Author Topic: Help with a syntax tree  (Read 411 times)

Offline copperboom

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Help with a syntax tree
« on: February 27, 2017, 07:42:05 PM »
Hi!
I ordered the following t-shirt because I'm a French teacher who loves doing syntaxtic trees with her high school students. However, because it's quite different from what I'm used to doing in French, I'm not sure I understand all of the tree on my t-shirt, and I was wondering if someone could kindly explain it to me. From what I gather, the pronom What is the object complement of "i was talking about" and was moved at the beginning of the sentence to form a question. I'm not too sure about why there is a COMP - +WH - e on its right though, as I don't know what these letters mean.

Could someone help me?
Thanks!

Online Daniel

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Re: Help with a syntax tree
« Reply #1 on: February 27, 2017, 10:05:46 PM »
This is an interesting question. Because it's on a shirt (that is, to save space) it has the less formal 'triangle' structure structure for most of the sentence, and focuses only on the first part.

Most of the time as you describe a WH-word is moved to the front as a fairly straightforward transformation, resulting in 'what' being in a higher position than the rest of the sentence.

Another option I've seen would be to have a WH feature high in the structure that then "looks for" a WH word in the lower structure to be moved up to check that feature. But that constituency would be different: [What [WH [was I talking about]]], rather than this tree as [ [What WH] [was I talking about]]. It's possible that was a mistake (intended to be the 'taller'/more layered structure), but I don't think so.


What is going on here seems to be described by this paper (Chomsky & Lasnik 1977: "Filters and Control" in Linguistic Inquiry): https://www.jstor.org/stable/4177996 (page 447)

The analysis is as follows:
1. The WH item moves to the front of the sentence (that is, top of the tree).
2. The WH item is actually complex. There is some 'e' (that's called a "trace" and it is a placeholder for some element from the derivation) that is the object of 'talk about'. So it's like 'talk about e'. Actually if the S constituent wasn't a triangle you'd see an 'e' trace below as well I think. Or perhaps a bound variable, depending on what kind of analysis (syntactic or semantic) this is intended to be.
3. 'What' is considered a quantifier like 'all' or 'some'. This sentence can be paraphrased as 'Which e, such that I was talking about e?' > the answer would be some 'e', e.g., 'syntax' (in the context 'I was talking about syntax'), etc. Or in more straightforward English, the question is equivalent to the English phrase 'Whatever X I was talking about'.


(I wasn't sure about the history of this analysis of interrogatives in particular so I asked elsewhere, on a Facebook group called 'Linguistics Nerds!!' and Desalegn Belaynew helpfully provided the reference to the paper I mentioned above that explains what is going on here.)

Of course I don't know what the implications of the shirt are. It might be suggesting this is unnecessarily complex (or even be a sort of parody) compared to some analyses, but as far as I can tell it seems that this is a representation of (one of) Chomsky's analyses of interrogatives (questions). I'm not sure this has survived in exactly the same format now in current syntax, but it was standard at one time and makes sense given some assumptions.

I hope that helps. Unfortunately the answer is quite technical. I can simplify or re-explain some details if that isn't clear.
« Last Edit: February 27, 2017, 10:09:27 PM by Daniel »
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Offline copperboom

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Re: Help with a syntax tree
« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2017, 12:41:59 PM »
Thank you very much for your detailed answer!
I'm not too sure about the e though - If "e" is the object of "talk about", what does "What" stand for? I thought that "what", as a pronoun, would be the object complement of "talking about". Or is it only a question word?

Online Daniel

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Re: Help with a syntax tree
« Reply #3 on: February 28, 2017, 02:41:36 PM »
Roughly: "e" is a variable bound by "what" -- it's a question word, rather than a pronoun, and the 'pronoun' is silent according to this analysis.
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