterns in Kwa SERIES: Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax #13 PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2003 Announced at

    Luis Vicente, University of Leiden Centre for Linguistics (ULCL)


    In this book (a revision of his 1999 Geneva dissertation), Aboh presents an analysis of the syntax of the Gbe languages. His main concern is to develop a rather articulate phrase structure -- both in the clausal and the nominal domains -- that can account for the surface orders of this language family. Given that he takes Antisymmetry (Kayne 1994) as his framework of choice, such a rich structure must be coupled with a number of movements to the left in order to derive certain surface head final orders. Although at some points the analysis seems a bit too far-fetched, Aboh always manages to give interesting empirical evidence in its favour. On top of that, the book is also gives also a description of the Gbe languages of quite an impressive width and breadth. I believe it's certainly a piece of work worthy going through.

    Ignoring the Introduction and the Conclusion, where not much is really going on (the Introduction contains brief summaries of Minimalism, Antisymmetry, and the split DP, IP and CP hypotheses; the Conclusion consist of a mere three-page summary of the main results), the bulk of the work is in chapters 2 through 8, which we will go through briefly right below. Given the wealth of constructions examined by Aboh, commenting on all of them would amount to little less than rewriting the book. Therefore, I will only talk about what I consider are the major attractions of each chapter.

    Chapter 2 is an outline of the grammar of the Gbe family (a cluster of languages within the Kwa group), spoken in various parts of Ghana and Nigeria. As many other African languages, the Gbe languages are tonal. Aboh argues that some of these tones are actually the realisation of certain syntactic heads -remnants of an ancestral morpheme that has been lost except for the tone. However, this will come later in the book. The main part of ch 2 is devoted to an overview of the major word order patterns of Gbe. One of the features that I find most fascinating is the OV/VO alternation depending on the aspectual make up of the clause. Aboh's hypothesis is that this alternation does not reflect a mixed structure with both head final and head initial projections. Rather, he argues (along the lines of Zwart 1993 for Dutch, though see also Neeleman & Weerman 1999 and Vicente 2004) that Gbe languages are uniformly head initial. His starting assumption is that Gbe objects always raise overtly to a case position. Therefore, VO orders arise from subsequent verb movement to the left of the raised object. OV orders are the result of verb movement being blocked. The detailed analysis of the aspectual layer necessary for this claim is developed in chs 5 and 6.

    Before getting to issues of clausal syntax, Aboh takes a detour through the structure of the nominal domain. In chapter 3, he examines the Gbe noun phrase, which displays the fixed order, with: the last two categories being independent morphemes, rather than being included inside a larger word.

    noun > adjective > demonstrative > numeral > specificity > number

    Aboh argues that this construction is derived by rolling up (''snowballing'' in his terminology) the different NP layers up to the numeral level. At this point, the numeral phrase undergoes spec-to-spec movement, first through the number phrase, and then to the specificity phrase. This derives the observed word order. Leaving aside the fine details of this derivation, I would like to mention two other aspects of this analysis. First, the parallelism that Aboh tries to establish between the nominal and the clausal domains. He argues that, in the same way as we have a left periphery and an inflectional layer for clauses, so have we for noun phrases. Specifically, he takes the Number Phrase to be the equivalent to an agreement projection in clauses, and the Specificity Phrase as the counterpart of clausal type markers. The second issue is the analysis in terms of roll-up movement. Aboh claims that head-to-head movement is banned in the Gbe nominal domain. In order to establish the spec-head checking relation, Gbe languages resort to XP movement, and this is what eventually leads to roll-up movement, and the consequent reversion in the surface order of constituents (see Pearson 2000 for similar argumentation in the clausal domain, this time bearing on Malagasy data).

    Chapter 4 is dedicated to pronouns. Aboh proposes that the Gbe pronoun system shows a tripartite structure in terms of strong, weak, and clitic pronouns (a la Cardinaletti & Starke 1999). He attributes their different behaviour and distribution to differences in the number projections each class includes. Strong pronouns have the same structure, and receive the same analysis in terms of movement as full noun phrases in chapter 3. Weak pronouns lack some of this structure. Specifically, he argues that they only project the nominal left peripheral projections, NumberP and DP. Finally, clitic pronouns are instantiations of the D head alone. This analysis is quite novel. As Aboh notes at the end of the chapter (p. 152), ''contrary to Cardinaletti & Starke 1999, the tripartition theory developed here is not grounded on the hypothesis that structural deficiency automatically leads to peeling off the topmost projection of the structure. Instead, deficiency or weakness is interpreted from the perspective of less articulated or missing internal structure, regardless of the level of such lack''.

