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Syntactic Typology  

Masayoshi Shibatani

The major achievements in syntactic typology garnered nearly 50 years ago by acclaimed typologists such as Edward Keenan and Bernard Comrie continue to exert enormous influence in the field, deserving periodic appraisals in the light of new discoveries and insights. With an increased understanding of them in recent years, typologically controversial ergative and Philippine-type languages provide a unique opportunity to reassess the issues surrounding the delicately intertwined topics of grammatical relations and relative clauses (RCs), perhaps the two foremost topics in syntactic typology. Keenan’s property-list approach to the grammatical relation subject brings wrong results for ergative and Philippine-type languages, both of which have at their disposal two primary grammatical relations of subject and absolutive in the former and of subject and topic in the latter. Ergative languages are characterized by their deployment of arguments according to both the nominative (S=A≠P) and the ergative (S=P≠A) pattern. Phenomena such as nominal morphology and relativization are typically controlled by the absolutive relation, defined as a union of {S, P} resulting from a P-based generalization. Other phenomena such as the second person imperative deletion and a gap control in compound (coordinate) sentences involve as a pivot the subject relation, defined as an {S, A} grouping resulting from an A-based generalization. Ergative languages, thus, clearly demonstrate that grammatical relations are phenomenon/construction specific. Philippine-type languages reinforce this point by their possession of subjects, as defined above, and a pragmatico-syntactic relation of topic correlated with the referential prominence of a noun phrase (NP) argument. As in ergative languages, certain phenomena, for example, controlling of a gap in the want-type control construction, operate in terms of the subject, while others, for example, relativization, revolve around the topic. With regard to RCs, the points made above bear directly on the claim by Keenan and Comrie that subjects are universally the most relativizable of NP’s, justifying the high end of the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy. A new nominalization perspective on relative clauses reveals that grammatical relations are actually irrelevant to the relativization process per se, and that the widely embraced typology of RCs, recognizing so-called headless and internally headed RCs and others as construction types, is misguided in that RCs in fact do not exist as independent grammatical structures; they are merely epiphenomenal to the usage patterns of two types of grammatical nominalizations. The so-called subject relativization (e.g., You should marry a man who loves you ) involves a head noun and a subject argument nominalization (e.g., [who [Ø loves you]]) that are joined together forming a larger NP constituent in the manner similar to the way a head noun and an adjectival modifier are brought together in a simple attributive construction (e.g., a rich man) with no regard to grammatical relations. The same argument nominalization can head an NP (e.g., You should marry who loves you ). This is known as a headless RC, while it is in fact no more than an NP use of an argument nominalization, as opposed to the modification use of the same structure in the ordinary restrictive RC seen above. So-called internally headed RCs involve event nominalizations (e.g., Quechua Maria wallpa-ta wayk’u-sqa-n -ta mik”u-sayku [Maria chicken-acc cook-P.nmlzr-3sg-acc eat-prog.1pl], lit. “We are eating Maria cook a chicken,” and English I heard John sing in the kitchen ) that evoke various substantive entities metonymically related to the event, such as event protagonists (as in the Quechua example), results (as in the English example), and abstract entities such as facts and propositions (e.g., I know that John sings in the kitchen ).