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Non-Hierarchicality in Grammar

Non-Hierarchicality in Grammar (NonGram)

Emmy-Noether Research Group funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Start: 01.02.2019, Duration: 5 years

The Emmy Noether Group Non-Hierarchicality in Grammar (NonGram) is located within the Sprachwissenschaftliches Seminar at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, after previously being housed at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. The project team is comprised of Prof. Dr. Uta Reinöhl (PI), Kirsten Culhane, Naomi Peck, Maria Vollmer and Simon Fries. Dr. T. Mark Ellison is additionally associated with the project as a Mercator Fellow.

The NonGram Project will result in the first detailed investigation of the phenomenon of non-hierarchical syntax across languages and semantic categories. “Non-hierarchical” syntax is found when lexemes of the same syntactic category are combined into complex constructions without any further linguistic adaptation such as the addition of formal marking or prosodic integration into compounds. Studying non-hierarchical syntax across languages and semantic categories will allow new insights into what is perhaps the most basic syntactic mechanism of human speech, the formation of larger wholes from individual building blocks. How are complex constructions formed from multiple Ns or Vs? Is there no hierarchicality found at all? What semantic structures do we find? How are elements assigned their syntagmatic slots?

Non-hierarchical constructions are mostly absent from major European languages, including English. In such languages, complex constructions normally consist of lexemes from different word classes, e.g. the entity warm days consists of an adjective and a noun, and the event runs fast of a verb and an adverb. Such sub-divided word class systems have stood at the centre of over half a century of syntactic theorising, where it is often taken for granted that an NP is projected from a single element N, or a VP from a single V. However, in Wooi (Austronesian, Indonesia), several “verbal” elements can be concatenated in a serial verb construction to express a single event, e.g. huo mai thau ‘lift come put’. In other languages like Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan, Australia), several “nominal” elements may be combined to denote a single entity, e.g. kurdu-ngku wita-ngku ‘child.ERG small.ERG’, translatable idiomatically as either ‘small child’ or ‘childish small thing’. These findings challenge the notion of hierarchical syntax that NPs or VPs are always projected from and thus dependent on single Ns or Vs. They imply that some languages may organise their verbal or nominal material in a non-hierarchical way.

As non-hierarchicality has only been marginally explored across languages and semantic categories,  project members are examining this issue in depth using a corpus from their selected language to gauge whether phenomena are category-specific, language-specific or more commonly attested. Entity-denoting constructions are undergoing investigation in Vedic Sanskrit (Indo-European, India) by Prof. Dr. Uta Reinöhl and Simon Fries, and in Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan, Australia) by Maria Vollmer, while event-denoting constructions are being studied in Waima’a (Austronesian, Timor-Leste) by Kirsten Culhane and in Kera’a (Sino-Tibetan, India) by Prof. Dr. Uta Reinöhl and Naomi Peck.