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A Probe-Goal Approach to Parametric Differences in Nominal Phrases

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In this talk, I intend to postulate a machinery of encoding referential properties (i.e. definiteness) and grammatical number (i.e. plurality) to explain parametric differences in nominal phrases. Compared with articled languages such as English, definiteness in article-less languages (i.e. Chinese) can be exhibited with bare nominals due to the lack of articles; In addition, the expression of grammatical number in most classifier languages (i.e. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) does not rely on number morphology, which is different from non-classifier languages (i.e. English, French and German) (see Chierchia 1998). However, according to Pereltsvaig’s (2007) Universal-DP Hypothesis, the syntactic structure of nominal phrase is universal regardless of the presence of lexical items which realize the heads of the functional projections. This is contrast to Cheng and Sybesma’s (1999) proposal that Chinese and English have different encoding mechanisms of definiteness and Li’s (1999) analysis of plural marking in Chinese and English. What Cheng and Sybesma believe is that definiteness is encoded by the function head, classifier (Cl), in Chinese, whereas it is encoded by the D head in English. As for Li’s analysis of plural morpheme -men in Mandarin and -s in English, she argues that they are realized in different functional heads according to diverse head movements. She proposes that -men is realized in D given Noun-men is definite in meaning, whereas -s is realized in the function head, number (Num). However, her analysis is rejected based on the fact that English and Mandarin have an unvaried Adjective-Noun order. The cross-linguistic machinery of encoding referential properties and grammatical number I propose for the nominal phrase is the syntactic structure schematized as DP>NumP>S(pecificity)P>light noun projection (nP)>NP. The head of DP is the locus of the [definite] feature, the head of NumP, which hosts numerals in its specifier position, is the locus of the [number] feature, the head of SP, where demonstratives are merged in its specifier position, is the locus of the [specific] feature, and the head of nP, which is lexically realized as the classifier in classifier languages, is the locus of the [referential] feature. In terms of feature interpretability (Chomsky 1995), the mentioned feature carried by each functional projection is interpretable. However, to solve the problem of the phenomenon “definiteness spreading” as in Swedish, I further assume that the head of each functional projection bears not only the interpretable feature but also several uninterpretable features related to the other functional projections. For instance, the D head is composed of an interpretable [definite] feature and the uninterpretable [number], [specific], [referential] features. According to Chomsky’s (2001) Probe-Goal theory, the interpretable feature under each functional head interacts with the uninterpretable feature under other functional heads through the operation Agree. For example, the D head with the interpretable [definite] feature and the unvalued uninterpretable [referential] feature serves as the Probe, while the n head with the interpretable [referential] feature and the unvalued uninterpretable [definite] feature serves as the Goal. The interpretable [definite] feature on D matches and deletes the unvalued uninterpretable [definite] feature on n by Agree, whereas the interpretable [referential] feature on n matches and deletes the unvalued uninterpretable [referential] feature on D by Agree. Such an analysis can easily explain the “definiteness spreading” phenomenon given that the [definite] features (whether interpretable or uninterpretable) can be spelt out on different functional heads simultaneously. Additionally, given the difference of feature strength, the word order variation among different languages and within the same language can be explained by DP-internal head and/or phrasal movement(s). As for my account of plural marking in English and Chinese, I propose that the realization is a PF operation just like the Affix Hopping of English agreement marker –s in the clausal domain. In summary, the current model provides a unified account and requires only the different feature strength which leads to DP-internal head and/or phrasal movement(s) to explain parametric differences in nominal phrases cross-linguistically. In addition, Pereltsvaig’s (2007) proposal that the projection of DP is a property of Universal Grammar can be maintained within the current Probe-Goal approach, which allows natural languages not to lexically realize each functional head.

This talk is part of the Linguistics PhD seminars series.

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