Thursday, August 05, 2004

Some often-overlooked uses of linguistics - 2

There's a second skill that linguists get a lot of training in too, as I found when I was writing my thesis. That skill is the use of very indirect evidence to build up argumentation. The truth of the matter is that the facts of language are complex, and their "deep" representation is still pretty much unknown. Take the following sentence (from Hungarian):

Tetsz-em a főnök-nek.
please-I the boss-DAT
lit. "I please to the boss."
i.e. "I please the boss." / "The boss likes me."

On the face of it, this sentence has the following grammatical relations:

1 P 3
I please the boss.

where P=predicate, 1=subject, 2=direct object, 3=indirect object.

But I argue in my thesis on Hungarian syntax that this in fact has a deeper layer of derivation, namely:

2 P 1
2 P 3
1 P 3
I please the boss.

Unfortunately, Hungarian has no passive (it uses impersonals), so there is no marker of 2-1 advancement, neither is there any 1-3 demotion marker. So how can one argue for the increased layers of complexity, which is, after all, contrary to principles such as Occam's razor?

My argument stems from what seems on the surface to be a completely unrelated phenomenon, which is a case hierarchy for binding relations. What this means is that when you have a reflexive, which by Principle A of Binding Theory must refer back to the an antecedent within the same binding domain, the reflexive must be lower than the antecedent in the following case hierarchy:

Nominative > Accusative, Dative > Instrumental etc.

So you can have "John pinched himself", not "Himself pinched John", for example. This is more significant for Hungarian than for English since it has a fairly free word order. Now, apply this case hierarchy to the surface form of our Hungarian sentence. Since "I" is in nominative case, and "the boss" is in dative case, "I" is higher in the case hierarchy than "the boss". Replacing "the boss" with "himself" and "I" with "John", we predict that you can say "John-NOM pleases (to) himself-DAT" and not "Himself-NOM pleases to John-DAT" or "John-DAT himself-NOM pleases":

*Jánosnak önmaga tetszik (* indicates the predicted ungrammaticality)
John-DAT himself-NOM pleases
lit. "to John, himself pleases"

János önmagának tetszik
John himself-DAT pleases
lit. "John to himself pleases"

However, about 2/3 of my Hungarian informants accepted the first sentence (up to variation in word order). So, conclusion: either the case hierarchy is wrong, OR the case hierarchy must be able to apply to a different layer of derivation. If the case hierarchy can apply at the initial tier for (2), in which "I" stood in the 1 relation (subject) and "myself" stood in the 2 relation (direct object), then we get the correct predictions.

I know that there are probably good counter-arguments for this, but I was pleased at being able to come up with it on my own, because it involved the creative use of some pretty indirect evidence (even if I do say so myself).

Anyway, there's my plug for linguistics as a way to equip yourself with some valuable life skills.


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