Are phrases universal?

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at LRZ.UNI-MUENCHEN.DE
Fri Aug 28 07:15:08 UTC 2009


Dear Alexander,
I'm left with the impression that Bussmann's definition of 'phrase' it 
not very helpful. In fact, it is more synonymic in nature than 
explanatory: "A set of X = Phrase = Constituent".
In other words, a phrase would be a constituent (or vice versa). Hence, 
you might also ask: Are constituents universal? Also note that Bussmann 
does not explain what she means by 'set': Does this necessarily include 
more than one element? What about one word NPs such as Turkic [/k?z/]NP 
[/at]/NP/ görüyor/ (girl horse see(s)')? And: What is a "syntactic 
element"? In my opinion, 'elements' (whatever these again are)  can only 
/behave/ syntactically (elements are not syntactic by nature), in case 
they are construed as or perceived as parts of a syntactic chain. In 
other words: 'Phrases' can only be defined by reference to a 'higher' 
level, say a structured utterance (or: sentence, or: clause). 'Phrase' 
is thus a relational term ('phrase [as a part] of X') and its definition 
/ delimitation necessarily invokes an depends from hypotheses /models 
about the structure of the whole. The definition of 'phrase' thus is 
theory-dependent, as it is true for any claim related to its alleged 
universality. Take an example: In the sentence /the woman went into the 
garden/, a the structure into the garden is conventionally termed a 
PP-Phrase (NP + V(P) + PP). However, other approaches interpret the 
preposition into as being part of the VP (the woman went=into the 
garden), leading to NP + VP + NP. Naturally, the isolation of phrases 
may be supported by morphosyntactic evidence, that is by morphological 
elements that specialize for the encoding of phrase-internal structures. 
Likewise, features of movement may (!) help to delimit phrases (to the 
extent a language allows movement at all). In addition, you may apply a 
construction grammar-like model claiming that a phrase is an abstract 
linguistic sign that relates a (set of) articulated /signifiants/ to a 
specific conceptual domain (/signifié/), such as NP <=> Reference, VP 
<=> Conceptual Relator. If one assumes (as I do) that every linguistic 
utterance is grounded in the interaction of cognitive reference and 
relator patterns ( R -> R in my terms), phrases must be present in any 
kind of utterance and must be universal. But as I said: All this is 
heavily theory-dependent. Anyway, the search for merely 'linguistic 
arguments' (in terms of e.g. Basic Linguistic Theory) without reference 
to the functionality of the conceptual 'whole' (to which phrases) belong 
does seem to give definite results.
Best wishes,
Wolfgang     


Alexander V Bochkov schrieb:
> Dear colleagues,
>
> I am working on a paper and I need your help (if you have references, 
> that's even better!)
>
> 1. How universal is the phrase? In other words, are there languages 
> that lack phrases completely? By phrase I roughly understand "a set of 
> syntactic elements which form a constituent (=relatively independent 
> group of words)." (Bussmann, Hadumod, Gregory Trauth, Kerstin Kazzazi, 
> and Hadumod Bussmann. 1996. /Routledge dictionary of language and 
> linguistics/. Routledge reference. London: Routledge. - p. 902)
> 2. WALS says that there are 6 languages with zero head/dependent 
> marking http://wals.info/feature/25 . It is not entirely clear whether 
> those languages have phrases or not. If they do, how do we know that?
>
> Thank you.
>
> Alexander Bochkov
> --------------------------
> Department of Second Language Studies
> University of Hawaii at Manoa
> http://www.hawaii.edu/sls
>
>

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*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang 
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