Syntactic Islands

Last week’s post on movement highlighted just how useful it can be to think of elements in a sentence being able to move to different positions.

One of the really interesting things about movement is that it seems to be unbounded. In other words, there are apparently no bounds to how far an element can move (I say seems and apparently because there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the situation is far more complex. However, I’ll ignore those details here). We can see this unboundedness in so-called wh-movement (it’s called wh-movement because the moving element undergoing this type of movement typically begins with the letters wh– in English, e.g. who, what, where etc.). In (1b), the wh-phrase what is interpreted as the direct object of the verb see. Since direct objects in English normally follow the verb, as in (1a), what is also thought to originate in this position (I’ll indicate this original position with what in strikethrough, indicating that it is not pronounced).

(1) a. You saw something

b. What did you see what?

The interesting thing is that what can appear arbitrarily far away from its original position.

(2) a. What did you see what?

b. What did he say that you saw what?

c. What did she think that he said that you saw what?

d. What did they believe that she thought that he said that you saw what?

e. …

However, the story is much more complicated and interesting. In his 1967 PhD thesis, John Robert ‘Haj’ Ross identified various syntactic ‘islands’. Syntacticians generally take ‘islands’ to be units of structure that elements cannot escape or move from.

We saw in (2) that a wh-phrase can apparently move as far away from its original position as it wants. But now consider the following sentence:

(3) a. I met the man who saw a ghost.

b. I visited the house that you saw a ghost in.

The examples in (3) contain relative clauses (surprise, surprise! See my other posts) – who saw a ghost is a relative clause modifying the noun man in (3a), and that you saw a ghost in is a relative clause modifying the noun house in (3b). In (2), we attempted to move a wh-phrase which originated as the direct object of the verb see. As we saw, the result was a well-formed English sentence. So let’s try to do the same thing with the examples in (3).

(4) a. *What did I meet the man who saw what?

b. *What did I visit the house that you saw what in?

The examples in (4) are crashingly bad English sentences (hence the *)! In fact, if I’d put these sentences at the beginning of this post, you’d probably be wondering what on earth I was trying to say. But what’s wrong with them? What’s the difference between the examples in (2) and the examples in (4)?

As Ross observed, the problem with (4) is the relative clause. The relative clause seems to be an island, i.e. wh-phrases cannot escape from it.

There are other types of island beside relative clauses. Consider the example in (5) which involves two conjoined (or co-ordinated) direct objects.

(5) a. You saw a ghost and a monster.

b. *What did you see what and a monster?

c. *What did you see a ghost and what?

As (5b) and (5c) show, we cannot move out of co-ordinate structures (Ross called this the Co-ordinate Structure Constraint).

Relative clauses and co-ordinate structures seem to be very strong islands, i.e. if we attempt to move an element out of such islands, the result is very bad (given how much I’ve worked on relative clauses, I’m in two minds about whether I’m stuck on them because they are strong in the sense of an island paradise which you never want to leave, or in the sense of Alcatraz!).

Other structures seem to be weaker islands, i.e. we can move elements out of them, but the result is not quite fully acceptable (this is marked with a ? at the beginning of the example). An example of a weak island can be seen in (6b) (compare it to (6a), which does not contain an island).

(6) a. What do you think that I saw what?

b. ?What do you wonder whether I saw what?

The island effect seems to come from the fact that we are trying to move an element out of a subordinate clause beginning with whether. Similar effects are found with subordinate clauses beginning with how, where, who(m), what. They are thus called wh-islands because these islands are introduced by elements typically beginning with wh– in English.

(7) a. You asked how I fixed the car?

b. ?What did you ask how I fixed what?

Although it has been nearly 50 years since Ross first identified his ‘islands’ (and there are many more that I have not mentioned), they continue to pose problems for syntactic theory. A major step was to identify the islands in the first place. This shows how important it is to consider not only what languages can do, but also what they can’t (there’s also the massive question about how we intuitively know that sentences such as those in (4) and (5b,c) are bad). The next step was to understand what makes an island an island (and whether all islands are in fact alike). We can list them and classify them as strong or weak, but ideally we’d want to know why these structures are islands and not others. Attempts have been made (notably by Chomsky (1973), see also the recent overview of the issues by Boeckx (2012)) but the problem still remains.


Boeckx, C. (2012). Syntactic Islands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1973). Conditions on Transformations. In Anderson, S., & Kiparsky, P. (eds.) A Festschrift for Morris Halle (pp. 232-286). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Ross, J.R. (1967). Constraints on Variables in Syntax. Doctoral dissertation, MIT.


Moving things moving around

Image taken from Copyright © Bob Harvey ( and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It has recently come to my attention that – although we’ve made numerous references to the issue – we don’t seem to have had a proper post on this blog devoted to one of the most important and central* ideas of modern syntactic theory: movement.

Take, for example, the sentence Are you a cat? Now, normally in English verbs come after subjects, e.g. in the statement You are a cat. A good way of looking at the differences between the statement and the question is to say that, in the latter, the verb has moved from its usual position after the subject to a position at the start of the sentence. Syntacticians like to represent sentences using so-called “tree diagrams” (we needn’t go into the reasons for this here) and the one for Are you a cat? looks something like this:


The arrow here indicates the movement and I’ve “struck out” the lower copy of are to show that it’s not pronounced.

Can things other than verbs move? Of course they can. Compare The cat sipped the milk with The milk was sipped. In both cases, the milk is semantically the “object” of the verb sipped – the same thing happens to it in both sentences – but in the second (“passive”) sentence it appears in the subject position! A nice way of accounting for this is to say that it, too, moves to a higher position in the sentence. (Obviously we still have to account for things like the appearance of was, what’s happened to the cat etc., but those are somewhat separate issues.)


Another place we see movement is in sentences like What film shall we watch? Semantically, what film is again the object here, and we know objects ordinarily follow verbs in English, so again we can say that it’s moved from the end of the sentence to the start.

