Syntactic ergativity as a processing-based constraint against crossing dependencies
Rebecca Tollan, Lauren Clemens
October 2019

This paper presents an account of syntactic ergativity based on the grammaticalization of a processing preference for nested as compared to crossing dependencies (Kuno and Robinson 1972; Steedman 1985). We propose that restrictions on the A'- movement of the ergative subject arise because such movement would cross the prior A-movement path of the absolutive object creating an illicit crossed dependency. In contrast, the A'-movement of an argument whose merge position is lower than that of the absolutive object creates a licit nested dependency, as in the A'-movement of accusative objects in nominative-accusative languages. Our account further develops the ‘standard theory’ of syntactic ergativity (terminology from Deal 2016 for accounts based on absolutive inversion, e.g. Bittner and Hale 1996; Aldridge 2004; Coon et al. 2015, Coon et al. 2019) by strengthening its empirical foundation with insights from sentence processing and by increasing its empirical coverage within the Mayan language family and beyond. We correctly predict that i) no argument merged between the A-movement tails of the absolutive DP may be extracted, while at the same time ii) arguments merged either below or above the A-movement tails are able to undergo extraction. In addition, the proposed restriction on crossing dependencies accounts for related and unrelated cross-linguistic phenomena, such as syntactic ergativity and word order in Tongic Polynesian, as well as an asymmetry in the wh-questions derived from double object passives in a number of nominative-accusative languages (Holmberg et al. 2018)
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Reference: lingbuzz/004851
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keywords: a'-movement, crossed dependencies, syntactic ergativity, mayan languages, syntax
previous versions: v1 [October 2019]
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