Prosody as syntactic evidence

The view from Mayan

Abstract

A subset of Mayan languages feature “prosodic allomorphy,” a phenomenon involving morphological alternations at certain prosodic boundaries. In previous work, Henderson (2012) proposes that prosodic allomorphs in K’iche’ provide evidence for non-isomorphisms in the correspondence between syntax and prosody. In this paper, I argue against this view by building on a related extraposition analysis in Aissen 1992. I contribute novel data from prosodic allomorphy from two Mayan languages, Chuj and K’iche’, and show that upon further inspection, there is strong evidence for a syntactic analysis different from the one assumed in Henderson 2012. The new syntax leads to several predictions that are borne out, and crucially, does not force us to posit mismatches, allowing for a one-to-one correspondence between syntax and prosody. By taking apparent instances of mismatches as suggestive that the syntactic analysis must be revisited, the proposal aligns with work such as Steedman (1991), Wagner (2005, 2010), and Hirsch and Wagner (2015). Finally, I discuss how the proposal could be restated within phase theoretic approaches to the interface between syntax and phonology, concluding that Mayan prosodic allomorphy poses an interesting challenge for such accounts.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    All Chuj data come from speakers of the Nentón and San Mateo Ixtatán variants. Data were collected through original elicitation in Guatemala, Mexico, and Canada and in texts available on the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (Mateo Pedro and Coon 2017). For Chuj grammars, see Hopkins 1967, Maxwell 1982, and García Pablo and Domingo Pascual 2007. The K’iche’ data come from previous work by other authors and from questionnaires with two speakers of Santa Lucía Utatlán (one of the two dialects under study in Henderson 2012). For recent overviews on K’iche’, see Can Pixabaj 2015, 2017.

  2. 2.

    Abbreviations: a: “Set A” (ergative/possessive); af: agent focus; b: “Set B” (absolutive); clf: noun classifier; comp: complementizer; dep: dependent clause marker; dir: directional; ha: topic/focus marker; indf: indefinite; ipfv: imperfective; iv: intransitive status suffix; m: masculine; neg: negation; pl: plural; pron: pronoun; prosp: prospective; q: question; pfv: perfective; rn: relational noun; sg: singular; top: topic; tv: transitive status suffix. Glosses in examples from other sources have been modified in some cases for consistency, and translations from Spanish to English are my own.

  3. 3.

    (7) is formalized in OT with two alignment constraints (see Henderson for more details).

  4. 4.

    The strict layer hypothesis has been contested in much recent work, including Truckenbrodt (1999), Wagner (2005, 2010), and Selkirk (2011) (see Elfner 2018 for overview). The analysis proposed in this paper will remain neutral with respect to this debate. However, note that the strict layer hypothesis falls under the category of syntax-prosody mismatches, and is therefore another type of mismatch required in Henderson 2012.

  5. 5.

    Note that, in addition to prosodic allomorphy in Chuj and K’iche’, similar paradigms are found in other Mayan languages from distinct branches, such as Tsotsil (Cholan-Tseltalan); Popti’ and Q’anjob’al (Q’anjob’alan); and Tz’utujil (K’ichean) (Day 1973; Craig 1977, 1986; Aissen 1992; Mateo Toledo 2017). Although the affected morphemes vary, the allomorphy appears to be governed by similar clausal boundaries across all of these languages.

  6. 6.

    The classifier ni(’o’) is only used in the Nentón variant of Chuj.

  7. 7.

    This could potentially be tested for K’iche’ with a DP topic ending with a verb-final relative clause. I have not been able to check this environment in K’iche’, but future work should establish whether this environment triggers the presence of a status suffix.

  8. 8.

    In the Mayanist literature, “external” topics are contrasted with “internal” topics, the latter of which appear inside the domain of the matrix clause and do so via movement (Aissen 1992). As argued in Bielig 2015, Chuj only seems to have “external” topics. Popti’, a close relative of Chuj, is also argued in Aissen 1992 to only feature external topics. On similar external topics across languages and their effects on prosody, see e.g. Nespor and Vogel 1986 (on English), Bresnan and Mchombo 1987 and Kanerva 1990 (on Chichewa), and Frascarelli 2000 (on Italian).