Potentially a big advantage of accounting for these things by movement is that it allows us to unify our explanations of what’s going on in all these different types of sentences: we can say they are all instances of a single phenomenon, movement, rather than having to come up with separate explanations for each case.

There’s been a huge amount of work on the theory of movement and it’s proved very profitable; it seems to tell us a great deal about language. An interesting thing that has come out of this work is that there seem to be restrictions on movement: you can’t, in practice, just move anything anywhere. For example, it appears that across languages movement always or almost always goes up the syntactic tree, not down it. In English, this means something can move leftwards in a sentence (as in the examples given in this post) but not rightwards – so you never get sentences like You are a cat are where the verb moves to the other side of the object.


(A challenge for the reader: can you come up with any apparent counterexamples to this claim that we don’t get movement down the tree / to the right in English?)

I personally think the idea of movement is one of the best insights to come out of linguistic theory; it’s truly impressive how much it can tell us about language. You only need to read some of our other posts on this blog – try looking under the “syntax” tag – to see just what a wide range of data it’s helpful in explaining.

* Caveat: many approaches to syntax do reject the idea of movement. This seems wrong-headed to me, as they still have to come up with some way of accounting for the facts discussed in this post, and movement is arguably the most straightforward way of doing so.

The words and sentences not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Ask Chris: Last week I watched a TV interview with a famous Chinese novelist. I pretty much enjoy most, if not all, of his works, but I found that his speech in the interview was not as fascinating as his novels. That reminded me of my best friend, who is really good at telling us her stories but can never write good articles. I believe that we use the same language in speaking and writing – but how could it be? Is there any difference in the use of language when we speak and write? Is the difference only limited to Chinese?

(Note by Chris: This blog involves the development of Chinese language since the original question is asked by a Chinese netizen, but I hope it will not bother most of the readers. If you find it difficult, please imagine that you are in the Middle Ages when the common written language was Latin.)


Chris answers: Of course we use the ‘same language’ when we speak and write if we are talking about the general system of information coding. However, if the language has a good history of written records, or it has been used on some formal occasions, it will develop two sub-systems: the spoken system and the written system. This phenomenon is not limited to Chinese: English, Japanese, and other well-known and less-known languages all have the two-sub-system phenomenon, so it is possible for the native speakers of any language that a good speaker is not a good writer and vice versa.

Although structuralism is not the current trend in the field linguistics, it is still very useful when we analyse a language as a comprehensive system of symbols. When we define a language, we need to define all the possible symbols that can be used, and all the possible rules and principles of the combination of symbols; these two form the entire system of a language. However, it is not the case that any element or rule of the system can be used anywhere: we prefer some elements and rules in the spoken discourse and others in the written discourse, and such preferences lead to two subsets in the system of symbols, where the differences between spoken and written language lie. In general, the elements of the two subsets are pretty much shared, such as the sound patterns (we call them ‘phonological rules’), the word-formation rules (we call them ‘morphological rules’), the default word order, a number of lexical items, and some pragmatic rules, but there are exceptions – as we will see.

Please allow me to take Chinese and English as examples. Looking at the history of Modern Chinese, some people have the impression, or what I would call misconception, that Modern Chinese is merely a spoken language because it originates from Vernacular Chinese (which is literally called ‘plain speech’ in Chinese). That is not true, though. When it was born, Vernacular Chinese was in contrast to the formal written Classic Chinese, and there was a time when this variety was only used in spoken discourse. But with the development and change of Vernacular Chinese, it generated a written system and several literary traditions prior to the birth of Modern Chinese, and one famous example is Dream of the Red Chamber in the Qing Dynasty. The words and sentences used in Dream of the Red Chamber were not exactly the same as those used in the daily spoken discourse at that time. Similarly, you will find that current works of Chinese literature make use of words and expressions that are rarely seen in our daily conversations.

Maybe you would like to argue that the differences exist in Chinese only due to its long history, and life will be simpler if we move to English. Sadly, I am going to tell you that this is not the case. Below is a sentence that I randomly selected from a paper in my hands. I believe it is totally different from the sort of conversation you might hear between me and my friends:

When many different networks are generated in a process of simulated evolution, certain types of modular architectures are selected as “highly fit” in that they are particularly efficient at solving a given learning task.     (Jaap M. J. Murre, Models of Monolingual and Bilingual Language Acquisition)

This sentence is quite different from our daily chitchat in several aspects. The range of words is rich, and the lexical items are formal (you can judge this from their length), and the content words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) are dense. The sentence structure is more complicated, since it includes several relative clauses, and the modifiers are longer. These distinct features of written academic English mark the genre as separate from other genres, and that is exactly the reason that some international students with relatively good speaking skills are required learn ‘how to write academic English’ after they enrol on a university-level course.

In a word, there are essential differences between the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of the spoken sub-system represented by our daily conversations and online chatting, and those of the written sub-system, represented by works of literature, academic essays, manuals, and documents. Actually, these differences are the targets of some linguistic research areas, such as stylistics, discourse analysis, and sometimes also sociolinguistics.

Now let’s move back to your first question – why do people perform differently when they speak and write? The divergence between the spoken and written sub-systems creates a problem: if you use any spoken element when you write, or vice versa, your audience will feel awkward. If a lot of spoken elements are used in the written language, the audience may feel that the author has a shortage of vocabulary and the content of her writing is too shallow. On the other hand, when written elements appear frequently in a piece of spoken discourse, the audience may be easily bored by the long sentence structures and difficult wording. The feeling that ‘the speech and articles by the same person are very different’ may be due to the presentation manners of the person, or the mismatch between the sub-system and the context of discourse.

