LINGUIST List 16.1302

Sat Apr 23 2005

Review: Syntax/Celtic Ling: Roberts (2005)

Editor for this issue: Megan Zdrojkowski <>


        1.    Andrew Carnie, Principles and Parameters in a VSO Language

Message 1: Principles and Parameters in a VSO Language
Date: 22-Apr-2005
From: Andrew Carnie <>
Subject: Principles and Parameters in a VSO Language

AUTHOR: Roberts, Ian G.
TITLE: Principles and Parameters in a VSO Language
SUBTITLE: A Case Study in Welsh
SERIES: Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005
Announced at

Andrew Carnie, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona. [*]


I'm well aware that few people are as titillated as I am by a new book
on a verb-subject-object (VSO) order language, and one might think
that the audience for such a book would be narrow and very
specialized. However, Ian Roberts' new book: _Principles and
Parameters in a VSO Language: A Case Study in Welsh_ is
surprisingly humbly titled and really deserves a wider audience than
its title might suggest. A significant body of research on the
motivations for and mechanisms of word order variation (e.g., case,
the Extended Projection Principle (EPP) etc.) have dominated recent
work in minimalist principles and parameters syntax. Roberts' book
provides a very important addition to this canon of work, bringing in
new evidence from a relatively understudied language. Roberts draws
together a well worked out sketch of Welsh grammar with a technically
sophisticated explanation for the origins of EPP-like phenomena and
the nature of parameters.

In addition to this important technical and theoretical contribution,
Roberts' book fills a gap in the literature on the syntax of the Celtic
languages. The syntax of Welsh seems to have had one or two major
works associated with each major version of the theory since the
1970s (such as Awbery (1976), Morris-Jones & Thomas (1977)
(Transformational Grammar), Sadler (1988) and Hendrick (1988)
(Government and Binding theory)) This book completes the paradigm
with a minimalist treatment of the major phenomena in the language
(VSO order, verbal nouns, direct object mutation (DOM), so-
called "abnormal" sentences, particles, clitic doubling, DP-structure,
and a very cursory treatment of some of the wh-phenomena in the


The introduction to the book lays out two desiderata for parameters
governing cross-linguistic variation: (1) Parameters must be learnable
(that is, the parameter must be expressed or determinable from the
data) and (2) parameters must be typologizable (that is, the parameter
must explain cross-linguistic variation). The tradition in minimalist
syntax has been to treat parameters as conditions on features of
particular lexical items. For example, DP-movement is typically viewed
to follow from a "strong" D-feature on the functional head that licenses
the DP. Roberts' great innovation in this book is that he grounds such
features in the overt morphology, developing a system where heads
with interpretable features must be licensed either by merger with a
particle, head movement of a lower head or movement of an XP
element into their specifier. The particular set of lexical items a
language has determines which of these options is chosen and by
extension the parameter settings for the language. A particularly
impressive result of this approach is that Roberts is able to account for
Welsh word order without appealing to the fairly stipulative notion of
the Extended Projection Principle.

The first chapter, "The analysis of VSO languages", has a fairly
misleading title. Roberts is, as he makes clear in a footnote, only
making claims about Welsh (and to a certain degree other closely
related Celtic languages), and is not making any broad
generalizations about VSO languages outside of Celtic. Indeed, it has
become clear in recent years that different VSO languages derive the
order in significantly different ways (see for example, the articles in
Carnie and Guilfoyle 2000 and Carnie, Harley and Dooley (2005)).
Roberts reviews the standard arguments for an underlying structure
with a VP, and the arguments for a head-movement analysis. He
argues against a V (to T) to C analysis of VSO order in Welsh,
providing a preliminary analysis of the C-system of the language. He
also presents arguments that the subject has raised out of the VP.
The preliminary analysis he gives in this chapter is surprisingly
conservative in that it uses AgrSP. The structure Robert's proposes is:

1) [FinP fin [AgrSP AgrS+V [TP Subj [VP t-subj t-V Obj]]]]

In the standard technology of MP, this amounts AgrS having a strong
V-feature, a weak D-feature, and T having a strong D-feature. In the
next chapter, Roberts grounds these feature settings in the
morphological system of Welsh.

One problem, as Roberts notes for the analysis set out in chapter 1 is
the lack of "EPP" effects in the Celtic languages (McCloskey 1996). A
strong D-feature on T should predict the existence of expletives
appearing in the specifier of TP. However, in Welsh there is fairly clear
evidence that in impersonal and existential constructions the specifier
is not filled by an expletive or any other DP. In order to account for
this, Roberts' Chapter 2: "Case agreement and Mutation," explains the
motivations for movement in a different way; deriving them partly from
the richness of the morphology of Welsh. Building upon a comparison
with a variety of North Italian dialects, Roberts suggests first splitting
Agr into two categories (Pers(on) and Num(ber)). He claims that the
higher of these two categories (Pers) in Welsh is occupied by a
subject clitic (which is the morphology traditionally called "agreement"
in the Welsh literature). This morpheme attracts the V. Welsh lacks
agreement morphology in the traditional sense. This explains the
apparent "anti- agreement" effects of the Celtic languages, where the
verb fails to agree with overt non-pronominal objects. The subject DP
fails to move to the specifier of PersP because Pers is already
identified by the verb and the subject clitic morphology. The system
proposed here makes a parametric distinction, which seems to be
reflective of at least some of the possibilities. (1) A language can have
no rich agreement, and no V-movement. (2) A language can have a
subject clitic and no "real" agreement; this results in a language like
Welsh. (3) A language can have a subject clitic and rich agreement
which results in cases like some North Italian dialects where
agreement is doubled by a clitic.