    After the excursus on the nominal domain, chapter 5 examines the syntax of Tense, Aspect, and Mood preverbal markers. Gbe verbs are not inflected in any way. Instead, inflectional features are realised as markers that surface in different heads of an expanded IP layer. I will ignore here the Mood markers and concentrate on the one Tense and three Aspect heads Aboh proposes. The Tense head is phonetically realised when it is specified as [+future]. In case it is [-future], it is occupied by a null morpheme (the reason for the postulation of this morpheme being to prevent head movement of the verb into T). As for the three Aspect heads, they correspond to habitual (Asp1), perfective (Asp2), and progressive (Asp3) aspect. Of interest here is the distribution that Aboh proposes for the different heads. He argues that Asp2 selects a nominalised small clause containing Asp3. Since perfective sentences in Gbe involve a nominalisation and permit the presence of the progressive marker, he proposes that the presence of Asp3 and the nominaliser is parasitic on the presence of the [+perfective] Asp2 head. This implies that perfective and imperfective clauses are quite difference. In particular, Aboh argues that, while imperfective sentences are monoclausal, the extra structure of perfective sentences makes them biclausal.

    Chapter 6 extends the investigation of the mid-lower part of the clause, focusing of the different configurations of object and verb movement as the cause behind the OV/VO alternations in Gbe: while imperfective sentences are OV, non-imperfective ones are VO. Aboh suggests that verb movement into T is impossible, since the T head is always occupied (though sometimes only by a null morpheme). However, lower heads (i.e., the Asp layer) is available for verb movement. He refines the structure proposes in the previous chapter: Asp2 dominates the nominalising phrase, which dominates Asp3, which dominates an AgrP, which finally dominates VP. Object movement always takes place to SpecAsp3 through SpecAgrP. Given this, the OV/VO alternation is a consequence of whether the verb moves higher than AgrP or not. Aboh argues that this is possible only in non-imperfective sentences, where the verb moves to Asp2. Further, he argues that Asp3 moves into SpecNomP for nominalisation purposes. Since the Nom head is represented only by a tone, this hypothesis captures the extra sentence final tone present in non-imperfective sentences.

    In chapter 7, Aboh moves upwards and takes a look at the left periphery of the clause, in particular, focus and wh- constructions. This chapter is interesting in that it provides a quite clear-cut argument that spec-head is a licit feature checking configuration (contra recent proposals such as Hallman 2004 and Chomsky 2004). Both focalised constituents and wh- phrases have to be strictly left-adjacent to the marker ''w�'', without exceptions. Aboh proposes that this is a consequence of ''w�'' being a focus head, and foci and wh- words both carrying focus features that need to be checked against this head. Of interest as well is the double focus construction, in which two foci originating in an embedded clause can be licensed if one of them stays in the lower SpecFocP and the other one raises to the matrix SpecFocP. Given that double foci in a matrix clause are banned, Aboh assumes that there is a unique FocP per clause, and that raising to the matrix FocP involves an intermediate step not in the lower SpecFocP, but in the Force phrase. Moreover, raising to the matrix FocP is not possible in the case of adjuncts. This is an argument/adjunct asymmetry he analyses along the lines of Rizzi (1990)

    Finally, chapter 8 is dedicated to topics and yes/no questions. As for topics, they are normally introduced by the topic marker ''y�'', with which they enter a spec-head relationship. The presence of the topic marker is optional. However, Aboh does not treat it as pure optionality. Rather, he assumes that there are two different instantiations of the topic head (namely, ''y�'' and a null morpheme), differing in their feature make-up. The choice of either one of them result in a different phenomenology of topics. Another important point with regard to Gbe topics is that Aboh shows them to share characteristics of both hanging topics and clitic left dislocation (CLLD) structures (cf. Cinque 1990). In order to account for these characteristics, he proposes an analysis in terms of movement, where a resumptive pronoun is left in the base position. This allows us, amongst other things, to account for the island insensitivity of topics, and, at the same time, the impossibility of moving across another topic (a standard Relativised Minimality effect). In the last part of the chapter, Aboh turns to yes no questions, whose distinctive mark is the presence of a falling tone at the right edge of the clause. He argues that the tone is the instantiation of the yes/no C head, and that it appears clause-finally because the whole clause moves to SpecCP -another instance of roll-up movement. Evidence for this position comes from the distribution of topic (''y�'') and focus (''w�'') markers. If they co-occur in a declarative sentence, the topic marker precedes the focus marker. However, in an interrogative sentence, the order is the reverse. Aboh suggests that we can derive this difference is we assume roll-up movement of TP to SpecFocP, then of the whole FocP to SpecTopP, and finally of the entire TopP to the specifier of the interrogative CP.