Why do we have such a feeling when we notice a mismatch? Since I am working on language acquisition and processing, my instinct is that the reason may lie in the mechanism of human language processing. When we process spoken language, we always do it linearly: a piece of speech is always continuous and most of the time we do not pause or backtrack – considering the history of human technology, this was totally impossible when language first appeared. The information in the spoken discourse is continuously pushed into our processing system, and in order to catch the following bits, we do not have enough time to reconsider the hidden message of a particular word or phrase. Moreover, we may even encounter difficulties when hearing a less frequently used word in spoken language. Therefore, when processing spoken discourse, we expect the message to be clear and easy to understand.

Reading is another story. The most prominent feature of reading is that we can control the time of attention at one particular point, and we can backtrack to previous information. That is because the written information is not ‘pushed’ at us. Maybe we do not really feel that, but the movement of our eyes when we are reading does not always move strictly forwards. It has been discovered in eye-tracking studies that around 10% to 15% of eye movement is backward when we read (see reference), which means that we are going back to review some information in previous constituents; this feature is called ‘regression.’ If the text is difficult because of the rare lexical items, complex syntactic structures, or grammatical errors, people will stop moving their eyes and gaze at a particular point (which is called ‘fixation’), or they will perform more regressions. Below is a typical illustration of eye movement when people read from Eye-Tracking While Reading – Kertz Lab – Brown University Sunset Wiki.


At the same time, it should be noted that some high-level semantic and pragmatic processing does not always occur simultaneously with receiving information. This is more obvious when we appreciate rhetorical elements as well as reading literature. Such processing is called ‘non-spontaneous interpretation.’ Usually, it requires more cognitive efforts and processing time, and sometimes readers are even required to re-evaluate the information they have received from the preceding text and simulate the intentions of the author. We can hardly perform such processing when we listen to spoken discourse because stopping processing at any point would mean missing the ongoing flow of information.

All these differences in processing mentioned above will in return influence the word choices, sentence structures, and information organisation we use in spoken and written discourse. Since the processing of spoken language is quick, plain, and linear, we will make our speech short, direct, clear, and easy to identify, while the pauses and backtracking in the processing of written language allow us to add some complicated sentence structures, rare words, and rhetorical methods. If we organise the information as it is in spoken discourse when we write an article, the amount of information in each sentence will decrease, and thus the article is too shallow; in contrast, if we speak in the way that we write, there will be too much information to process, and the lack of non-spontaneous interpretation will also influence our feelings towards the discourse.

That is more or less the full story, and I hope you enjoyed this piece of my writing and all the information included in it. Unfortunately, if you ask me your questions face to face, what I will do is to recite the whole text to you – yes, I am indeed the kind of person who is better at writing than speaking. I knew this when I was still in kindergarten. I knew.


For more information about language processing in general, please refer to the following articles, and you can always stop and backtrack:

Furlong, Anne. “The soul of wit: A relevance theoretic discussion.” Language and Literature 20.2 (2011): 136-150.

Rayner, Keith, and Charles Clifton. “Language Processing in Reading and Speech Perception Is Fast and Incremental: Implications for Event Related Potential Research.” Biological psychology 80.1 (2009): 4–9.

Oh don’t be such a snob

We all know the type. Enjoying a Netflix and chill session, you innocently comment on whatever you happen to be watching – “Geez, George Clooney’s manliness is so different than Orlando Bloom’s” – when your grammar snob of a friend’s eyes light up. “Different to”, they hiss viciously. Or you’re offering a cutting-edge analysis of the current political situation over lunch – “…according to Merkel, who I disagree with” – when your solution to the Brexit crisis is interrupt by “Ahem, you mean with whom I disagree.” Yes, they get everywhere: in the Ecuadorian capital Quito, radical grammar pedants have created a concept of ‘orthographic vandalism’, correcting the grammar of Quito’s graffiti.

A few weeks back, Mona Ghalabi launched on a rant against grammar snobs on the Guardian. They use “elite and increasingly outdated form of English language”, believing that “language evolves but grammar doesn’t”, and are, quite simply, “patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong.” “If I look around a room and say there are less people here than I expected”, Ghalabi says, “does it really need to be pointed out that because people can be counted, I should have said there are fewer people here?”

No, it absolutely does not. I want to join forces with Ghalabi and deliver the final blow to grammar snobs: I present to you three ways in which allegedly substandard speech is, in fact, not a disgrace but a linguist’s goldmine.


Beware, grammar snobbery ahead! Tim Lawrenz.

Now, sometimes speakers utter things that are quite frankly errors even by non-snobbish speakers’ standards; everyone has the occasional slip of a hunk of jeep instead of a heap of junk. As random as they may seem, these types of errors are in fact constrained by the phonological structure of the language in question, and as such can tell observant linguist something about it. In English, sphinx in the moonlight becomes minx in the spoonlight and never features the expected sfoonlight (what kind of deep, poetic conversation these examples would occur in, I don’t know). The reason is simple: native English phonology does not allow syllables beginning with sf, except in loanwords. And so, apparently innocent slips of the tongue turn out to allow insight into the psychological structures and processes of generating speech.

Things get even more interesting when you throw in an extra language. Bilingual children – and adults, as a matter of fact – sometimes mix words and structures from their two (or more) languages. For uninitiated this may seem like a terrible failure to gain competence in either language. However, code mixing is very much not random, and it can be shown how language-specific grammatical constraints are at play in at first sight substandard mixes. In child French, so called weak pronouns (je, tu, il,…) can appear with finite verbs only (i.e. verbs that can function as the root of an independent clause: I like cake has a finite verb, I liking cake does not), while strong pronouns (moi, toi, lui) can appear with both finite and nonfinite verbs. French children might then utter sentences like Moi pousser (‘Me pushing’) with strong pronoun and a nonfinite verb but never Je pousser with a weak pronoun. English, on the other hand, has only strong pronouns, so that English children can happily say things like I washing.

Baby speakers - cute and informative. What else could a linguist ask for? Mulan.

Baby speakers – cute and informative. What else could a linguist ask for? Mulan.

