Syntax @ CASTL: Theoretical Innovations on Solid Empirical Foundations
The syntax team at CASTL explores a fine-grained view of syntax, according to which syntax is tightly interwoven with the details of formal semantics, morphology and intonation. We thus tend to use the word syntax in this broad way, including much of what is often referred to as semantics and much of what is sometimes referred to as morphology. In this broad sense, syntax interfaces with phonology, the lexicon, and conceptual parts of cognition. We assume a modular organization of these components (and possibly others).
To obtain quality fine-grained data in syntax in this broad sense, we are committed to detailed field-work, taking into account the subtleties of meaning, pragmatic context, morphological realization and intonational contours of the syntactic data under study. We conduct microcomparative studies of closely related languages and dialects as well as more global comparative work on selected unrelated languages.
Our work builds on prior research in minimalism, cartography, remnant movement, and related approaches, and we actively pursue major issues in syntactic theory, such as those concerning the architecture of the language faculty. On the theoretical side, this has led us to a new approach we call Nanosyntax and on the empirical side, it leads us into thematically wide-ranging syntactic investigations, as illustrated below.
Nanosyntax and Lexicalization
Major research efforts at CASTL have focused on building a principled theoretical framework appropriate for a fine-grained syntax. This has led to Nanosyntax, which is presented in more detail on its own separate page. Much work in nanosyntax has concentrated on the relationship between syntax proper and lexical insertion, leading us to examine the multiple uses of individual morphemes, including polysemy, syncretism and allomorphy patterns. A collection of papers in nanosyntax has been published as volume 36 number 1 in the department’s working papers series. The 2009 PhD thesis by Pavel Caha entitled ‘The nanosyntax of case’ and the 2011 PhD thesis by Marina Pantcheva entitled ‘Decomposing Path: The Nanosyntax of Directional Expressions’ are also important contributions. Éva Dékány's 2011 PhD thesis mapped out the cartography of the Hungarian noun phrase and developed a detailed analysis of lexical insertion there.
More generally, researchers at CASTL have conducted extensive investigations into word and morpheme meanings. Some of these findings are presented in Senior Researcher Gillian Ramchand’s 2008 book Verb Meaning and the Lexicon. The 2008 PhD thesis by Björn Lundquist entitled 'Nominalizations and Participles in Swedish' is another example.
The Syntax of Space, Prepositions, Particles, Prefixes, and other spatial and directional expressions
Expressions of spatial location and directed motion are the topic of a recently completed 5-year project described on the Moving Right Along site.
Related to that project are various investigations into adpositions, including volume 33 numbers 1 and 2 and volume 34 number 2 of the department’s working papers, and also a series of papers on spatial expressions by Peter Svenonius, Minjeong Son, and Marina Pantcheva, as well as some investigations into adpositions which are not spatial. Kaori Takamine, for example, completed a PhD thesis in 2010 on prepositional phrases in Japanese clause structure, entitled ‘The Postpositional Hierarchy and its Mapping to Clausal Structure in Japanese.’
Also under investigation are directional or locative particles such as up and out, and the kinds of verbal prefixes found in languages such as German, Russian, Hungarian, and many other languages. Such particles and prefixes often have abstract or idiomatic meanings and this connects to the work mentioned above on complex predicates and verb meanings. In our studies of Slavic prefixes we liase with the Cognitive Linguistics group in Tromsø (check out their Reading Group here).
North Germanic Microcomparison and Verb Movement
Another major strand of research has been into the North Germanic languages Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, and assorted dialects. This work is microcomparative in nature since the languages share many characteristics. Microcomparative work, as is often observed, allows a kind of controlled experiment as many factors are held constant and individually varying factors can be examined against a constant background. This work is described in more detail on the NORMS site.
Researchers affiliated with CASTL have also conducted extensive studies of the nature of verb movement cross-linguistically, focusing on the types found in the North Germanic languages but extending these findings to other languages. One important finding has been the decisive establishment of languages which have verb movement that is not related to the morphological system (based on Northern Norwegian dialects). This finally conclusively falsifies a persistent hypothesis in the literature on the relationship between morphology and syntax.
The microcomparative studies have connected to issues in wh-movement and also in Acquisition.
Detailed Empirical Studies
The fundaments of our theoretical work are based upon careful, detailed studies of individual languages conducted through interviews and experiments with native speakers.
An example of that work is Tarald Taraldsen’s project on Bantu languages, conducted in collaboration with researchers in South Africa and elsewhere. Peter Muriungi’s 2008 thesis on the Bantu language Kîîtharaka (‘Phrasal Movement inside Bantu Verbs’) is another.
As another example, Marleen van de Vate has completed a PhD thesis based on conducting fieldwork on Saamáka in Suriname (‘Tense, Aspect and Modality in a Radical Creole: The Case of Saamáka,’ 2011). Fieldwork expeditions have also recently been made to India, Indonesia, and New Mexico (for Navajo).
In addition to these studies of far-flung languages, we are very much involved in studying languages spoken closer to home, including the Sámi languages as well as the North Germanic ones. As an example of this work, Kristine Bentzen completed a PhD thesis at CASTL in 2007 based on a careful comparison of Norwegian dialects, and Madeleine Halmøy’s 2010 thesis entitled ‘The Norwegian Nominal System: A Neo-Saussurean Perspective’ also treats Norwegian.
Careful empirical studies need not be based on single languages or dialect clusters. Monika Bader’s 2011 PhD thesis entitled ‘Constraining Operations: A Phase-based Account of Improper Movement and Anaphoric Binding’ scrutinizes subtle empirical data from dependency relations in a handful of languages and updates phase theory to accommodate the empirical results.