f | share    f | like 

F r e a k y   S y n t a x

Let us wrap up the discussion on the COMPONENTS of Grammar — (1) Phonology, (2) Lexicon, (3) Morphology, and (4) SYNTAX,with SYNTAX; we shall take it up presently. With Phonology we were in the semi-conscious or even subconscious subterranean depths of Grammar, where the pre-Olympian Grammar Titans applied their vying vice-grip wilful snatching fists irrespective of meaning, ignorant of Meaning — only for Will! — exclusively for the sake of Order-in-itself… but as we arose to Lexicon we found that which Grammar grasped to be something like Plato's Ideals (arguably precisely that); however, we had actually skipped(!) the bridge between Phonology and Lexicon, which we dealt with as (3) Morphology, where the vice-grips of Grammar in the form of Phonology begin to have to deal with Meaning. Now with (4) Syntax we are transcending even the word level, which is to say we are dealing with how words deal with words, deal with each other, get along, 'tweak around', INTER-TWEAK.
You know, we creally ould progress even higher, ever higher, initially into Pragmatics — but then the air would grow thin; we would be exiting the atmosphere of Language — zooooom! into the space of Pragmatics, which is where Language begins to give way to outer space — the space, the void, outside the carefully constructed relations and semantic domains and structures of Language — the Social Scienes: psychology and sociology, different windows into Mind. But we shall keep our breath and breath easy, and stop with (4) Syntax.

What is syntax?

Basically, syntax is the order of elements in a phrase, clause and sentence; and these elements are words (more or less words, because there are also particles and grammemes).

What are phrases, clauses and sentences? Let us not bother defining but just go right for giving examples. Example sentence:

The maiden in the courtyard reads poetry from a book that is ancient and divine.

Get a piece of paper, hold it horizontally, and write the sentence on the bottom, in one line. Then follow along with the following paragraph, mapping out the constituents in a tree diagram as you read about them. Then check your work with the color-coded parsing after the paragraph. Just do what makes the most sense to you, trusting your instincts. If you want to know if you are right, then get a PhD in syntax so you will BECOME right.
the maiden is a noun phrase, in the courtyard is a prepositional phrase; and because this prepositional phrase modifies the noun phrase, these two phrases come together as a single noun phrase the maiden in the courtyard. reads is a verb, of course, and because a verb is the nucleus of a verb phrase, reads also stands alone as a phrase in itself. reads is a transitive verb, which means it takes a direct object; and this object is basically the noun poetryhowever, poetry is modified by the prepositional phrase from a book, which means poetry is the governing head and nucleus of a noun phrase containing the prepositional phrase from a book. But this noun phrase (which is the verb's object) gets yet bigger, and you will see how in a moment: first note that this sentence contains two clauses: the main clause the maiden reads poetry from a book and the subordinate and relative clause that is ancient and divine. The relative clause is 'relative', as it were, to the noun book, which it modifies. Thus noun book is modified by clause that is ancient and divine; and because book is part of a prepositional phrase, this prepositional phrase, via noun book, hierarchically subsumes an entire clause; and because this prepositional phrase (that subsumes a clause) modifies — which is to say, is hierarchically subsumed by — the noun phrase headed by the single word poetry, the entire object of the verb reads is the rather long noun phrase poetry from a book that is ancient and divine. In turn, reads as a verb governs its object, which is that rather long noun phrase. This rather long verb phrase is the predicate of the sentence, whereas the noun phrase the maiden in the courtyard is the subject; and Subject + Object = Sentence. In other words (where np stands for noun phrase, pp for prepositional phrase, vp for verb phrase, and cp for clause or clause phrase):

{ ( [the maiden]np [in the courtyard]pp )np }subject

+

{ [reads]vp [poetry (from [a book [that is ancient and divine]cp ]np )pp ]object }predicate


Logic and the Predicate

It is logical to keep the predicate together — i.e, the object and the verb. Yet, that is not always what happens in Language. So, linguists — perhaps mistaking Language for Logic (just like the prescriptive grammarians do) — say that those languages which split the predicate have, somehow underlyingly, predicates that are not split. They say that before a sentence is uttered, it goes through levels of transformation, from having a non-split predicate, to having a split one. Most notable of the languages that split the predicate are the Celtic and Semitic languages. All of them are known for having the verb first, then the subject. However, many languages — like the classic Indo-European languages (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.) have a suffix on the verb that stands for the subject (like a pronoun would); and so it might even seem that Language has a universal tendency to keep the subject right behind the verb. Maybe. The point I am trying to make here is that Language is its own thing, a separate species from Logic (just like Math, I suppose). But what I am ultimately getting at here is that Language stems from the Intellect/Grasper and not from Logic. Perhaps Language and Math and Logic are all siblings. Or perhaps Logic is the offspring of Language. But Language is not the offspring of Logic.