  9. 9.

    This issue becomes especially relevant when considering language acquisition. As hinted by a reviewer, one reason to favour a “no mismatch” account is that a matching syntax-prosody relationship could help explain the well-known effects of phonological bootstrapping on the acquisition of syntax (see e.g. Morgan 1986, the work cited in Morgan and Demuth 1996, and Christophe et al. 2008). That is, if syntax and prosody always match, learners can trust that prosody will inform them on syntactic constituency, but if they do not match, then learners might not trust that phonology will accurately inform them about syntax, in which case we might expect them to disregard it entirely (unless syntax-prosody mismatches are universally systematic, which to my knowledge is not the usual assumption). Since we know from the aforementioned work that prosodic cues play an important role in the acquisition of syntax, then an isomorphic relationship is to be preferred.

  10. 10.

    As pointed out to me by Scott AnderBois and an anonymous reviewer, it is rather unusual in syntactic theory to reference the right edges of CPs, unless discussing the syntax-prosody interface. I take this to be an additional argument in favour of a phonological account of prosodic allomorphy.

  11. 11.

    As an anonymous reviewer signals, a commonly held assumption in current syntactic theory is that the syntactic component is to some extent “order free.” Indeed, many accounts assume that at least part of the order of constituents is determined post-syntactically (see e.g. Bennett et al. 2016 and references therein). If this is true, then, one wonders how the phonological component can identify “the end” or the “right edges” of syntactic constituents, as proposed here. But it is not entirely clear to me to what extent syntax should be considered order free; and reference to the edges of syntactic constituents remains standard in the literature that assume post-syntactic ordering (for instance, Bennett et al. (2016) use match theory, which references XP edges). For now, I make the assumption that the phonological component can identify the edges of syntactic constituents, and I leave the exact implementation of how this works open.

  12. 12.

    I use the term “extraposition” in its most general sense to describe the placement of constituents in structurally higher positions than what is considered canonical or expected (Büring and Hartmann 1997). There are various reasons why constituents could appear extraposed, including A’-movement (Ross 1967; Reinhart 1980; Baltin 1982 a.o.), high base-generation (Koster 1978; Culicover and Rochemont 1990, a.o.), or leftward movement of other constituents (e.g. Kayne 1994). For an overview of extraposition, see Baltin 2006.

  13. 13.

    To derive the presence of ι-phrase boundaries at the end of topicalized constituents, one could alternatively recourse to the idea that topicalized constituents involve full CPs with elided material, following Ott 2014. This would eliminate the need to posit (38).

  14. 14.

    When co-occurring with a determiner, wh-det relatives must extrapose. For instance, such relatives must follow matrix clause subjects (Telma Can Pixabaj p.c.).

  15. 15.

    One reviewer raises the possibility that (45a) could be grammatical in another dialect of K’iche’, which is indeed very possible. If (45a) were to be grammatical, then one might be led to conclude that in this dialect (i) status suffixes do not drop and (ii) free relatives do not extrapose. Such facts are actually independently attested in other Mayan languages. For example, status suffixes are never dropped in several other Mayan languages (see e.g. Coon 2016 for relevant data on Ch’ol), and Chuj free relatives do not necessarily extrapose (see Sect. 5.3.2 below).

  16. 16.

    Though more work is required, there are reasons to believe that Chuj temporal adverbs like ewi ‘yesterday’ are unlike similar temporal adverbs in English in that they cannot surface as topics. For instance, though ewi can appear preverbally, a consultant seemed to dislike prosodic boundaries between it and the verb. This is unlike topics, which are generally followed by a clear prosodic boundary (see e.g. Sect. 3.3).

  17. 17.

    Though right-side topics are possible, there is no evidence that right-side foci are possible in Chuj. For instance, right-dislocated DPs cannot trigger Agent Focus morphology.

  18. 18.

    Note, however, that nothing hinges on this assumption: complement clauses could equally well appear in their surface position via movement.

  19. 19.

