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Rethinking Comparative Syntax (ReCoS)

Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Studying at Cambridge


Summary of Proposal


This project aims to break new ground in syntactic theory by reconceptualising the principles-and-parameters approach to comparative syntax, retaining its strengths and attempting to deal with its perceived weaknesses. The central idea is to organise the parameters of Universal Grammar (UG) into hierarchies, which define the ways in which properties of individually variant categories may act in concert; this creates macroparametric effects from the combined action of many microparameters. The highest position in a hierarchy defines a macroparameter, a major typological property, lower positions define successively more local properties. Parameter-setting in language acquisition starts at the highest position as this is the simplest choice; acquirers will "move down the hierarchy" when confronted with primary linguistic data incompatible with a high setting. Hence the hierarchies simultaneously define learning paths and typological properties.

The main task of the project, taking up most of the time of the research team working on it, will be to attempt to work out on the basis of cross-linguistic data the precise form of major parts of the hierarchies, thus subjecting the theoretical predictions to rigorous empirical testing. The project aims to investigate five hierarchies: those determining word-order, null arguments, word structure, discourse-configurationality and case/agreement alignment. This will be done on the basis of secondary data from grammars, from on-line databases (The World Atlas of Languages Structures, WALS, and the Syntactic Structures of the World's Languages, SSWL), and, where feasible, from native-speaker consultants.

These five hierarchies, although not exhaustive, combine to give a typological footprint of many languages, as well as providing the basis for the study of the interaction of micro- and macroparameters. In this way, the criticism that formal comparative syntax has little to offer typological studies can potentially be answered. Also, a clear diagnostic is provided for showing that the hierarchies determine genuine syntactic variation, and not merely morphophonological variation as suggested by Berwick & Chomsky (2008). Last, a more purely theoretical component of the project aims to show that the nature of the hierarchies is determined, not directly by UG, but by UG interacting with domain-general principles of simplicity and efficiency.