In favour of the low IP area in the Arabic clause structure

Evidence from the VSO word order in Jordanian Arabic

Abstract

Empirical evidence is provided for the existence of a discourse-related area between TP and vP in Jordanian Arabic (JA), a finding which is in line with Belletti’s (2004, 2005) model of the low IP area in natural languages. A two million-word corpus of naturally occurring data from JA, supported by grammaticality judgements from 50 JA speakers, reveals that the subject in VSO clauses of JA is mostly either a definite DP or a modified, indefinite DP, implying that a certain informational value (i.e., a topic or a focus) is assigned to the post-verbal subject in such clauses. Another piece of evidence, among many others, that substantiates this line of analysis comes from the distributional properties of the subject in VSO clauses with respect to the past tense copula ka:n ‘was’ and high vP adverbials. The subject appears to the right of the former but to the left of the latter. We take this as a good indication that the subject in VSO clauses moves to a structural position higher than vP adverbials, yet lower than T0. In order to account for the reason why the subject does not raise to Spec,TP in VSO clauses in JA, we adopt the Criterial Freezing approach to movement and chain formation (Rizzi 2004, 2005, 2006, 2014; Rizzi and Shlonsky 2007). Criterial positions, whose heads are endowed with a specific informational feature such as [TOP] or [FOC], are traps. The subject landing in Spec, Topic Phrase or Spec, Focus Phrase (of the low IP area) gets frozen in place, obtaining, as a result, the VSO word order on the surface.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As a matter of fact, there are a few recent studies that have claimed that Arabic varieties manifest a low IP area in the syntactic structure of clauses (see, e.g., Ouwayda and Shlonsky 2016; Jarrah 2017a; Jarrah and Alshamari 2017; Abu Helal 2019). However, these research papers have addressed this notion in passing, without enough elaboration or motivation.

  2. 2.

    See El-Yasin (1985), Guilliot and Malkawi (2007), Musabhien (2009), Alqassas (2015), Alsarayreh (2012), Abusalim (2016), Jarrah (2017a, 2017b), among many others, for research papers on different syntactic aspects of JA clause structure.

  3. 3.

    The syntactic derivation of SOV sentences is discussed in Jarrah (2019c), where the subject and the object are assumed to be located in the left periphery. We exclude any discussion of this word order from the analysis as it does not constitute tangible evidence in favor of the presence of a low IP area in JA. As for OVS clauses, it can be suggested, following our developed analysis, that the subject is located in the low IP area, functioning as a topic/focus, hence the restriction on the form of the subject, whereas the object is a CP element. However, due to the fact that this word order is barely used in the corpus, we do not rely much on any supporting argument based on it in developing our proposal of a low IP area in JA grammar.

  4. 4.

    We use the Leipzig glossing conventions for the gloss of all Arabic examples mentioned in the text. We also use the following symbols: EVID = Evidentiality Particle; IMPF = imperfective; PRT = particle. Following the general practice, we provide as literal a translation as possible for the examples in this paper to help readers. However, we do not assign a grammaticality judgement to the translations.

  5. 5.

    The statement that non-specific, indefinite subjects are disfavoured in VSO clauses in JA (just 3% of all tokens of VSO sentences) is not consistent with Mohammad’s (2000) non-corpus-based assumption that the VSO word order (in Palestinian Arabic, which is very close to JA) is mainly used when the subject is an indefinite, nonspecific element. Mohammad mentions that “a non-specific subject cannot occupy the initial sentential slot in either MSA [Modern Standard Arabic] or PA [Palestinian Arabic]” (p. 9). He also claims that an indefinite subject can appear clause initially if it is modified by an adjective. For Mohammad, the VSO word order can be used in PA when the subject is an indefinite, non-specific element. In fact, Mohammad’s proposed conditions for the use of the subject in SVO sentences in PA are very similar to those assumed for MSA, where a preverbal subject in SVO sentences should be a definite and/or specific DP. However, what comes as a surprise is that the subject in SVO sentences of PA is analyzed as a true subject, filling Spec,TP (not a topic, as widely construed for MSA) by Mohammad who states that: “[In] SVO, the verb moves into T and the subject moves into the specifier position of TP.” (p. 83). (See also Halila 1992; Benmamoun 1996; Aoun et al. 2010 for a similar argument from other Arabic varieties). It is unclear why an element that occupies Spec,TP should be constrained with respect to definiteness or specificity. Spec,TP, as stressed even by Mohammad himself, can be occupied by an expletive pro (that is crucially indefinite and non-specific). Additionally, what is lacking in Mohammad’s proposal for PA is any account of VSO sentences with a definite (or specific) subject. Although the subject in such sentences complies with conditions on specificity/definiteness, the subject remains post-verbal. Consider the following sentences from PA:

