Tag Archives: syntactic alignment

A Question of Alignment II: ‘Trigger Languages’

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.

All articles in this series: Typological Considerations · ‘Trigger Languages’ · Definition of Terms · Some General Observations · Verb agreement · Syntactic Pivot · Quantifier Float · Relativization · Control of Secondary Predicates · Raising · Control · Conclusion


The notorious term ‘trigger language’ comes up in discussions on Conlang-L as early as 1995, where it may well have originated as an established term in the fictional-language community for what will be described below in brief. That is, I have not been able to find any earlier mentions of the term ‘trigger’ as referring to an alignment system in the archives; other mainstays of the fictional-language community, such as the ZBB, were established only about a decade later. In a message dated December 16, 1995, John Cowan writes that he wants “to propose a reform of Radilu, to make it use the Tagalog concept of a trigger” (Cowan 1995). By his definition, this entails that

each clause contains one noun phrase which is not marked for case, but rather has a distinct marking called the “trigger marker”. […] The verb carries a marking (which of course looks nothing like the noun case markers) that tells the true case of the trigger. […] This involves changing the name of “nominative” and “accusative” to “actor” and “patent” [sic], since there is no longer a “subject” or “object” as such. Of course, word order is free (Cowan 1995)

He also notes that “Usually the trigger is definite (Tagalog doesn’t have articles)” (Cowan 1995). Essentially, it seems that the motivation for Cowan’s system is that the ‘trigger’ indicates that a certain NP is definite. As we will see further on, this is similar to how Tagalog marks one of its relations on the verb, with that relation being definite. Things are more complicated in reality, though. Especially the claim that Tagalog lacks subjects and objects is problematic. However, the term ‘trigger’ seems to have currency in that, for instance, Schachter (2015) chooses it explicitly to refer to the “non-case-marked argument” (1659). In a parenthetical remark he adds that some

previous treatments have referred to the argument in question as the topic and some as the subject. However, as will become clear below, each of these labels appears to carry some inappropriate connotation, making a netural term like Trigger seem preferable […] There also seems to be good reason to reject the term focus. (Schachter 2015: 1659)

It may be noted that term ‘focus’ is used in Schachter and Otanes (1972), the main reference grammar of Tagalog. What is interesting in comparing Schachter (2015)’s and Kroeger (1991)’s respective analyses of Tagalog’s syntactic alignment is that both make the same observation in spite of coming to opposite conclusions: Tagalog is ambiguous as to whether the subject notion is vested in the NP whose role is marked on the verb or the actor, since certain syntactic constructions typically associated with subjects apply to either or both. While this ambiguity leads Schachter (1976, 2015) to ultimately conclude that Tagalog lacks a single unified relation which can be analyzed as a syntactic subject,1 Kroeger (1991) reaches the opposite conclusion by performing further tests and taking a functionalist rather than purely structuralist perspective. Thus, he concludes:

  • “Tagalog has a well-defined grammatical subject” (225). What Schachter (1976) lists as evidence against are special cases which can be explained by the high semantic and pragmatic prominence of actors more generally (Kroeger 1991: 225). Tagalog basically applies the the notion of a logical subject distinct from the syntactic subject to some constructions, though the syntactic subject is more important overall (36).
  • “grammatical relations are defined independently of phrase structure” (225);2
  • “patients can become subjects even when the agent is expressed as a direct (non-oblique) argument of the verb” (225).
  • “Subject selection in Tagalog does not work by demotion or suppression of thematically more prominent arguments. Rather, all arguments seem to be equally eligible for mapping onto the subject relation” (226).

Kroeger (1991) also provides evidence based on statistics and examples that the marked-for relation, which he classifies as being in the nominative case according to his hypothesis that it is the syntactic subject, is neither especially salient in terms of pragmatic topichood, nor does it show signs of carrying pragmatic focus specifically. He finds that rather, nominative marking works independent of discourse functions (56 ff.). All things considered, the term ‘trigger language’ is probably ill-fitting, not just for Ayeri.

The tests for typical properties associated with grammatical subjects which Kroeger (1991) performs partially extend those presented in Schachter (1976). Moreover, his conclusions build on a more modern, functionally oriented approach than Schachter’s. For this reason, I will follow Kroeger rather than Schachter. Either way, in order to compare what is going on in Ayeri, we will have to test verb agreement, syntactic pivot, relativization, control of secondary predicates, raising, and control.3 First of all, it will be helpful, however, to define some terms which will be used in the discussion further on.