Curiously, when French-English bilinguals use pronouns and verbs from different languages in one sentence, these constraints are still obeyed. I pousse lá (‘I am pushing there’) with an English pronoun and a finite French verb and They manger bonbon (‘They eating candy’) with an English pronoun and nonfinite French verb are attested, as is Moi play thing with a French strong pronoun and English nonfinite verb. But what French-English bilinguals never produce is precisely the case ruled out by French grammar: a French weak pronoun with an English nonfinite verb, as in Je find it.

For the final case, I would actually like to offer a special thank you to prescriptive grammarians, or grammar snobs. Their writings can provide evidence of how people spoke in the past: the types of texts that are preserved from several centuries ago rarely reflect the language used by the illiterate part of the population, in many cases the vast majority, so that linguists have to rely in forms of indirect evidence. The first English grammar books appeared in the 18th century, pioneered by Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to the English Grammar and Lindley Murray’s equally imaginatively titled English Grammar. Both Lowth and Lindley were notorious prescriptivists who held a firm belief that Latin and Greek are superior to English. Their natural conclusion was that because Latin and Greek happen to be relatively highly inflected languages, English should be, too. This mission of making English as worthy as the ancient languages is most famously encoded in the fight for whom instead who in positions other than the subject.

While the ideological grounding is in its bizarreness intriguing in itself, for the modern linguist the relevant fact is that the allegedly correct use is pointed out in these grammars at all. If all speakers had been using whom, and thus living up to Ancient standards, there would have been no need to correct anything in the grammar. So, the early grammarians snobbish efforts tell later linguists that people were using who over whom already in the 18th century.

Break bad, break the rules, and linguists will thank you. Chapendra.

Break bad, break the rules, and linguists will thank you. Chapendra.

“We should spend more time listening to what others have to say and less focusing on the grammar they say it with”, Ghalabi appeals. As a linguist, I disagree. We should focus on the grammar people speak with – but not so much on the grammar people claim we should speak with.

(Come to think of it, Ghalabi does have a point even in her last statement: please don’t interrupt my Netflix and chill just to point out how my slips of the tongue might inform the world about my mental processes. Thank you.)


If you fancy reading more about bilingual grammars, the pronoun study, and much more, can be found here:

Paradis, J. and Genesee, F., 1996. Syntactic acquisition in bilingual children: Autonomous or independent? Studies in second language acquisition, 18(1), pp.1-25.

What a lot of relatives you have!

English has a lot of relatives. I don’t mean languages to which it is related, but rather relative clauses. I’m only going to focus here on some so-called restrictive relative clauses. An example is given in (1) (the relative clause is underlined).

(1) The wolf that ate grandma was in bed.

In (1), the relative clause helps us to identify which wolf we are referring to, i.e. out of all the wolves in context, we are referring to the one that ate grandma. In other words, the relative clause in (1) restricts the referent of the noun modified by the relative clause, in this case wolf.

There are quite a few types of relative clause which can be used to restrict the referent of a noun. Some of them look quite similar to one another but they behave in slightly different ways as we will see.

First of all, there are relative clauses introduced by relative pronouns (who or which) and those introduced by that. Let’s call them wh-relatives and that-relatives respectively.

(2)   a.  The wolf that ate grandma was in bed.

b. The wolf which ate grandma was in bed.

The noun modified by a wh-relative or a that-relative can correspond to a number of different positions inside the relative clause. In (2), for example, the noun wolf corresponds to the subject of ate. However, it could correspond to the object, like in (3), or the object of a preposition, like in (4), as well.

(3)   a.  The wolf that we saw was in bed.

b.  The wolf which we saw was in bed.

(4)   a.  The wolf that Red Riding Hood talked to was in bed.

b.  The wolf which Red Riding Hood talked to was in bed.

c.  The wolf to which Red Riding Hood talked was in bed.

Some people would say (4b) is not correct because it has a stranded preposition, and that (4c) is the correct version. However, we are interested in what English speakers actually do, not what some people think they should do. Interestingly, if we use a that-relative, like in (4a), we have no choice but to strand the preposition! (5) is not even acceptable to English grammar pedants! (* means unacceptable/ungrammatical).

(5)  *The wolf to that Red Riding Hood talked was in bed.

Big Bad Wolf

English also has restrictive relative clauses introduced by neither a relative pronoun nor that. Let’s call these zero-relatives because there is nothing (zero) visible/audible to introduce them. The noun modified by a zero-relative can correspond to an object or the object of a preposition in a relative clause. Some examples are given in (6).

(6)   a.  The wolf we saw was in bed.

b.  The wolf Red Riding Hood talked to was in bed.

So far, zero-relatives look just like wh-relatives and that-relatives except that the relative pronoun or that is missing. However, there is another difference. We saw in (2) that the noun modified by a wh-relative or a that-relative can correspond to the subject of the relative clause. However, this is not possible when the noun is modified by a zero-relative.

(7)  *The wolf ate grandma was in bed.

In (7), the intended meaning is the one where wolf corresponds to the subject of ate. However, (7) is unacceptable/ungrammatical. To express this meaning, we would need to use a wh-relative or a that-relative instead.

We have seen that a noun modified by a zero-relative cannot correspond to the subject of a relative clause. There are other restrictive relative clauses where the modified noun can only correspond to the subject. These are the so-called reduced relatives.

(8)   a.  The wolf eating grandma has such big ears, eyes and teeth.

b.  The person eaten by the wolf was grandma.

They are called reduced because they seem to be reduced versions of wh-relatives or that-relatives.

(9)   a.  The wolf which/that is eating grandma has such big ears, eyes and teeth.

b.  The person who/that was eaten by the wolf was grandma.

However, various pieces of evidence suggest that the examples in (8) are not the results of bits of (9) being deleted. For example, there are acceptable reduced relatives with no acceptable ‘full’ counterpart. Therefore, reduced relatives are not literally reductions of full relatives.

