Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

Making Sense of Language Differences

Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

Making Sense of Language Differences

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Close study of collective/plural morphemes and wh-interrogatives in Chinese and English indicates that language differences in these areas are not random. Interacting with general principles of Universal Grammar, basic morphological differences derive complex varieties of syntactic and semantic properties cross-linguistically. The study of collective/plural morphemes demonstrates that no real correlation exists between the absence of a plural morpheme and the use of a classifier. A collective morpheme, in contrast to a plural morpheme, occurs as a direct consequence of the presence of a classifier in a language that has a classifier projection intervening between a noun and a number projection. This analysis also accounts for the absence of a plural morpheme in such a language. Further, our analysis allows a plural morpheme in certain classifier languages and captures the constraints on order and constituency within different types of nominal expressions. The investigation of cross-linguistic differences in the formation and interpretation of wh-interrogatives reveals that the fundamental difference between various strategies of wh-interrogation lies in the properties of wh-phrases themselves: Wh-phrases can either be quantificational or variables bound by a Question operator. The different nature of wh-phrases leads to variations in the movement of a wh-phrase to form a wh-question, the relevance of island conditions, the possibility of a wh-phrase being associated with a focus marker such as only, and the availability of a pair-list interpretation in multiple wh-questions.

INTRODUCTION. The question of how children can so rapidly learn the language of the speech community into which they happen to be born is meaningful only when anchored in theoretical approaches to the understanding of human language. Theoretical descriptions of human languages are possible because languages are rule-governed, constituting a system of rules that we call grammar. From the view-point of a generative grammarian, children easily acquire the grammatical rules of their languages because there are properties common to all human languages, which children do not need to learn explicitly. Instead, children acquire such commonalities as their brains mature. What children must learn is the lexicon, including the morpho-syntactic properties of lexical items. This amounts to saying that what is shared by all children and what is shared by all human languages forms the system of rules, call it Universal Grammar; whereas, what differs among human languages is the lexicon, the morpho-syntactic properties of individual lexical items. This means we expect that seemingly very complex facts in different languages can be reduced to simple, straightforward morpho-syntactic differences, a conclusion supported by the results of the two case studies discussed in this work.

The first case investigates the behavior of the so-called collective morpheme in a classifier language, Chinese, and compares and contrasts it to that of a plural morpheme in a non-classifier language, English. The second case concerns the syntactic and semantic properties of wh-phrases in wh-questions. The study of collective and plural morphemes shows that the reason a classifier language seems to have a collective morpheme, in contrast to a plural morpheme as found in non-classifier languages, can be traced to the morphological fact that a classifier language has a classifier morpheme, which is represented in syntactic structures. The study of wh-questions demonstrates that variations in the formation and interpretation of wh-questions are accounted for by the morpho-syntactic properties of wh-expressions, which are responsible for a cluster of correlated differences among languages using different strategies to form wh-questions. Thus these two case studies illustrate the same point: Languages differ not because their interpretive or syntactic rules are different but because their morphological properties are different. …

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