  1. Cowan (1995)’s sketch may be based on Schachter (1976). Curiously, Schachter (2015) does not acknowledge Kroeger (1991) at all, nor does he refer to any other research more recent than 1985. The reason may be that Schachter retired in the early 1990s, as the UCLA linguistics department’s Department history suggests. It may also be noted that Schachter (2015) was apparently published posthumously.
  2. This point especially may be a problem for generative theories of syntax.
  3. The tests which Kroeger (1991) dismisses as irrelevant to determining subjecthood in Tagalog have been omitted here if they were also not profitable to answering this question for Ayeri. The same goes for a number of tests which are specific to the grammar of Tagalog and thus have no application in Ayeri.

A Question of Alignment I: Typological Considerations

In this series of blog articles—taken (more or less) straight from the current working draft of chapter 5.4 of the new grammar for better visibility and as a direct update of an old article (“Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment”, 2012-06-27)—I will finally reconsider the way verbs operate with regards to syntactic alignment.

All articles in this series: Typological Considerations · ‘Trigger Languages’ · Definition of Terms · Some General Observations · Verb agreement · Syntactic Pivot · Quantifier Float · Relativization · Control of Secondary Predicates · Raising · Control · Conclusion


Verbs govern the relations of the various phrase types to each other and they are thus central to the formation of clauses. Just from looking at the numerous examples given both on this website and in the grammar, it should be clear that Ayeri’s preferred word order is verb-first, which opens up a few typological questions—first and foremost, whether Ayeri actually has a verb phrase, or in terms of generative grammar: whether it is configurational in this regard. Ayeri definitely has a constituent structure as far as NPs, APs, PPs, etc. are concerned. However, due to VSO word order, it is not obvious whether verb and object actually form a VP constituent together, since V and O are not adjacent to each other. Since Ayeri marks topics in terms of morphology, it will also be necessary to discuss how this mechanism works and how it relates to the notion of the subject.

A discussion of subject, topic, and configurationality is interesting also in that Ayeri’s syntactic alignment was originally inspired by the Austronesian or Philippine alignment system, though then under the term ‘trigger language’ which is itself not unproblematic. Tagalog, an Austronesian language of the Malayo-Polynesian branch, spoken mainly in the Philippines (Hammarström et al. 2017: Tagalog; Schachter and Otanes 1972), usually serves as the academic poster child in descriptions of Austronesian alignment. Ayeri departs from Tagalog’s system in a number of ways, though, and probably towards the more conventional. Austronesian alignment is not necessarily the best model to liken Ayeri’s syntax to. It will nonetheless be informative to compare both systems based on the work of Kroeger (1991, 1993), who provides an analysis of Tagalog’s syntactic alignment roughly in terms of the LFG framework and describes some heuristics which may be helpful in establishing what is actually going on in Ayeri. As mentioned in a previous blog article (“Happy 10th Anniversary, Ayeri”, 2013-12-01), I started Ayeri in late 2003—then still in high school and not knowing much about linguistics. Of course, I had to go and pick as a model the one alignment system which has long been “a notorious problem for both descriptive grammarians and theoretical syntacticians” to the point where it “sometimes seems as if Austronesian specialists can talk (and write) of nothing else” (Kroeger 2007: 41).

As mentioned above, Ayeri’s unmarked word order gives the verb first, and then, in decreasing order of bondedness to the verb, the phrases which make up the verb’s arguments: subject (agent), direct object (patient), indirect object (dative), followed by adverbials in the genitive, locative, instrumental, and causative case. Ayeri’s basic word order is thus VSO, a trait it has in common with about 7 % of the world’s natural languages according to Dryer (2013). Regarding word order typology, we can declare the generalization in (1), which is consistent also with word order in other areas of the language, where the head precedes the modifier. The head is here represented by the verb, the modifier by the object—like English, Ayeri is a VO language, thus. In addition to this, however, Ayeri regularly puts the verb as the head of the clause itself first.

    1. Order of subject, object and verb: VSO
    2. Order of verb and object: VO

It is commonly assumed that languages have a subject which occupies a certain position in the constituent structure which commands a constituent jointly formed by the verb and its dependents—the predicate. An SVO sentence in English thus very generally looks like in (2) (compare the examples in Bresnan et al. 2016: 101–111).

However, Ayeri is a VSO language, so the question arises how the basic constituent structure should be diagrammed in tree form, since V and O are not adjacent. As an initial hypothesis one might assume that they cannot form a unit together, since S somehow stands in between the constituents it is supposed to command. A very first stab at diagramming would probably be to come up with a flat, non-configurational structure, all but lacking a VP, as shown in (3).

  1. ?