(10)  a.  The creature resembling grandma is a wolf.

b. *The creature which/that is resembling grandma is a wolf.

Reduced relatives in English are formed using the participle forms of the verb: either the present participle, e.g. eating in (8a), or the passive participle, e.g. eaten in (8b). Even though the passive participle looks like the past participle in English, the evidence tells us that reduced relatives can be formed using the passive participle, not the past participle.

(11)  a.  The wolf has eaten grandma.

b. *The wolf eaten grandma is in bed.

In (11a), eaten is a past participle (not a passive participle). If reduced relatives were formed using the past participle and if the noun modified by a reduced relative can only correspond to the subject of the relative clause, we would expect (11b) to be acceptable. However, it isn’t. This, among other things, tells us that it is the passive participle that is used to form this type of reduced relative.

There is a lot more to say, and we haven’t even mentioned all the types of relative clause that English has to offer! But that must wait for later. If I say anymore at present, I fear you might start to envy grandma.

(No grandmas were harmed in the writing of this blogpost… well, one was eaten, but the rest are fine)

Domains within sentences

One idea that has emerged in modern linguistics is that sentences can be divided into different parts or “domains“, each with its own separate function.

At the core of the sentence are the verb and its “participants” – the nouns or pronouns associated with it. This is called the classification domain, where basic properties of the sentence are classified. However, there’s nothing here about information like when the event took place, or even if it happened at all. You might like to think the content of this domain as something more like the logical representation love(Lucy, Chris), meaning (roughly) “an event of loving with participants Lucy and Chris” – the representation says nothing about whether the event takes place in the past, the present, the future or not at all.


Next   we get the anchoring domain where the event is anchored in the world in some way. In English this domain precedes the classification domain and involves things like tense (often shown by auxiliaries like did) and negation (e.g. n’t, not). Subjects also move to occupy a position in this domain.

 Lucy didn’t love Chris

Some languages don’t use time/tense to anchor their sentences in the world, but other things, like location. For example, the Yagua language (spoken in Peru) has a suffix mu which shows that an event look place downriver relative to the place of speaking. So naadarããyããmuyada means “they two danced around downriver”. Interestingly, all languages seem to require anchoring of some sort.

The next domain, which precedes the other two in English, is called the linking domain. This can, for example, contain elements which link the clause to other clauses: e.g. words like that which mark a clause as a subordinate clause (embedded within a larger sentence):

(I believe) that Lucy didn’t love Chris

Question elements like why or what which link the sentence to the wider discourse also come in this domain, and hence occur toward the start of the sentence in English.

I think it’s very interesting that sentences can be divided up into different domains in this way and believe it has the potential to tell us a great deal about how the human mind works.

Adieu to French? That’s no fait accompli.

Jeremy Paxman’s opinion piece in the FT last week, in which he called the French language ‘useless’, has, unsurprisingly, caused something of a furore.

Articles elsewhere covering Paxman’s piece picked up on such quotable lines as:
‘It is time to realise that in many parts of the world, being expected to learn French is positively bad for you’.
‘The outcome of the struggle is clear: English is the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport. To be a citizen of the world it is the one language that you must have.’

Now, when you come to look at the whole piece (unfortunately accessible only via FT subscription),1 most of it focusses on language policy in La Francophonie, the group of countries in which French is spoken, a hangover of its colonial past. Now that’s mostly too political, historical and economic for a linguist in training like me to get my teeth into. But I would like to comment on a couple of parts of Paxman’s argument, to give the view from linguistics.

A temptation to be avoided?

A temptation to be avoided?

Firstly, one of the reasons he gives for stopping the teaching of French in Francophone countries is the dominance – coup de grâce, even – of English. That’s the only useful language to know, being “the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport.” But wait, not so fast, Mr Paxman. Granted, English has more first language and second language speakers than French (300-400 million first language and up to 1bn second language, compared to 80 million and 220 million), and granted that it is widely used, especially in academia. But I wonder whether it would come as a surprise to know that less than half of internet content is in English, or that around 6bn people, over 80% of the world’s population do not speak English at all? If cross-cultural communication is something we care about, then English is not the only language worth knowing.

Secondly, the application for us Brits seems to be ‘don’t bother with French’. Well, okay, Paxman does make it a bit more nuanced than that: “If you are a native English speaker, by all means learn Chinese or Arabic or Spanish. If you must, study French, because it is a beautiful language. But let us have no truck with suggestions that it is much worth learning as a medium of communication.” Thankfully, he’s not advocating not learning any foreign languages (although you might think the paean to the usefulness of English strongly implies it), and, personally, I might well agree that, given a choice, it would be good to have more people learning Mandarin, Urdu, Farsi or Russian (to take a handful currently required by GCHQ), rather than French. But, given the intertwined sociolinguistic history we share with our neighbours, learning French can be a fascinating way into language learning. Learning one foreign language equips you with metalinguistic knowledge and cognitive strategies that help you when learning another, so as long as French remains the only option, sadly, for some at school in UK, it should not be discouraged. Not to mention the many uses it does still have in business and diplomacy (to take one example, the UK is one of the top 6 foreign investors in Morocco, where French is the business language).

The really unfortunate thing about Paxman’s opinion piece – and of course, he is entitled to an opinion – is that it’s full of pithy pull-outable lines that have the potential to cause much more damage out of context, the worst offender being: ‘the real problem with French is that it is a useless language.’ If you’re calling any language useless, you have to ask ‘for what?’ and ‘for whom?’ It may be that some languages are politically or culturally more strategic to learn for different people at different times, but no language, while still alive, is ever useless – for its speakers, however few or many, it is their means of communication, and therefore incredibly useful.

1. COMMENT Voilà – a winner in the battle of global tongues; Opinion
By Jeremy Paxman, 8 April 2016, Financial Times

Topicalization in Chinese: A game of efficiency and compromise

I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant with my friend Lucas in Paris.