    1. (i)
      figured

    The subject in the two sentences in (i) is a definite DP; however, no analysis is provided to account for the reason why the subject in such cases does not move to Spec,TP, a gap that the current paper attempts to bridge. Note also that Spec,TP in VSO clauses for Mohammad is filled with an expletive. For him, the movement of the thematic subject to Spec,TP is optional. Although we concur with Mohammad that Spec,TP is filled with a pro in VSO clauses, we argue the movement to Spec,TP is not optional because the thematic subject cannot do so as it is stuck in the low IP area due to the effects of criterial freezing.

  6. 6.

    We follow Kayne’s (1994) theory of anti-symmetric syntax that the linear position is a mirror of the structural relations.

  7. 7.

    An anonymous reviewer suggests that if there is Aspectual Phrase, why is the subject not positioned in its Spec? This suggestion is untenable because if we pursue this suggestion, there are many other observations which cannot be accounted for. These include the possibility of having more than one topic phrase, a contrastive focus, etc. Additionally, the purported position of the subject in Spec,Aspectual Phrase seems less motivated. Why should the subject move to this position in the first place? Under our developed analysis, the subject moves to the low Topic/focus position attracted by the relevant criterial feature on the relevant head of Topic Phrase or Focus Phrase.

  8. 8.

    See Benincà (2001) and Benincà and Poletto (2004) for an alternative analysis that does not permit Topic Phrase to appear both higher and lower than Focus Phrase. The current paper supports Belletti’s model of the low IP area where Focus Phrase can dominate, and/or be dominated by, Topic Phrase.

  9. 9.

    Belletti’s model of the low IP area has inspired many researchers to explore whether or not IP has a low discourse-sensitive domain in other languages. This investigation is mainly supported by the assumption that what provides the low IP area is Universal Grammar (UG), hence this domain should be, by theory, part of the make-up of natural languages. In this regard, Paul (2005) proposes that there is a structural parallelism between the high periphery (i.e. from IP to CP) and the low IP area (i.e. above vP up to IP) in Mandarin Chinese. With special attention paid to the so-called ‘even’ Focus, Paul arrives at a similar architecture of that proposed by Belletti (2004) for Italian, apart from one difference that there is no low Focus Phrase dominating Topic Phrase in Manadarin. Likewise, Jayaseelan (2008) argues extensively that English manifests low Focus Phrase above vP. Jayaseelan’s (2008) argument draws on facts from pseudo-gapping (a form of VP-deletion whereby the deletion operation seems to leave behind a remnant; cf. Lasnik 1995, 1999) and floated focus markers including himself and herself. Contra Belletti’s analysis of low focus in Italian, Jayaseelan (2008) argues that the low Focus position in English is associated with contrastive stress. See also Ndayiragije (1999), Sabel and Zeller (2006) and Aboh (2007) for arguments from Bantu languages in favor of the low IP area. See also İşsever (2009) for a proposal that Turkish manifests a low Focus position. Ouwayda and Shlonsky (2016) use what they call ‘Wandering Subject’ (VVSO) construction in Lebanese Arabic to argue for a low discourse area in this Arabic variety. They show that the low IP area in Lebanese Arabic is located above Aspectual Phrase (AspP). See also Shlonsky and Rizzi (2018) for comparable conclusions from Hebrew.

  10. 10.

    An anonymous reviewer questions the status of indefinite subjects in existential constructions in JA, as a potential challenge against our proposed analysis of the low IP area in JA. Our reply to this question is that the position of the subject under T0 in these constructions does not imply that the subject should be categorized as an element of the low IP area in these specific constructions. As is made clear by Abdel-Ghafer and Jarbou (2015) for Arabic and other researchers for other languages (see Witkoś 2004; Kayne 2008; Deal 2009; Richards 2011) existential constructions have special properties that make their derivation different from normal declarative clauses. The indefiniteness of the associate is connected to several syntactic and/or semantics effects. For instance, Belletti (1988) argues that the definiteness effect (the associate should not be definite) is accounted for because the case assigned to the NP associate is a partitive case, and the definiteness effect is a property of the partitive case assignment. On the other hand, Li (1996) proposes that the definiteness effect (in English) is ascribed to the fact that there sentences do not allow an individual-level predicate but express a proposition in its entirety, a state of affairs that demands the associate be an indefinite element (see also Milsark 1974, 1977; Keenan 1987; Chesterman 2005; McNally 2016, among many others, for other syntactic/semantic proposals of existentials in world languages).

