Summary to date on 'Query on structural properties'

Daniel Everett dlevere at
Mon Dec 21 14:29:20 UTC 2009

            On December 18, I posted the following query to FUNKNET:
I am interested in beginning a statistical study on the relative rarity of the following patterns (this query will not be the basis for the study! Just a tool to start gathering data). I am first interested in knowing of languages that have any one of the specific properties below.  Next I am interested in learning of any languages that are described by any subset of these. Please respond to me individually, rather than to the list as a whole.  I will post a summary if there are enough responses. I would particularly appreciate any suggestions for particular corpora to consult in rarer languages. 
Thanks very much in advance for your answers.
1. The language lacks independent  factive verbs and epistemic verbs (not counting the verb 'to see').
2. The language has no morphosyntactic marker of subordination.
3. It has no coordinating disjunctive particles (no words like 'or').
4. It has no coordinating conjunctive particle (no words like 'and').
5. No unambiguous complement clauses (no strong evidence for embedding as opposed to juxtaposition).
6. No multiple possession (no structures like 'John's father's son' - whether pre or postnominal) .
7. No multiple modification (no structures like 'two big red apples').
8. No scope from one clause into another: 'John does not believe you left' (where 'not' can negate 'believe' or 'left', as in 'It is not the case that John believes that you left' vs. 'It is the case that John believes that you did not leave')
9. No long-distance dependencies: 'Who do you think John believes __ (that Bill saw__)?'; 'Ann, I think he told me he tried to like ___' 
            Here are some of the responses I have received so far on my query (I have not checked this out yet, so I accept no responsibility for the accuracy of the suggestions). I should add that there were several responses that addressed the issue of culture and language. I did not ask about that, however. So I won't include those in the summary.  It did seem that a few readers imagined more to my questions than I actually asked. I asked about specific syntactic properties, not about alternate functional realizations. Both are important. But I didn't ask about both.
            With respect to the absence of multiple modification, one reader suggests that Maori might prohibit this as well.
            A couple of readers pointed out to me that cognitive, factive, and epistemic verbs are often derived from perceptual verbs, e.g. 'to hear' (understand); 'to see' (learn, know, etc.). I am aware of this, however, and it wasn't part of the question. What I am after is lexically or morphosyntactically distinct verbs;
            With regard to morphosyntactic markers of subordination, it was suggested that Iroquois, Athabaskan, and other families and languages, e.g. Arawak lack nonfinite clauses and also lack markers of subordination.
            With regard to conjunctive and disjunctive particles, Tom Givon responded that Ute lacks both 'or' and 'and'.
            For the absence of complement clauses, it was suggested that many serial-verb languages might lack complementation. Givon's Genesis of Syntactic Complexity, chapter four, summarizes data and discussions of this topic.  It was also pointed out that Marianne Mithun's work on the intonational aspects of the development of complementation in Mohawk is particularly relevant.
            On the absence of multiple modification, it was suggested by Tom Givon that multiple modification itself is "perhaps the product of an earlier paratactic pattern, piling more modifiers after intonational breaks".
            On the absence of scope from one clause to another (point 8 of my query), a couple of readers suggested that most languages lack them, apart from the artificial examples of formal linguistics;
            On long-distance dependencies, Tom Givon says that "Once you look at discourse, ALL languages have long-distance dependencies. You find them in paragraph-level clause chaining, and they eventually grammaticalized (parataxis > syntaxis) into syntactic constructions." I completely agree with Tom on this. However, I was not asking about discourse, but about sentence-level syntax. I think that the failure of some theories to include discourse in their notion of 'grammar' is a serious shortcoming.
            Lachlan Mackenzie referred me to the new PhD dissertation defended at Vrie University Amsterdam by David Eberhard on Mamainde (supervisor Leo Wetzels) which manifests, he claims, many of the properties of my list. That dissertation can be downloaded at: 
            Joan Bybee, Paul Hopper, Tom Givon, and others underscored the importance of diachrony and grammaticalization in studying this type of phenomenon (a position I agree strongly with). More than one reader referred me as well to Bybee's chapter in Essays on Language Function and Language Type: Dedicated to T. Givon (1997). See also discussion on southeast Asian languages by Walter. Bisang.
            Alex Francois offers some answers based on his work in Oceania. The sources he provides are:  Fran├žois, Alexandre.  2002.  Araki: A disappearing language of Vanuatu. Pacific Linguistics, 522. Canberra: Australian National University and Fran├žois, Alexandre.  (in prep).  A grammar of Teanu, the language of Vanikoro...
            I didn't cite the actual answers because they mainly concerned alternative functional strategies for realizing complementizers and subordination.  Again, however, that is not quite what I was after.
            Thanks to everyone who responded. Apparently, the lack of these syntactic markers is not very common.  I will be looking into this further and would love to hear from others on this list.


            Dan Everett

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