Wǒ zhèzhǒng shūcài zuì xǐhuān le (I, this kind of vegetable, like the best)!” I couldn’t help yelling out my excitement on seeing the appetizing hot-pot vegetables on the table.

Wait! What did I say? A soft but firm voice came up in my head. Yes, I had just uttered a somehow “weird” sentence in Mandarin Chinese (my native language). It’s weird because Mandarin is assumed to be an SVO language. That is, the object usually comes after the verb. For example, “I like Julio” in Mandarin is wǒ xǐhuān Julio (I-like-Julio) instead of *wǒ Julio xǐhuān (I-Julio-like) (star=ungrammaticality).

However, after pondering for a while, I decided to accept my weird utterance, because I realized this was one of those “ineffable” situations. There was simply no way to express my excitement and obey the grammatical rules at the same time! Actually (1) is the standard way of saying “I like this kind of vegetable the best” in Mandarin, but I can hardly think of any scenario where I would really use it without sounding too textbook-ish.

(1) Wǒ     zuì      xǐhuān  zhèzhǒng    shūcài          le!

I              most   like       this-kind    vegetable    LE

“I like this kind of vegetable the best!”

So what happened to make poor me utter weird things in a Paris restaurant? Was it because I was too hungry? Not necessarily. Similar sentences are produced by Chinese speakers all the time! For example (ASP=Aspect marker, SFP=Sentence final particle),

(2)   a.  tóu xǐ le ma? (you-head-wash-ASP-SFP; have you washed your hair?)

 b.  Wǒ zuòyè xiěwuán le. (I-homework-finish-ASP; I have finished my homework.)

 c.  Xiǎohóng qiánbāo diū le. (Xiaohong-wallet-lose-ASP; Xiaohong lost her wallet.)

Actually, linguists wouldn’t find such sentences too weird, because what’s involved here is not really SOV ordering, but rather topicalization (=making something the topic of a sentence). So far so good. But what struck me on that hot-pot day was how frequently we actually use topicalization in our daily life. The answer is “a looooooot”! Nowadays it has become a language routine rather than a stylistic alternation.

Yet you may wonder: what’s the price of topicalization? Well, good question! The price is that sometimes we get confused by ourselves! For example, since elementary school I’ve been wondering how to say the following sentence in a nicer way:

(3) Wǒmā      xiǎoshíhòu    zǒngshì      dǎ     wǒ.

my-mom       as a child    always       beat  me

“When I/my mom was a child, my mom/she always beat me.”

My mom always beat me when I was a child! (by Bokai Huang)

My mom always beat me when I was a child! (by Bokai Huang)[1]

Fortunately, this isn’t true for me, but after so many years I still don’t understand why my compatriots would produce sentences like this. Maybe this is another compromise between expressiveness and grammaticality (in a loose sense), as all the clearer and unambiguous versions of (3) simply sound equally bad (if not worse), as in (4).

(4)   a.  ?Xiǎoshíhòu wǒmā zǒngshì dǎ wǒ. (as a child-my mom-always-beat-me)

b.  ?Wǒ xiǎoshíhòu wǒmā zǒngshì dǎ wǒ. (I-as a child-my mom-always-beat-me)

So why is it so difficult to say what we mean? Because (3) not only involves topicalization (this time it is the subject that gets topicalized), but also has an embedded null subject (Oops, Chinese is one of those radical pro-drop languages, where things like subject and object can be happily and wildly omitted). The problematic chunk xiǎoshíhòu is actually part of a phrase (dāng/zài) XX xiǎoshíhòu “(when) XX was a child”, e.g.

(5) a. Míngyuè xiǎoshíhòu xǐhuān hē chá.

“When Mingyue was a child, she liked drinking tea.”

 b. Qíng’er xiǎoshíhòu yǎng guò yìzhī xiǎogǒu.

“When Qing’er was a child, she had a pet puppy.”

 c. Liánlian xiǎoshíhòu zǒngshì kǎo yìbǎi fēn.

“When Lianlian was a child, she always got 100 marks.”

So, (3) can have either (6a) or (6b) as its underlying structure (parentheses=being dropped or deleted).

(6)   a.  [Topic wǒmā   [A (zài wǒ) xiǎoshíhòu    [B zǒngshì    [vP (wǒmā)   dǎ wǒ ]]]]

my mom                          when I  as a child       always         my mom     beat me

“My mom, when I was a child, always beat me.”

b.  [A wǒmā      xiǎoshíhòu [B zǒngshì  [vP (wǒmā)        dǎ wǒ ]]]

my mom            as a child        always       my mom      beat me

“When my mom was a child, she always beat me.”

(Technical details like displacement are omitted. Simply treat A/B as two chunks adjoined to the verbal core vP “(my mom) beat me”, which assumes the basic word order SVO.)

Of course, (6b) is against most people’s real-world knowledge, because when “my mom” was a child, “I” probably didn’t exist at all! But we’re living in a curious world, and one of the most fascinating characteristics of natural languages is precisely their capacity of expressing even the least possible things. Therefore, although (6b) is pragmatically marked, it’s grammatically well-formed.

So, with all the imperfections of topicalization (as in my sudden enlightenment in the hot-pot restaurant and the imaginary world where poor kids are abused by their child-moms), why do we still love it so much?

Well, like I said, it’s a compromise between expressiveness and grammaticality (still in a loose sense). In real-life communication, language first and foremost serves to express meanings and emotions. So, who wins in such a game of efficiency and compromise? Mostly expressiveness, especially in colloquial language. This is also one of the biggest differences between colloquial language and “ideal” (or less ideally, written/textbook) language. For example, in the latter register, (3) may well be yielded in a much nicer way as (7).

(7)   Zài   wǒ   xiǎodeshíhòu,  māma  zǒngshì  bùfēn qīnghóngzàobái de   dǎ      wǒ.

when       I      as a child         mom    always   indiscriminately                beat   me

“When I was a child, my mom always beat me without clear reasons.”