    Aboh's book makes an excellent contribution to the literature in that it presents a superb overview of many properties of the syntax of Gbe languages, which hadn't been given much publicity so far. In this respect, its value is undoubtable. What I would like to focus on here is in the kind of theory Aboh wants to construe. I must admit that he makes a pretty strong case in favour of Antisymmetry, by showing that Gbe languages can be optimally accommodated under a fully head initial structure. As Baker & Kandybowicz (2002) point out ''grand theoretical proposals like Antisymmetry must eventually live or die on the basis of data from individual languages''. It is therefore laudable that, unlike some analyses in this tradition (e.g., the (in)famous Koopman & Szabolcsi 2000), Aboh always tries to give hard empirical evidence in favour of the extra structure he needs to postulate. Moreover, he very often considers alternative analysis and lies out very clearly the reasons why he considers them not appropriate. One may not agree at times with Aboh's proposals, but it is also true that most of the times, if not always, alternative analyses (even if they are workable and plausible), do not provide anything beyond what Aboh's own analysis does.

    A theory based on Antisymmetry will eventually need massive leftward movement so as to derive surface head final orders. One particularly interesting such operation is the so-called roll-up movement (or snowballing movement, in Aboh's terminology), where the complement YP of a head X moves to SpecXP. In recent work (e.g., Abels 2003), this kind of movement has been deemed impossible. Abels's reasoning is that feature checking involves getting two features in a sufficiently local relationship, the most local relationship being sisterhood. Thus, whatever feature YP may check by movement to SpecXP, it can also be checked in a head-complement configuration. Hence, roll-up movement is unwarranted. Note though, that what Aboh is proposing is not that it is YP as a whole that has a feature to check. It is only the head Y of YP, which needs to check its relevant feature by head-to-head movement to X. In cases where head movement is blocked (for whatever reason), one can resort to roll-up movement to satisfy this feature (unfortunately, Aboh implements this analysis in a pretty intuitive level, with little formalisation). Thus, roll-up movement becomes in principle a licit operation -not in Abels's system, though, since he analyses head-to- head movement in Brody's 2000 terms, hence his objection could in principle carry on even for Aboh. This is not the case in systems where head-to-head movement still exists.To sum up, I believe that this book is a very valuable contribution to the field. On top of its descriptive work, it proposes bold and well argumented analysis that favours one specific line of thought. If you are an adherent to this line of thought, you will find here very strong support. If, as happens to me, you aren't, you will find here good arguments against your position. Either way, this book is highly recommended to anybody with an interest in African/less studied languages, or in theories of clause structure and word order


    Abels, Klaus (2003), Successive cyclicity, anti-locality, and adposition stranding, PhD dissertation, University of Connecticut

    Aboh, Enoch (1999), From the syntax of Gungbe to the grammar of Gbe, PhD dissertation, University of Geneva

    Baker, Mark, and Jason Kandybowicz (2002), The structure of the verb phrase in Nupe, Syntax 5

    Brody, Michael (2000), Mirror Theory, Linguistic Inquiry 30

    Cardinaletti, Anna, and Michal Starke (1999), The typology of structural deficiency: a case study of three classes of pronouns, in van Riemsdijk (ed.), Clitics in the languages of Europe, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin

    Chomsky, Noam (2004), Questions about phases, talk at GLOW 27, Thesalonikki

    Cinque, Guglielmo (1990), Types of A-bar dependencies, MIT Press, Massachusetts

    Hallman, Peter (2004), Symmetry in structure building, Syntax 7

    Kayne, Richard (1994), The Antisymmetry of syntax, MIT Press, Massachusetts

    Koopman, Hilda, and Anna Szabolcsi (2000), Verbal complexes, MIT Press, Massachusetts

    Neeleman, Ad, and Fred Weerman (1999), Flexible syntax, Kluwer, Dordrecht

    Pearson, Matthew (2000), The clause structure of Malagasy: a minimalist approach, PhD dissertation UCLA

    Rizzi, Luigi (1990), Relativised minimality, MIT Press, Massachusetts

    Vicente, Luis (2004), Derived vs base generated OV, Leiden Working Papers in Linguistics 1

    Zwart, Jan Wouter (1993), Dutch syntax, a minimalist approach, PhD dissertation University of Groningen


    I am a 3rd year PhD student at Leiden University, specialising in theoretical syntax. I have worked on relativisation, head movement, the syntax-phonology interface, scrambling, and the structure of OV languages.