The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 5/8 - Carolyn Spadine (MIT)

Speaker: Carolyn Spadine (MIT)
Title: Evaluating Syntactic Approaches to Interrogative Flip: Test cases from English and Malayalam
Date and time: Tuesday May 8, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

“Interrogative flip” describes a phenomena in which elements that appear to orient to the speaker in a declarative utterance shift perspective and orient to the addressee in an interrogative context — evidentials, perspective-sensitive anaphora, modals, adverbs, predicates of personal taste, and others have been reported to show this behavior. In proposing a mechanism for encoding discourse-pragmatic information in syntax, interrogative flip is one of the core phenomena that Tenny and Speas 2003 intend to address, and the same problem has been subsequently taken up in Woods 2014, Zu 2018, and many others.

This talk presents preliminary work on two constructions that display interrogative flip, and examines the ways in which existing syntactic approaches to modeling interrogative flip account for or fail to account for this data. The first is discourse participant-oriented modifiers in English, as in (1):

1. a. [As a film critic], this movie deserves an Oscar.
b. [As a film critic], does this movie deserve an Oscar?

In (1a), the preferred and perhaps only interpretation of the bracketed constituent is that the speaker is a film critic, whereas in (1b), English speakers report both speaker- and addressee-oriented interpretations for the same constituent. A similar but more constrained pattern emerges for embedded instances of these modifiers, posing a challenge for some proposals. The second comes from a reportative evidential marker ennu (glossed as REP) in Malayalam (2a), which can either scope under or over the question particle, yielding two different interpretations — either a question about a report heard by the addressee (2b), or a declarative report of a question overhead by the speaker (2c).

2. a. prime minister varunnu ennu
prime minister come.PROG REP
“I heard that the Prime Minister is coming”
b. prime minister varunnu enn-oo?
prime minister come.PROG REP-Q
“Did you hear if the Prime Minister is coming?”
c. prime minister varunn-oo ennu
prime minister come.PROG-Q REP
“I heard someone ask if the Prime Minister is coming”

In both cases, I suggest the data supports the general pattern that existing proposals intend to account for, but also raise concerns about the specific structures proposed to implement them.