The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 11/21 - Christopher Legerme (MIT)

Speaker: Christopher Legerme (MIT)
Title: Pronominal Copulas and Defective T(ense) in Haitian Creole
Time: Tuesday, November 21st, 1pm – 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Hi, I will be presenting some of my ongoing work on the morphosyntax of copular clauses in Haitian Creole (HC), focusing on the puzzling distribution the word se (glosses ranging from “FOC”, “COP”, or “SE”), which behaves like a pronominal copula though has resisted a unifying account of its multifunctional properties and sparked much debate among linguists on a range of syntactic, morphological, and semantic issues (DeGraff 1992, 1995, Kihm 1993, 2018, Déprez & Vinet 1997, Déprez 2003). The gist of the puzzle is as follows: 

Puzzle 1: Why does se occur adjacent negation or tense/aspect “markers” such as te “PST” (let’s call them N(eg)T(esne)A(aspect) auxiliaries, cf. DeGraff 1992: 29-36) in some contexts but not others? For example, exclusively se can be used for the present-tense matrix copular clause (1a), and it cannot surface with NTA auxiliaries such as te (nor with non-property-denoting lexical predicates). Notwithstanding, in se-clefts (“it-clefts”) se appears to be in the position where we expect the subject (before the NTA auxiliary).

(1) a. Saika *(se) yon doktè 

         Saika SE     a     doctor 

         Saika is a doctor

b.  Saika  (*se) te         (*se)    yon doktè 

     Saika     SE  PAST       SE  a      doctor 

     Saika was a doctor 

c. Se   te     medikaman mwen (ke)  Saika (te)   preskri 

    SE  PST medicine      my       that Saika PST prescribe 

    It was my medicine that Saika prescribed 

Puzzle 2: While se is generally obligatory before DPs (1a), why isn’t this so for clauses with wh-moved DP subjects, especially when the subject is a wh-word (DeGraff 1992: 122-123; Déprez & Vinet 1997: 221)? 

(2) a. Se Saikai    ki          t(se)   yon   doktè 

          SE  Saika  COMP       SE   a       doctor 

          It is Saika who is a doctor 

        b.  kimoun    ki           (??se)  yon doktè? 

              who        COMP       SE   a     doctor

              Who is a doctor?

Se has been analyzed as an A-bound resumptive pronoun (DeGraff 1992), the head of PREDP/vP/ASPP (Déprez 2003), and an allomorph of a lexical verb meaning “BE” (Kihm 2018). It is likely that se is somewhere along a developmental cline from (demonstrative) pronoun to copula, which is a well-documented phenomenon crosslinguistically (Van Gelderen 2011; see Déprez 2003: 153 for the relevant HC facts). I will explore the possibility that se is base generated in a position canonically above NTA auxiliaries but below the subject DP (basically, T). se-clefts like (1b) must have an expletive subject. Meanwhile, TPs headed by se have EPP or unvalued nominal features that agree with the matrix subject in Spec,TP when possible (Jurczyk 2021). On the other hand, CPs headed by ki must have identical features with those on T which in (2b) would be EPP, uφ, and uwh. The complementizer ki surfaces because the wh-subject has fully agreed with both T and C (Takahashi & Gračanin-Yuksek 2008). This might explain why the use of se in (2b) is especially awkward for speakers. In fact, I propose that form se strongly prefers to surface when it is able to fully agree with its subject. Partial agreement with the subject leads to a null spellout of T, similarly to the ki/ke alternation of C (Takahashi & Gračanin-Yuksek 2008). The co-occurrence of se with NTA auxiliaries, lexical predicates, or any combinations thereof is ruled out for similar reasons as when it would occur adjacent ki. se can only partially agree with the subject (if at all) when an (uφ-bearing) NTA auxiliary is generated.
The distribution of se in HC shows some striking similarities with pronominal copulas in other languages such as Polish to ”to be” (Citko 2008, Bondaruk 2019,  Jurczyk 2021) which have also been shown to be a particular instance of T with unvalued nominal features. Where to and se differ, however (e.g., the demonstrative meaning and the availability of double copula constructions with Polish to) will better inform how we should treat se. Along with crosslinguistic data on pronominal copulas, I’ll consider evidence from embedded and specificational copular constructions to evaluate previous analyses characterizing se as either a verb or pronoun, preferring instead to treat it as a functional head with nominal properties along the inflectional cline of HC.