(7) is not only nicer from a grammatical perspective, but also more natural on a narrative level. However, real life isn’t story-telling, and speaking like (7) all the time can be hard work (probably not for literature lovers). Hearing such sentences constantly can also be exhausting— they’re simply not proper for the colloquial register.

Abstracting away from the register issue, a more technical problem facing linguists is what forms part of the ideal language (I-language) and what reflects real-life compromises. The former aspects are significant in revealing the essence of our language instinct, while the latter aren’t of as much evidence to this end. In linguistics jargon, this is a question of Competence vs. Performance. But as we have seen, the boundary between the two is often blurred in the data we have access to (it’s a pity we can’t directly see through speakers’ minds).

Last but not least, the vegetable I was excited about in the hot-pot restaurant was “needle mushroom” (jīnzhēngū)! It’s the best, especially with beef!

Needle mushroom with beef (Jīn Zhēn Gū Féi Niú) (source:

Needle mushroom with beef (Jīn Zhēn Gū Féi Niú)[2]

Picture sources:



So what is it you do?

“So what is your PhD about?”

A pause in the conversation, a heavy silence, and eager anticipation of an easy-to-grasp answer.

“Discourse-configurationality in Finnish and Japanese and its repercussions to the Minimalist architecture of syntax. Y’know.”

The exact formulation of my research topic is not exactly conducive to small talk. More often than not, it makes the conversation engine cough and jerk, finally coming to a halt at levels of iciness comparable to the initial interaction between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

Talking about my research - as icy as Mr Darcy. norika21.

Talking about my research – as icy as Mr Darcy. norika21.

To avoid the premature death of all small talk – and to boost my cool and hip student factor – I have discovered that the way to go is to keep things nice, simple, and very much digestable to the uninitiated. Let’s try again.

“Well, I look at look Finnish and Japanese.”

“Oh that’s a very interesting choice of languages. How did you come up with that?”

Well, let me tell you.

Finnish and Japanese are very much historically unrelated, but they both show some curious phenomena, among them relatively free word order. In Japanese, the verb must come last in the sentence but otherwise constituents are basically free in their ordering; Finnish is somewhat more constrained but words can still be moved around much more freely than, say, in English. To illustrate, in English The dog ate the cat and The cat ate the dog mean very different things. In Japanese, however, changing the order of the subject and the object preserves the state of affairs:

Neko-wa inu-o tabemashita.
cat-top dog-acc ate
“The cat ate the dog.”

Inu-o neko-wa tabemashita.
dog-acc cat-top ate
“The cat ate the dog.”

(-wa is a topic marker that marks the phrase the sentence is about; -o is an accusative marker marking the object. Similar grammatical functions will come up in the other examples as well; all you need to know is that having these is part of the reason why the sentences above can have the same basic meaning even when the word order changes.) And the same holds in Finnish:

Kissa söi koira-n.
cat ate dog-acc
“The cat ate the dog”

Koira-n söi kissa.
dog-acc ate cat
“The cat ate the dog.”

Prepare to eat! Or to be eaten..? A_Peach.

Prepare to eat! Or to be eaten..? A_Peach.

“Ah okay… So what exactly are you doing with this?”

A bit of theoretical machinery first. In syntactic theory, there is a notion of movement. Think of a wh-question in English (these are questions formed with so-called wh-words such as who, which, where, how (I know, I know, no wh in the spelling there), and so on):

What did Easter Bunny hide?

The question word what serves more than one function here: on the one hand, in the sentence-initial position it alerts the listener to the fact that the sentence to follow is a question, and on the other, it is the object of hide. To capture this, it is assumed that what in fact starts off in a position after hide, so that at some level of representation, the sentence looks like

Easter Bunny hid what.

Interestingly, this is exactly what you hear in echo questions:

A: Easter Bunny hid bottles of liqueur.

B: Easter Bunny hid what?!?

To cut many theoretical corners, the idea is that what moves up in the structure to where we hear it, but it is also represented silently at its original position. What makes it move is assumed to be a feature higher up in the sentence: in this case, a so-called wh-feature, which, if checked by moving a wh-word to it, makes the sentence a question.

Easter Bunny is WHO?!? Eric Mueller.

Easter Bunny is WHO?!? Eric Mueller.

“Okay… So what about Finnish and Japanese?”

I said that there is a wh-feature that triggers the movement of the wh-phrase in English. But, as in life, nothing is ever nice and simple in linguistics either. Some linguists argue that purely pragmatic notions (basically things that don’t affect the truth of a statement) can’t have corresponding formal features in the syntax. Now, whether something is a question or not is obviously not only a matter of pragmatics, so having wh-features is not a problem. However, in Finnish you seem to be able to move phrases much like wh-phrases in English but for purposes of contrast. To illustrate:

Sofia nai prinsessa-n.
Sofia married princess-acc
“Sofia married a princess.”

Prinsessan Sofia nai.
princess-acc Sofia married
“It was a prince Sofia married (and not a prince).”

The latter utterance has a contrastive reading unlike the former, but this difference is difficult to pin down in non-pragmatic terms. The question that has to be asked, then, is whether this movement is in fact different from that in the case of wh-phrases, and if not, whether postulating a feature for contrast is necessary.

A case of contrast: marrying a princess, NOT a prince! Ross Hawkes.

A case of contrast: marrying a princess, NOT a prince! Ross Hawkes.

“I think I just about get this… Is Japanese the same then?”

I wish. Japanese offers different sort of complication to linguistic theory. It is often assumed that movement doesn’t just happen without a reason: it has to have some sort of interpretive effect, semantic or pragmatic. Japanese has a phenomenon called scrambling (fancy, I know), where nearly any phrase can be moved nearly anywhere in the sentence, or even out of it. Have a look at these examples:

Zen’in-ga sensei-ga syukudai-o dasu to omowanakatta (yo)
all-nom teacher-nom homework-acc assign that think part
“All did not think that the teacher would assign homework.”