Such a structure, though, does not do Ayeri justice in that, for instance, right-node-raising of a subject and object NP together is possible, so there is evidence that they form a constituent subordinate to the verb. NP–XP constructions where XP is not a maximal projection of a verb also exist in isolation, so NP and XP are probably contained in a small-clause constituent S separate from the verb. The verb in the initial position furthermore shows inflection, so one might rather construe it as an I⁰, projecting an IP, which frees up VP for other purposes while we can use IP to govern both Iʹ and S. In fact, such a structure is basically the conclusion Chung and McCloskey (1987) come to for Irish, which is also a VSO language (4a). Bresnan et al. (2016) give the chart in (4b) for Welsh, equally a VSO language (also compare Dalrymple 2001: 66, sourcing Sadler 1997). Kroeger (1991) suggests the two structures depicted in (4c) for Tagalog, based on the suggested constituent structure for Celtic languages.

    1. Irish (Chung and McCloskey 1987: 235):

    2. Welsh (adapted from Bresnan et al. 2016: 134):

    3. Tagalog (Kroeger 1991: 131):

What all of these c-structures have in common is that the inflected verb appears in I⁰, which is a sister of S. S, in turn, is a small clause containing the arguments of the verb. In the cases of Irish and Welsh, however, there is a VP sister of the subject NP which itself does not have a head, but contains the object NP as a complement. In the case of Tagalog, S is non-configurational, that is, while XP may contain a non-finite verb, the subject and object NPs are on equal footing.

Bresnan et al. (2016: 129–138) inform that the phenomenon of the verb ending up in a different head position (V⁰ apparently moves to I⁰) in (4b) is commonly known as ‘head movement’, except that LFG is built specifically without any movement. Since LFG is based on the assumption that all nodes in a syntactic structure are base-generated, that is, that there are no transformational rules generating the surface structure from a deeper layer of representation underneath it, there cannot be a trace of V left behind in VP. LFG avoids empty categories, as there is no information contained in an empty node. The functional information provided by the verb is not lost, however, it is merely now provided by the verb in I⁰. Essentially, the Welsh example does not violate endocentricity, since the finite verb in I⁰ still forms the verbal head in the functional structure representation of the clause. With regards to constituent structure, V⁰, if present, c-commands its NP sister; both V⁰ and NP are dominated by VP:

    1. Exhaustive domination (Carnie 2013: 121):

      “Node A exhaustively dominates a set of terminal nodes {B, C, …, D}, provided it dominates all the members of the set so that there is no member of the set that is not dominated by A and there is no terminal node G dominated by A that is not a member of the set.”

    2. C-command (Carnie 2013: 127):

      “Node A c-commands node B if every node dominating A also dominates B, and neither A nor B dominates the other.”

The AVM in (4b) shows that the contents normally found in V⁰ are provided by the head of its equivalent functional category, I⁰. I⁰ and VP are said to map into the same f-structure (Bresnan et al. 2016: 136). Endocentricity still holds in that IP dominates all nodes below it, thus also I⁰ and the object NP. In addition, I⁰ c-commands its sister node and all of its children, hence also the object NP. As Bresnan et al. (2016) put it: “X is an extended head of Y if X is the Xʹ categorial head of Y […], or if Y lacks a categorial head but X is the closest element higher up in the tree that functions like the f-structure head of Y” (136). For our example, replace X with I⁰ and Y with VP in the second half of the quote: I⁰ is the closest element higher up in the tree that functions like the f-structure head of VP, which itself lacks a categorial head.

The analysis of the sentence structure of Celtic languages shows that VSO languages do not automatically need to be considered ‘non-configurational’ and lacking a VP if the notion of extended heads is accepted. In any case, tests need to be performed to see whether one of the analyses presented in (4) holds true for Ayeri as well. However, this will not be in the scope of this series of blog articles.

