preposition stranding and null WH questions

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Mon Oct 26 13:44:09 UTC 1998

A few comments on the discussion of preposition stranding and null WH

About null WH questions in Spanish, Alan writes, and asks:

> such utterances have much of the feel and perhaps some of
> the function of echo questions, as I believe they're called ("I caught
> glumpfball." - "(You caught) a what?"; the intonation also points that
> the phenomenon, although I repeat it's fairly common in
> discourse in a certain chatty, informal style, would probably be
> marginal to the grammatical system.  Is this not also the case with
> Indonesian examples, I wonder?

For Hebrew I agree: the phenomenon seems marginal.  And another curious
fact which I neglected to point out yesterday:  when the Hebrew
preposition _biSvil_ "for" is used as a null WH question "What for?",
the stress, which is otherwise final, may optionally switch to the first
syllable.  I have no idea what to make of this fact, but it does seem
somehow to be connected to what Alan says about intonation.

But more generally, I'm kind of wary about characterizing things as
"marginal" just because they don't fit into how *we* think the language
works, or should work.  For example, I know of no argument suggesting
that the Malay / Indonesian examples are, in any sense, not part of the
grammar -- whatever that means.  In this context, I think that Alan's
Spanish examples, and Jan's very nice Swedish ones, show quite clearly
how different these null WH question constructions are from language to
language  -- which in turn seems to me to suggest that they're really
part of the language system, ie. one of the things that different
languages can, arbitrarily, decide to do differently.

About Alan's examples of inflected pronouns in Welsh:  Hebrew has
similar inflected pronouns, and they can also occur sentence finally.
Thus, corresponding to Alan's example

Pwy wyt ti'n siarad amdano?
who are you ASPECT speak about.3ms
"Who are you speaking about?"

is the Hebrew:

haiS Seata medaber 9alav
the-man that-2:MSG speak-PRS:MSG about-3:MSG
"The man you are speaking about"

However, in Hebrew, _9alav_ is probably more appropriately analyzed as
preposition plus pronoun; Alan's arguments that the suffix is an index
probably won't work for Hebrew.  In which case we would not want to
conclude that Hebrew has preposition stranding.

Finally, I agree with Alan's comment about Mauro's Somali examples:

> I would seriously question whether it is at all enlightening to refer
> these Somali morphemes as adpositions (certainly not prepositions).
> only reason for doing so, I think, is that they TRANSLATE as
adpositions in
> other languages, but their syntax is so radically different that I
> think "preposition stranding" has anything to do with them.  If
> the Somali items seem more similar to preverbs (in IE languages,
> Hungarian...), or even "applicatives" (cf. Bantu).

A similar example comes from Malay / Indonesian, where, in various
dialects there is a preposition _ke_, _ka_, or _akan_, meaning roughly
"to", which, in some dialects also shows up as a postverbal enclitic
_-ka_ or _-kan_, with applicative and/or causative usages.  Almost
certainly, the postverbal enclitic construction results historically
from the grammaticalization of the prepositional construction.  But it's
already undergone reanalysis, and so, when it occasionally shows up
sentence-finally, we wouldn't want to characterize it as an instance of
preposition stranding.


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22
D-04103 Leipzig

tel:  49-341-9952310
fax:  49-341-9952119
email:  gil at

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