Anyway, here is a bare-bones example of how a “broken predicate” can be accounted for logically. Let's say we have a language with verb first in a normal declarative statement, like so: Polishes the knight his sword. This is not a question or command, but a statement just like our English The knight polishes his sword. We will posit that the underlying structure of our language has the same word-order as English. So the next step is to account for how or why the word-order would change. Let's say there is an empty slot at the beginning of the sentence, and in this language it is important to fill that slot. So the verb slips out of its underlying position and goes into the slot — that's the solution! However, you may wonder why there would be an empty slot at the beginning of the sentence. Think of clauses. The sentence is clause. In English, when we have subordinate clauses, their beginning has a marker to let us know it's a clause, and what the nature of the clause is, such as with the word that, for example. A main clause can have different senses, too, such as being a question or command or regular statement. We mark quesiton-type main clauses in English by putting the verb first; and we do this with command-type clauses, too. We do not do this for regular declarative clauses, but in some languages they do, hence verb first. But the idea here is that underlyingly the predicate stays united. And in some languages, this preservation of the unity of te predicate is even carried out with questions: in Polish, for example, instead of indicating a sentence is a question by moving the verb into the beginning, there is the option of a special particle to put in the beginning that simply marks the main clause as a question: czy. When used in a subordinate clause this particle takes on the meaning of if or whether.

Above I mentioned how syntax is only more or less about words and their positions, because there are also particles or grammemes that float around sentences, too, not just lexemes; and with Polish czy — the particle used to mark off the main clause as a question — we have such a little grammatical marker floating independently, a morpheme so free it moves with the same freedom enjoyed by a lexeme.

Why is a divided predicate illogical?

Let us take the sentence the knight polishes his sword a parse it:

{ ( [the knight]np )subject ( [polishes]vp [his sword]np )predicate }sentence

No entity overlaps, no entity violates/contradicts hierarchy. In contrast, the following VSO (verb-subject-object) example violates hierarchy in a manner equivilant to two alligators swallowing each other simultaneously. Whose stomach would they be in?

Polishes the knight his sword.

{ ( [polishes]vp ( [the knight]np )subject [his sword]np )predicate }sentence

If you take VSO syntax for face value (i.e, without positing anything underlying, any “deepstructure”), the seeming contradiction between the two hierarchies of subject and predicate is no longer an issue so long as you just posit that the subject is indeed subordinate to the predicate, that the subject is contained by the predicate. This means the verb is the nucleus of the sentence, and the governing head of the sentence — its essence or soul… and the subject is simply the humble modifier of the verb, perhaps on par with an adverb — as opposed to the subject being a monadic agent of Will that decides through its insular individuality to bring about the action spelled out by the verb. This is like the whole problem in physics of whether or not to think of light as a wave or a particle. Is the subject the backbone of the sentence, such that a sentence is essentially a thing? Or is the verb the essence of the sentence, such that a sentence is simply an interpretive story about a wisp of an event in motion through time like a shooting star or blink of a blip?

A sentence being a wave rather than a particle accounts for how in many languages a sentence can indeed be perfectly complete, and not just an abbreviation, as just a verb — for example Latin curris contains what in English would be expressed by the two words 'you' and 'run'.

Of course, if we begin from this model of VSO being the least marked and straightforward of syntactic types, then our new problem becomes how to account for the SOV (subject-object-verb) type: the knight the sword polishes. To avoid doing transformations from an underlying to the surface form, we can posit the the whole predicate itself can have the subject as modifier, and not just the verb phrase itself. But then we would haev to go back to our VSO example and wonder why it was just the vp that hooked up to the subject there. Of course, the answer could simply be because the predicate couldn't becayse doing so was blocked by the predicate being divided. Conversely we could posit the verb hooking up directly to the subject is the most desired form, and that the problem is with the SOV types not allowing for the verb to directly hook up to the sentence because the object is in the way. A thrid example is to posit that SOV and VSO languages are diferent in that with SOV the sentence is regarded as a 'particle', so to speak to use the analogy from physics and light, and in a VSO language the sentence is regarded as a 'wave'.

« back top home about contact next »

Site & contents © Francis M. Tokarski, Jr. All rights reserved.