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Carnie, Andrew. Syntax: A Generative Introduction. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013. Print. Introducing Linguistics 4.
  • Chung, Sandra, and James McCloskey. “Government, Barriers, and Small Clauses in Modern Irish.” Linguistic Inquiry 18.2 (1987): 173–237. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹http://www.jstor.org/stable/4178536›.
  • Dalrymple, Mary. Lexical Functional Grammar. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. Print. Syntax and Semantics 34.
  • Dryer, Matthew S. “Order of Subject, Object and Verb.” The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Eds. Matthew S. Dryer and Martin Haspelmath. 2013. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹http://wals.info/chapter/81›.
  • Hammarström, Harald et al., eds. “Language: Tagalog.” Glottolog. Version 3.0. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹http://glottolog.org/resource/languoid/id/taga1270›.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹http://www.gial.edu/wp-content/uploads/paul_kroeger/PK-thesis-revised-all-chapters-readonly.pdf›.
  • ———. “Another Look at Subjecthood in Tagalog.” Pre-publication draft. Philippine Journal of Linguistics 24.2 (1993): 1–16. Web. ‹http://www.gial.edu/documents/Kroeger-Subj-PJL.pdf
  • ———. “McKaughan’s Analysis of Philippine Voice.” Piakandatu ami Dr. Howard P. McKaughan, 41–. Eds. Loren Billings and Nelleke Goudswaard. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines and SIL Philippines, 2007. Print.
  • Sadler, Louisa. “Clitics and the Structure-Function Mapping.” Proceedings of the LFG ’97 Conference, University of California, San Diego, CA. Eds. Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/LFG/2/lfg97sadler.pdf›.
  • Schachter, Paul and Fe T. Otanes. 1972. Tagalog Reference Grammar. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. Google Books. Google, 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. ‹http://books.google.com/books?id=E8tApLUNy94C›.

Update on the Grammar Writing Process IV

Grammar writing has gone slowly again for the past couple of weeks, which is mostly due to reading up on things. I have now arrived at discussing verbs, which are the most complex part of speech since they are at the head of clauses—not just structurally, but also functionally. Important questions right now are:

  • What evidence is there for a constituent S which holds all the verb’s arguments besides the fact that verbless clauses exist complete with predication?
  • Is there a VP in hiding? This requires performing tests on constituency as well (there is a way to say does so as well, so there should be a VP even if the verb word itself is the head of the superordinate IP).

This is to say, I assume that Ayeri’s basic sentence structure looks essentially like this:

The sentence 'Ang konja Yan pahiley' ('Yan eats a cookie') charted in terms of LFG

And then, there are some further questions which I’d like to answer:

  • Austronesian alignment gave the impetus for Ayeri’s strategy of marking one certain NP on the verb, however, after reading Kroeger (1991) it became clear to me that there are strong differences between the real thing and what I have. This is mostly due to not consistently following the original model but falling back on structures familiar from German and English. Thus: what is a so-called ‘trigger conlang’ of which Ayeri is supposedly a prominent example,1 and how is Ayeri actually positioned in this regard?
  • In consequence, how does Ayeri deal with more complex sentence structures, for instance, involving raising and control, as opposed to what Kroeger (1991) describes?
  • Ayeri basically grammaticalizes topic marking by way of agreement morphology. How (un)typical is this with regards to typology? (e.g., see Li and Thompson 1976 for something very old and basic)
  • Does the way in which Ayeri deals with topicalization have any effects on binding? Topics are supposed to operate outside of the functional hierarchy which Bresnan et al. (2016) propose as an important factor in pronominal binding.
  • Since I’ve been trying my hands on an LFG-based analysis, how do verbs behave regarding assigning roles in argument structure? (Dalrymple 2001: 203–215, Bresnan et al. 2016: 329–348)

To be honest, when I started working on Ayeri in 2003, I would not have understood a word of what Kroeger (1991) writes, so it was basically clear from the beginning that there’d be large inconsistencies with regards to the intention of playing around with Austronesian alignment. The thing is, besides Tagalog’s infamous marking of the ang phrase’s role on the verb (actor, goal, direction, beneficiary, etc.), whatever that phrase is syntactically, It also has effects on raising, control, and binding, which I have long ignored out of a lack of knowledge and awareness of these grammatical processes. Even when I tried to come to terms with Ayeri’s syntactic alignment in an often-clicked blog article in 2012, I applied some of the tests discussed there only mechanically, without actually understanding what they’re about.

It also may be noted that Kroeger (1991) analyzes It as the subject because of consistencies with syntactic traits usually associated with subjects, though with the added complication that it’s not fixed to its conventional position as the specifier of VP.2 You can also see It variously analyzed as focus or topic, which is terribly confusing especially when you don’t know a lot, and this confusion had a major impact on what I ended up with in Ayeri. It will also be necessary, thus, to look at whether the logical subject and the syntactic subject in Ayeri coincide. My gut feeling is that they do, which would make Ayeri more similar, in fact, to analyses of the basic clause structure of Celtic languages such as Welsh or Irish (compare, for instance, Chung and McCloskey 1987, Sadler 1997, Dalrymple 2001: 66, Bresnan et al. 2016: 130–138).

