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Mark Baker presented at Stony Brook Colloquium

The Department of Linguistics at Stony Brook University invited our own Prof. Mark Baker to their Fall 2022 colloquium talk series. Prof. Baker presented his work, “Complementizers Relating to Noun Phrases: Rare Constructions within a Theory of Universal Grammar” on Oct. 28. Here is the abstract of his talk:


The notion of universal grammar may seem to imply that all languages have approximately the same syntactic constructions, apart from a few morphological differences. And this expectation seems to be false. On the contrary, there are quite a few syntactic constructions that seem to be found only in a minority of the world’s languages—in some cases, only in one region of the world. For example, only in some languages in Central Africa do complementizers agree “upward” with the subject of the main clause. Only some languages in Western Africa have specialized logophoric pronouns that refer to the subject of the main clause. Languages in Western North America, parts of South America, Australia and New Guinea have “switch reference” systems in which a complementizer indicates whether the subject of the main clause is the same as the subject of the embedded clause or not, but this construction is absent from Eurasia and Africa. A smattering of languages around the world allow “indexical shift”, where a pronoun like ‘I’ or ‘me’ can refer to the subject of the matrix clause. Finally, languages like Basque and some languages of South Asia allow “allocutive” agreement, in which the verb agrees with the person that a sentence is addressed to.

I present an analogy to biology to shed light on this seemingly paradoxical situation. It is rare for a mammal to have wings (only bats do), or flippers (only whales do), or arms (only humans and some other primates do). However, it is not rare for animals to have forelimbs; on the contrary, all mammals have them, and they all have essentially the same “syntax” in that they have the same number of bones connected to one another in the same way. Wings, flippers, and arms as well as front legs are all surface variations of the forelimb that have developed quite different functions. In a similar way, I argue that the five rare constructions listed above are all different realizations of essentially the same underlying syntactic structure used in different ways: a structure consisting of a null noun phrase licensed by a special complementizer, which can be controlled by a matching argument of the main clause and which can be agreed with and/or may bind a special pronoun with matching features inside the clause introduced by the complementizer. Each particular manifestation of this syntactic structure may be relatively rare and geographically limited, but taken together the fundamental grammatical structure is neither rare nor geographically limited. This supports a strong universal grammar, analogous to a common “body plan” for the skeleton of any mammal.