Syukudai-o zen’in-ga sensei-ga dasu to omowanakatta (yo)
homework-acc all-nom teacher-nom assign that think part
“Homework, all did not think that the teacher would assign.”

The object syukudaio ‘homework’ starts off in the that-clause, as in the first example, and ends up in the main clause, as in the second one. In cases like this where the moved phrase crosses a clause boundary, it’s argued that there is no difference in meaning. So, what has to be done is to try to tease apart even slight differences in interpretation. If any appear, the questions will be much the same as with Finnish contrast; if not – well, that’ll be a more complicated story of reassessing our theoretical assumptions.

“Gosh, I never thought you could achieve so much by looking at such distant languages, and that linguists are such cool people!”

Language change as waves, contagions and hierarchies

In historical linguistics, we pay a lot of attention to the mechanisms of language change in terms of languages as systems. We try to explain how a change may first have arisen by looking at other facts about that language. For example, we might explain the change in the language of many English speakers whereby ‘th’ is pronounced like ‘f’ (saying ‘fink’ for ‘think’, etc.) by pointing out that these two sounds are acoustically similar and that this may have led to them being confused by children learning the language. I wrote about this sort of explanation in a previous blog post.

But there’s a second layer of explanation to be done. The very idea of ‘languages as systems’ is an abstraction. There’s no such thing as ‘English’, a single entity: instead, each speaker with some level of English proficiency (perhaps 840,000,000 people according to Wikipedia) produces language which has a lot in common but some differences. So for English as a whole to change—or just the English of the UK, or the English of New York, or even the English of a single village—the newly minted pronunciation (or word, or phrase, or piece of grammar) has to spread from the first person who produced it to other people.

In historical linguistics and in sociolinguistics we distinguish two different flavours of this process of spread: ‘transmission’, where the new form is learnt by young children as they acquire the language for the first time, and ‘diffusion’, where the new form is passed among adults.

Early stages of a change spreading by contagious diffusion/wave model

Early stages of a change spreading by contagious diffusion/wave model

Late stages of a change spreading by contagious diffiusion/wave model

Late stages of a change spreading by contagious diffiusion/wave model

Our ideas about how diffusion works have traditionally been based on historical dialect studies. Huge survey-style dialectology projects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created maps of differences in traditional dialects, especially in German- and English-speaking Europe. These showed that new forms appeared to have spread continuously outwards in patterns that resembled the ripples produced by a stone dropped into water. A recent new form would be found in a single, connected area. An older form might have spread everywhere except for a few small regions which stood out as conservative islands. This idea of change spreading outwards continuously is sometimes described as the ‘wave’ model.

However, later in the twentieth century, studies of ongoing changes which were still diffusing actively through the population found a different pattern. Here it was found that, instead of spreading continuously across the map, changes tended to start in the largest city in a region and then proceed to ‘jump’ from city to city without ever being found in the intervening countryside. Having spread to progressively smaller cities, the change would then start to spread out from these to the surrounding rural areas. This observation led to a revised suggestion that there were two possible patterns of diffusion: the ‘contagious diffusion’ observed in historical studies, where a change spread continuously across space, and ‘hierarchical diffusion’, where the change spread down a ‘hierarchy’ of increasingly smaller settlements.

Early stages of a change spreading by hierarchical diffusion

Early stages of a change spreading by hierarchical diffusion

Later stages of a change spreading by hierarchical diffusion

Later stages of a change spreading by hierarchical diffusion

Finally, in much more recent research, a third, rarer pattern has been identified. Changes can apparently sometimes first spread throughout a rural region, then into smaller towns, and only then finally into cities. This pattern, the mirror image of hierarchical diffusion, has been labelled ‘contra-hierarchical diffusion’.

So why do different changes diffuse in different ways? Perhaps we need another reminder not to think exclusively in terms of big abstractions. I’ve written here about changes being found in particular locations and about changes spreading across space. But language doesn’t actually exist in physical space. Really what we’re talking about is not changes spreading to particular places, but changes spreading to the language of people who live in particular places.

Changes can clearly only spread between people when those people talk to one another. So when changes spread continuously across space, that must reflect that people are more likely to know and talk to people who live near to them. Really, what we’re seeing is that changes spread continuously through social networks—and those social networks, for very obvious practical reasons, mostly reflect the physical reality of where people live and work.

Once we remember this, hierarchical diffusion also becomes easy to explain. If we compare the modern era to any historical period we find very different patterns of population movement and communication. With public transport and cars people habitually travel much further to work and study. They also relocate more often and move much greater distances when they do. With these factors and electronic communications, they keep in more regular touch with people living far further away than ever before. And cities are crucially important to all these processes: people commute in and out of cities much more than between rural areas and they are more likely to migrate to cities for work. All this means that people’s social networks have much less to do with the geography of continuous space than ever before. Most people are communicating regularly with people who live much, much further away from us than our ancestors ever did—and such long-distance contacts particularly connect cities.

Given all that, we really shouldn’t be surprised to find that changes tend to spread first between cities and only later to the surrounding countryside. In fact, this isn’t a different process to that of contagious diffusion at all! Both are really just the process of changes spreading through people’s social networks.

So what about contra-hierarchical diffusion? This is a little harder to explain. The best explanation here is probably to do with the social meaning that speakers ascribe to changes. In regions where there is significant inward migration especially into urban areas, local speakers may actively participate in championing distinctively local ways of speaking in order to differentiate themselves from newcomers. As cities have historically been involved in hierarchical diffusion process, it is rural regions that are most likely to still preserve distinctively local forms. As a result, a drive to speak in a more local way (and thus express that one is a ‘real’ local person and not an outsider) will tend to cause rural forms to spread to urban areas.