The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 2/24 - Lotte Hendricks

Speaker: Lotte Hendricks (Meertens Instituut)
Title: Knowledge of verb clusters
Date/Time:Tuesday, Febrary 24, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Speakers are able to judge syntactic constructions that are not part of their own language variety. When they are asked to rank a number of variants of such a construction on a scale, this ranking turns out to be parallel to the geographic frequency distribution of these variants. We consider three possible explanations for this striking fact, based on (i) processing, (ii) familiarity and (iii) the syntactic system. We argue that only the third option can explain the behavior of the speakers.

We discuss two aspects of verb clusters that exhibit variation in the Dutch dialects: the order of the verbs in the cluster and interruption of the verb cluster by non-verbal material.

There is much variation in the order of the verbs in the cluster in (1); (cf. Barbiers 2005; SAND Volume II, Barbiers et al. 2008). While all varieties of Dutch have verb cluster constructions, we find a clear geographic distribution of different orderings across the language area, with differences in frequency of occurrence.

Verb cluster interruption shows a lot of geographical variation too, here with respect to the type of constituent that can interrupt the cluster, varying from particles (moet op-bellen ‘must up-call’) to various types of arguments (moet een schuur bouwen ‘must a barn built’) and adverbs (moet vroeg opstaan ‘must early rise’) (cf. SAND Volume II). Two factors turn out to be relevant, the complexity of the interrupting constituent and the position in the syntactic hierarchy (in the sense of Cinque 1999) where this element is base-generated (Hendriks 2014).

The clear geographic distribution of the various variants of these two constructions makes it possible to investigate if speakers have intuitions on variants that occur in language varieties different from their own.

We find a high degree of correspondence between the speakers’ rankings and the number of locations in the Dutch language area that have a particular construction. (i) verb cluster orders that are more frequent amongst the varieties of Dutch are ranked higher and (ii) speakers in areas where verb cluster interruptions are only used sporadically and with many restrictions, nevertheless have intuitions that correspond to the observed syntactic patterns in the Flemish varieties of Dutch.

We demonstrate that processing preferences and familiarity with the phenomenon cannot account for the observed correspondence between speakers’ intuitions of a construction and that constructions’ geographic distribution. Potentially, the intuitions follow from properties of the grammatical system.