  • Bresnan, Joan et al. Lexical-Functional Syntax. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Print. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 16.
  • Chung, Sandra, and James McCloskey. “Government, Barriers, and Small Clauses in Modern Irish.” Linguistic Inquiry 18.2 (1987): 173–237. Web. 11 Aug. 2017. ‹http://www.jstor.org/stable/4178536›.
  • Dalrymple, Mary. Lexical Functional Grammar. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001. Print. Syntax and Semantics 34.
  • Kroeger, Paul R. Phrase Structure and Grammatical Relations in Tagalog. Diss. Stanford University, 1991. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. ‹http://www.gial.edu/wp-content/uploads/paul_kroeger/PK-thesis-revised-all-chapters-readonly.pdf›.
  • Li, Charles N. and Sandra A. Thompson. “Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language.” Subject and Topic. Ed. Charles N. Li. New York: Academic P, 1976. 457–485. Print.
  • Sadler, Louisa. “Clitics and the Structure-Function Mapping.” Proceedings of the LFG ’97 Conference, University of California, San Diego, CA. Ed. by Miriam Butt and Tracy Holloway King. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 1997. Web. 12 Aug. 2017. ‹https://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/LFG/2/lfg97sadler.pdf›.
  1. The oldest message on Conlang-L (itself the oldest conlanging group on the internet I’m aware of) which uses the term ‘trigger’ to refer to case/voice marking I could find is by John Cowan, dated December 16, 1995. The archives 1991–1997 seem to only survive archived by the Wayback Machine anymore. Search for the time stamp, “Sat Dec 16 13:09:06 1995”, on the linked archive page to read the message.
  2. This is probably not much of a problem for the likes of LFG or HPSG, but likely more of a problem for generative grammar.

Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment

  • This article still receives rather a lot of views, so if you are seriously interested in what I wrote below, please read my reevaluation of Ayeri’s syntactic alignment (a preliminary version of chapter 5 of the Grammar). The article below neither properly reflects current Ayeri grammar nor relatively more recent academic research on Austronesian alignment.

In this article, a number of features of the Austronesian alignment will be discussed in hope to gain a better understanding about the difference between what David J. Peterson called the ‘conlang trigger system’ – of which Ayeri uses a variety – and the naturally occurring ‘trigger system’ of South-East Asia, namely the ‘Philippine’ or ‘Austronesian’ alignment which served as an inspiration for part of Ayeri’s grammar, albeit with some misunderstandings. In order to examine and test how Ayeri works with regards to the terms topic, focus, and subject and in how far it differs from Austronesian languages such as Tagalog, papers by Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson, Paul R. Kroeger, and Paul Schachter were taken into consideration.

As the focus of this article is mainly on how Ayeri relates to the Austronesian alignment system, the language’s detailed way of assigning case to the different semantic roles as well as the details of its handling of morphologic case marking with regards to verb transitivity and the classic constituent-order typology will only be touched on superficially. Continue reading Flicking Switches: Ayeri and the Austronesian Alignment

Un-schedules

I’ve not posted anything in a couple of weeks now although I’ve been meaning to. In fact, these things are still on my backburner of topics to think and write about, some of them more within reach than others:

  • Compounding – ZBBer Tom H. Chappell asked me about it last winter and I’m still owing him an answer.
  • Derivational strategies
  • Syntactic alignment of Ayeri, especially in comparison to the original Austronesian Alignment as present in Tagalog that inspired its slightly weird strategy of subject/topic/definiteness marking (cf. Schachter/Otanes 69 ff., Kroeger) (see post of 2012-06-27)
  • Sharing of determiners and prepositions in coordinated clauses, also in comparison to Tagalog because of syntactic similarities (at least originally intended thus; cf. Schachter/Otanes 113–16, 540–45)
  • Read up on pragmatics, figure out how the language could be used in conversation (sometime)
  • Read up on historical linguistics, finally make Proto-South-West-Kataynian (sometime if ever)

And then, of course, there’s the Grammar that I’ve not been working on anymore since the beginning of this year, sadly, because either I didn’t feel like it or when I did, there were more important things to get done first, e.g. term papers. Since the Grammar is the second most popular page of the last 6 months, I should definitely continue to work on it sometime soon. Including all the things I’ve posted about in blog articles. It’s embarrassing to me at least that I’ve not worked on it for so long.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t see myself getting much work on Ayeri done before the Christmas holidays because — as before — there are many important things to do for university in the next couple of weeks and conlanging is not the only thing I’m spending my spare time on.

  • Kroeger, Paul R. “Another Look at Subjecthood in Tagalog.” Philippine Journal of Linguistics 24.2 (1993): 1–16. Pre-publication Draft. Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. ‹http://www.gial.edu/personnel/kroeger/Subj-PJL.pdf
  • Schachter, Paul and Fe T. Otanes. 1972. Tagalog Reference Grammar. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 69 ff., 113–16, 540–45. Google Books. Google, 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.