    Notice that the result in Chuj is a morpheme combining the prepositional element yoj with the complementizer to, which together form the subordinating conjunction. This is a common configuration for subordinating conjunctions across languages (e.g. Spanish porque (lit. ‘for-that’)). There is no consensus on the syntactic status of subordinating conjunctions (see e.g. Haumann 1997). While some have argued that they are headed by PPs (e.g. Emonds 1976), others have argued that they realize the head of CP (e.g. Hendrick 1976).

  20. 20.

    Without further stipulation about the syntax of negation, the structure proposed in (63) makes the prediction that negation should not be able to take scope over the because-clause (see e.g. Lasnik 1972; Torrego 2018). At least in Chuj, this prediction is not borne out. There are different ways this fact could be explained. One possibility is that because-clauses are generated in a lower position and reconstruction allows them to scope under negation (though see Sect. 5.2.2 for potential reasons not to opt for this route). A second possibility is that negation can be interpreted very high, allowing it to sometimes scope over CP adjuncts. Since there is little work on the syntax and semantics of negation in Mayan, this issue falls outside the scope of the paper, and I leave it to future work.

  21. 21.

    Note that right-side topics usually appear with the marker ha, absent in (72). I hypothesize that the absence of ha is due to the absence of an overt nominal.

  22. 22.

    An anonymous reviewer asks how we can be sure that examples like (77) are not due to instances of speakers searching for vocabulary items, rather than to a grammatical property of the language. This question should be further investigated in future work (e.g. by establishing the frequency of breaks after prepositions and complementizers), however, I note for the moment that prosodic breaks between prepositions, complementizers, and their respective complements are not hard to find, and my intuition is that speakers who produce such breaks do not sound like they are searching for their words, as is the case for example with “tip-of-the-tongue” pauses.

  23. 23.

    Phasal accounts of the syntax-phonology interface have been proposed within both “direct-reference” and “indirect-reference” approaches. See Elfner 2018 for an overview.

  24. 24.

    See Coon 2010 and Clemens and Coon 2018 for alternatives on deriving VOS in Mayan.

  25. 25.

    Following Chomsky (2001), I assume that phase heads spell out their complements.

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Acknowledgements

¡Yuj wal yos t’ayex Matal Torres, Agenor Torres País, Tigo Torres País, Yun Torres, Elsa Torres Velasco, Xun Torres Velasquez, Ana Velasco and Heb’in Velasco, ixexkolwaj yib’an jun munlajel tik! Many thanks to Jessica Coon and Michael Wagner for their guidance on this project. For their comments and valuable feedback, I also would like to thank Telma Can Pixabaj, Meghan Clayards, Lauren Clemens, Aurore Gonzalez, Robert Henderson, Aron Hirsch, Carol-Rose Little, Martina Martinović, Clifton Pye, Rodrigo Ranero, Junko Shimoyama, the NLLT editor Daniel Harbour, three anonymous reviewers, members of the McGill syntax-semantics and prosody reading groups and participants of CILLA IX, NELS 50, and the LSA (94). A special thanks to Telma and Silvia Can Pixabaj for help with K’iche’. For funding, I thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and McGill University’s Faculty of Arts.

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Appendix: Data: Prosodic allomorphs in Chuj

Appendix: Data: Prosodic allomorphs in Chuj

1. Relational nouns: Across Mayan languages, relational nouns, which are formally possessed nominals, function more or less like prepositions in introducing oblique arguments (Coon 2016; Aissen et al. 2017):

  1. (86)
    figurecn

2. The interrogative word tas(i): The long form of tas(i) is only observed in its use as a wh-indefinite, since only in such cases is it possible for it to appear at a clausal boundary:

  1. (87)
    figureco

3. The dubitative marker: The morpheme (h)am(a’) is described as a dubitative mood marker in previous work on Chuj (see e.g. Maxwell 1982):

  1. (88)
    figurecp

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Royer, J. Prosody as syntactic evidence. Nat Lang Linguist Theory (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-021-09506-1

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Keywords

  • Prosody
  • Syntax-phonology interface
  • Extraposition
  • Mayan