In Welsh, the DP raises to the specifier of NumP, not as one might
expect, to get case, but rather to license Num itself. This leads us to
the least pleasing part of Roberts' analysis (really the only displeasing
part): his view of DP licensing. In my opinion, a striking advance of
research in the Minimalist Program has been the reduction of a variety
of licensing mechanisms present in GB theory to the single mechanism
of feature checking. Roberts, however, divorces case from feature
checking and retreats to a purely configurational view of case
licensing. In fact, particular cases aren't associated with a particular
position in a tree, but rather are determined by where the NP falls
within a thinly disguised version of government, that is, Rizzi's
(2001) "minimal configuration" (to be fair Chomsky's "Agree" relation
also seems to be a thinly disguised version of government). To speak
plainly, if an NP is governed by a CP-internal Agr node (Pers,Num),
then it receives Nominative Case. If it falls within the minimal
configuration (i.e., is governed by) of little v then it gets Accusative

This is a disappointing retreat to GB theory in my opinion. The
empirical motivation for Roberts' view is straightforward if you are
willing to adopt his assumptions about what is "Nominative" and what
is "Accusative" case marking in the language. Welsh, like all the
modern Celtic languages, exhibits Initial Consonant Mutation (ICM).
ICM is normally lexically triggered by a preceding word. Welsh,
however, has one exception that seems to be grammatically -- rather
than lexically -- determined: Most (although not all!) direct objects are
marked with the "soft" mutation. This is typically referred to as Direct
Object Mutation or DOM (not to be confused with Aissen's 2003
Differential Object Marking). DOM does not apply in all cases, for
example it does not apply on the object DP in impersonals, nor on the
objects of non- finite verb forms (verbal nouns). The usual view of
DOM in the literature on Welsh is that it is triggered only when the
direct object is immediately preceded by an XP (which can be null)
(See for example the analyses of Harlow (1989), Borsley and
Tallerman (1998) and Borsley (1999)). Roberts breaks from this
tradition and identifies DOM directly with Accusative case (or more
precisely, with a floating autosegment which triggers the mutation only
when the element in question is head-governed by the relevant v
category which impersonals, existentials and verbal noun
constructions lack). In effect this means that nominative case is
indicated by the lack of ICM. As such, under this particular set of
assumptions, object DPs that don't exhibit DOM must bear Nominative
Case. However, there is clear evidence that these NPs are not in the
specifier of NumP, where subject DPs are found, so Roberts has to
allow case to be configurationally assigned (i.e., under the broad
domain of government) rather than being narrowly associated with
one position within that configuration and reducing to feature
checking. Note however, that it is possible to maintain Roberts'
analysis of DOM without the concomitant assumption that DOM
reflects Case. Indeed it would seem to be easier to assume that Case
is simply entirely covert in Welsh and arises in the typical way (in a
spec-head relation via feature checking). DOM is, as Roberts argues,
a reflection of co-occurrence with a particular little v head. In fact, it
could be defined in terms of simple linear adjacency to the v head
bearing the triggering autosegment [1]. If this is true, we need not
appeal to government at all. This minor adjustment to the analysis
would allow us to dispel with the extra mechanism of case assignment
under government.

The third chapter, "Genitive Case, Word Order in DP and Objects of
Non-finite Verbs" really deals with two distinct issues, which are only
related on a superficial level. First, there is an interesting discussion of
the internal structure of the DP and the assignment of genitive case.
Building upon Duffield's (1996) work on Irish, Roberts shows that
possessive constructions in Welsh are best analyzed as construct
states familiar from the Semitic languages. He argues for a structure
where the N head moves to a Q head in all DPs (thus accounting for
the relative order of the N, adjectives, demonstratives and
complements of the N), and further on to D when a possessor is
present. Genitive case is assigned in a minimal configuration with a
DP-internal AgrP. The second part of the chapter concerns non-
finite "verbal noun" (VN) constructions of Welsh. Roberts adopts
Borsley (1996)'s claim that VNs are not nouns, instead arguing they
are of the category "participle" which are selected for by an aspectual
head. The objects of VNs fail to get DOM because they aren't in the
minimal domain of a v head (although the VN themselves are and do
take the marking).