  11. 11.

    Cruschina (2012) shows that Sardinian and Sicilian do not impose any restriction on the new information focus, which is shown to move to the left periphery. On the other hand, he shows Turinese does not exploit the left peripheral focus position, irrespective of the type of focus. For Cruschina (2012), such differences between languages are expected, given the suggested parametrization of focus positions.

  12. 12.

    An anonymous reviewer asks about the status of the post-verbal element that is preceded by a Negative Concord Item (NCI) wala in JA. In this regard, Alqassas (2015) argues that the postverbal NCI wala-NP is licensed under c-command by negation and carries a [uNEG] feature that gets checked by the [iNEG] feature of the negative marker c-commanding it. When NCI wala-NP appears in a preverbal position, this NCI is focus-fronted in the CP layer. It can be suggested that when this NCI occurs in a post-verb position in JA, it expresses contrastive focus, following our developed account.

  13. 13.

    In (37a), we take the object as an element that is base-generated in CP, whereas its thematic position is filled with a clitic whose presence is taken as evidence for the base-generation of the object in CP. This is consistent with the main line of analysis of clauses with an initial object in Arabic (see Soltan 2007). On the other hand, in (37b), we take the object as an element that is base-generated in its thematic position. The object then moves to the Spec position of the low Topic Phrase, hence not incurring a resumptive clitic on the verb. Note that although the object is closer to T0 than the subject, T0 agrees with the subject. This can be accounted for by assuming that the object is an inactive goal as its structural case is already checked by little v0.

  14. 14.

    The subject in VOS clauses can also be contrasted in ʔilli-constructions, as shown in our corpus and as mentioned by native speakers. This is shown in the following example:

    1. (i)
      figuream

    A possible analysis of sentence (i) is that the expression ʔilli kasart ʔilka:seh is a relative clause that is located in Spec,TP. The head of TP is filled with a null present copula, whereas the subject DP is the complement. In so doing, we extend the analysis of verb-less sentences as small clauses proposed by Benmamoun (2000) to (i). Some evidence that supports this analysis comes from the fact that the past tense copula ka:n may appear between ʔilli-clause and the DP subject, as shown in the following example:

    1. (ii)
      figurean

    Although such clauses need further investigation to determine their correct analysis, we have good reason to propose that (i-ii) do not represent true instances of VOS mono-clauses.

  15. 15.

    Sentences (ia,b) are possible instances of VP topicalization in JA, where the verb, the object, and accompanying VP adjuncts move to the left periphery. In such cases, it is normal to have the object and the accompanying adjuncts appear to the right of the verb, preceding the subject:

    1. (i)
      figureao

    It can be suggested that the VP, in such cases, moves to the left periphery as a topicalized XP. The fact that the accompanying adjuncts appear to the left of the object implies that what moves to the left periphery is the whole VP. This means that accompanying adjuncts do not under single movement to the left periphery on their own.

  16. 16.

    Some researchers argue the subject in SVO clauses in MSA fills Spec,TP, not Spec,Topic Phrase/CP (see Mohammad 1990, 2000; Bolotin 1995; Benmamoun 2000; Bahloud and Herbert 1993; and Harbert and Bahloul 2002). See Soltan (2007) for a refutation of this assumption.

  17. 17.

    According to Belletti (2008: 265), inverse copular constructions are expressions where ‘a DP/AP small clause complement of the copula has a (CP) clause as its subject of predication. It is then the predicate DP/AP that is either raised to the subject position [as shown in (ia)], or possibly remains silent in the form of an expletive-like pronominal pro [as shown in (ib)].’

    1. (i)
      figureau
  18. 18.

    In a related vein, Jarrah (2019a) argues that the bound form appearing on ʔinn in such cases is an inflectional suffix that reflects ϕ-agreement between ʔinn and the expletive pro that exists in Spec,TP.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the invaluable feedback of NLLT editor Julie Anne Legate, four anonymous reviewers and the associate editor Caroline Heycock. As a matter of fact, the four anonymous reviewers’ insightful comments and constructive criticism considerably enhanced every aspect of this paper. We would like also to acknowledge the efforts of 10 research assistants who helped us with the statistical indications of different word orders in the corpus and the percentages of (in)definite/(non)specific subjects.

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Jarrah, M., Abusalim, N. In favour of the low IP area in the Arabic clause structure. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 39, 123–156 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-020-09474-y

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Keywords

  • Jordanian Arabic
  • The low IP area
  • Criterial Freezing
  • VSO