Description for Linguists

A common feature of languages from diverse families is the expression of thoughts, beliefs, utterances, claims, conjectures, wishes, and many other concepts via clausal subordination—verbs corresponding to these concepts (e.g., believe, say, think, want) combine with a dependent subordinate clauses such as embedded finite clauses, infinitives, or others. Subordination involves construing a dependent state of affairs in relation to the state of affairs expressed by the main clause, and complementation is a particular type of subordination (other types are adverbial or relative sentences) where the dependent clause is an argument of a predicate. Languages exhibit a variety of different types of complementation, which can be divided into different classes based on their semantic properties (such as interrogative, propositional attitude, modal) and/or their morphosyntactic properties (such as finite, non-finite, subjunctive, nominalization, and others). A striking observation that has been made in many works on complementation is that there is a dependency between the meaning of a complementation configuration and its morphosyntactic coding—changing one often also results in a change of the other.

One of the core hypotheses of the project is that the relation between a complement clause and the matrix verb is bi-directional in that they may influence each other. This synthesis approach can be couched in a free merge system, where verb-complement configurations are computed freely in syntax, and their compatibility is determined at the output (when syntax feeds into the interfaces). The bi-directionality of the synthesis model allows for mutual influences, and the result is determined jointly by both components of the complementation configuration—a matrix verb can impose properties on the embedded clause, but properties of an embedded clause can also affect the matrix predicate. An area where the complement’s influence on the matrix predicate is observable particularly well is alternating verbs such as tell, forget, or know. In English, as in many other languages, these verbs occur in two frames: an infinitival construction, The bear forgot to eat the cookies, or a finite construction, The bear forgot that it ate the cookies. The meanings of the two configurations, however, show a clear difference: the infinitival construction is implicative and entails that the bear did not eat the cookies, whereas the finite construction is factive and means that it did eat them. Since factive verbs do not generally require finite complements, it is the interaction of the matrix verb and the morphosyntactic composition of the complement clause that determines the meaning of a complementation configuration.

While the morphosyntactic coding of complement clauses shows significant variation across languages, typological studies have shown that there is nevertheless a systematicity to the distribution which points to an abstract universal interaction of semantic and morphosyntactic properties, and more generally, a possibly universal organization of complementation. The broad goal of this project is to investigate the nature and distribution of, and regularities among the dependencies found between the meaning and the morphosyntactic coding of complementation configurations cross-linguistically.

The starting point is the typological observation that complementation configurations are ranked according to their semantic properties (see in particular Givón 1980), forming an implicational complementation hierarchy (ICH). The implicational nature can be observed in the distribution of syntactic or morphological distinctions, which, if present in a language, operate in a directional manner along the hierarchy leading to contingent predictions about adjacent configurations (such as ‘if a type of complement has property X, all complement types to its right/left also have property X’). Following such approaches, the overarching typological hypothesis of the project is thus that there is a possibly universal implicational complementation hierarchy  which is defined semantically and detectable through a diverse set of morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties.

Although a variety of semantic classifications can be found, a broad grouping reflected in most typologies is what can be defined as Propositions > Situations > Events. The most basic class (Events) involves complements expressing bare eventualities; the second class (Situations) is attained by adding time and world parameters to an Event; and the most complex class (Propositions) results from anchoring a Situation to an utterance or embedding context. Building on these concepts, a complementation hierarchy arises which shows increasing semantic complexity and is implicational in that lower classes are contained in higher classes. In contrast to matrix sentences, complement clauses do not have to be built up to the final stage, but may constitute smaller structures, of various sizes, subject to certain restrictions (including the requirement that the larger constituents must contain the smaller ones). This renders the implicational hierarchy that holds among Propositions > Situations > Events. As a result, the three classes align according to their degree of independence (for example, (in)dependent time or subject interpretations), transparency (the possibility of cross-clausal operations) and integration (incorporation or restructuring). Languages use different strategies to code the three classes, including gerunds, participles, subjunctives, nominalizations, independent subjects, or different complementizers. Since the implicational hierarchy is an abstract, underlying scale, the distribution of language-specific morphosyntactic coding is constrained by the ICH rather than defining it.

The project puts forward and tests hypotheses for defining the ICH, as well as a model that derives the ranking and implicational relations. The ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive theory of complementation, pursuing research questions such as: Are the factors determining the semantic ranking of the ICH functional, grammatical or both? What specific properties yield the semantic ranking of the ICH? How do the ordering and implicational nature of the ICH arise? What syntactic configurations do the semantic ICH categories correspond to? What is the interaction between syntax and semantics in complementation? How can the ICH be situated in different clause structure models? What is the relation between the matrix predicate and the embedded clause? How is the mapping between the ICH and morphosyntactic properties established? Which morphosyntactic and semantic effects show sensitivity to the ICH cross-linguistically?

The project follows the framework of formal generative typology (Baker 2009, Baker and McCloskey 2007), which allows combining tools from both generative grammar and typology. While we focus on providing a grammatical-structural analysis of complementation, the results are compared to typological and functional approaches, and the answers to the general questions should have relevance for a range of approaches to complementation as well as the general relation between (morpho-)syntactic coding and semantics.