The structure of the CP is the focus of the fourth chapter: "The C-
system and the Extended Projection Principle." Here, Welsh clause-
initial particles are placed within the context of Rizzi's (1997)
articulated CP structure. Roberts shows that some particles are best
analyzed as Force markers and others as Fin(ite) markers. He draws
a parallel between Welsh particles, Breton long verb movement and
V2 in Germanic, all relating to the requirement that the Fin head be
realized. Much of this book centers on the interaction between head-
movement, various particles and functional heads. The last
chapter, "Head-Movement and EPP features", is thus appropriately
focused on addressing Chomsky (2001)'s claims that head-movement
is not part of narrow syntax. Roberts gets around Chomsky's
objections by proposing that head- movement is really a two-part
operation. The first part involves movement to a specifier as found
elsewhere. The second part involves a PF-sensitive formal
feature "Affix", which triggers a morphological process of
incorporation, where the specifier is fused with its head. On one hand,
this is a very welcome addition to the theory, as it allows us to bring
the empirically very well motivated phenomenon of head-movement
into phase theory and overcomes Chomsky's conceptual arguments
against head-movement as a syntactic operation. On the other hand,
one is, of course, forced to wonder why such an empirically robust
phenomenon is marginalized on conceptual grounds (alone) in the
first place.


_Principles and Parameters in a VSO language_ is a surprisingly
theoretically and empirically rich work for a book that comes in at just
200 pages (including references and notes). As I suggested in the
introduction, this is work of importance not only to Celticists and VSO-
ologists, but also to any syntactician seriously considering the nature
and variation in word order derivation and constituent licensing.


[*] My thanks to Heidi Harley, Terry Langendoen, Sheila Dooley and
Ian Roberts for their input on this review. Typically, errors are mine.

[1] There are a number of adjunct elements that could potentially
intervene. However, if we adopt a Speas (1992) style analysis of
adjuncts, then they do not intervene at the relevant stage of the


Aissen, Judith (2003)"Differential Object Marking: Iconicity vs.
Economy." Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 21: 435-83.

Awbery, G. M. (1976) The Syntax of Welsh. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Borsley, Robert (1996) "On a nominal Analysis of Welsh Verb-Nouns"
In Anders Ahlqvist et al. (eds.) Dan do Oide: Essays in Memory of
Conn. R. O Cleirigh. Dublin: Institiuid Teangeolaiochta Eireann. 39-47.

Borsley, Robert (1999) "Mutation and Constituent Structure in Welsh".
Lingua 109:267-300.

Borsley, Robert and Maggie Tallerman (1998) "Phrases and Soft
Mutation in Welsh" Journal of Celtic Linguistics 5: 1- 33.

Carnie, Andrew and Eithne Guilfoyle (eds.) (2000) The Syntax of Verb
Initial Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carnie, Andrew, Heidi Harley and Sheila Dooley (eds.)(2005) Verb
First. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Chomsky, Noam (2001) "Derivation by Phase." In Michael Kenstowicz
(ed.) Ken Hale: A Life in Language. Cambridge: MIT Press 1-52.

Duffield, Nigel (1996) "On Structural Invariance and Lexical Diversity
in VSO Languages: Arguments from Irish Noun Phrases. In Borsley
and Roberts (eds.) The Syntax of the Celtic Languages. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press 314-340.

Harlow, Steve (1989) "The Syntax of Welsh Soft Mutation" Natural
Language and Linguistic Theory 7: 289-317.

Hendrick, Randall (1988) Anaphora in Celtic and Universal Grammar.
Kluwer, Dordrecht.

McCloskey, James (1996) "Subjects and Subject Positions in Irish." In
Roberts and Borsley (eds.) The Syntax of the Celtic Languages.
Cambridge University Press. 241-283.

Morris-Jones, R and A.R. Thomas (1977) "The Welsh Language:
Studies in its Syntax and Semantics" Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Rizzi, Luigi (1997) "The fine structure of the left periphery" in Liliane
Haegeman (ed) Elements of Grammar. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Rizzi, Luigi (2001) "Relativized Minimality Effects" in Baltin and Collins
(eds) The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory. Oxford:

Sadler, Louise (1988) Welsh Syntax, A Government Binding
Approach. New York: Croom Helm.

Speas, Margaret (1992) Phrase Structure in Natural Language.
Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Tallerman, Maggie (1998) "On the Uniform Case-licensing of Subject
in Welsh." Linguistic Review 15: 69-133.

Tallerman, Maggie (1999) "Welsh Soft Mutation and Marked Word
Order." In Darnell et. al (eds.) Functionalism and Formalism in
Linguistics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 277-294.


Andrew Carnie is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the
University of Arizona. His research varies from phrase structure theory
to Irish Phonology, but much of his work has centered on the analysis
of VSO languages in general and Celtic in particular. In addition to
writing numerous research articles, he is the co-editor of two volumes
on the syntax of VSO languages (Carnie & Guilfoyle 2000, Carnie,
Harley & Dooley 2005), and is the author of Blackwell's textbook
_Syntax: A Generative Introduction._