LingLang Lunch (9/26/2018): Mirjam Fried (Charles University in Prague)

Mirjam Fried is Associate Professor of Department of Linguistics at Charles University in Prague (CUNI). She is interested in the cognitive and functional aspects of language description and analysis. She investigates various aspects of morphology and morphosyntax from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. For more information, her website is here.

When main clauses go AWOL: a constructional account of polarity shifts in insubordination

The language of spontaneous dialog is an indispensable resource for elucidating the complex patterns of language production and reception (Levinson & Holler 2014). Moreover, the natural state of spoken language is its permanent variability, which makes a systematic description of its properties a real challenge, but at the same time offers an informative window into the ways new patterns and new categories may develop in interactional practice. The process of forming a new linguistic device is also the main concern of this talk, addressing the general question of how language users may recruit existing grammatical resources in order to create new linguistic patterns with new functions. I pursue the hypothesis that grammatical change originates in the interplay between a specific item and a concrete environment in which it is used and that the interaction helps shape the kind of change that eventually results.

Using material from the spoken corpora of the Czech National Corpus, I will illustrate these issues through a particular case so far largely untouched in relevant research: the usage of the word jestli ‘if/whether’ not in its etymologically motivated function as a syntactic complementizer (as in Nikdo neví, jestli to Martin udělá ‘Nobody knows if Martin will do it’) but in one of its non-propositional functions of expressing a subjective guess about something being likely (1) or unlikely (2); note also that the lexeme (in bold) tends to be phonetically reduced, sometimes quite drastically (1):

(1) esi vona nečekala na telefon

‘[I don’t’ know for sure but I think] she may’ve been waiting for a phone call.’

(lit. ‘if/whether she didn’t wait for a phone call’)

(2) jesi vůbec tam maj ňáký dřevo na topení

‘[I don’t’ know for sure but I don’t think] they many not have any wood to burn’.

(lit. ‘if/whether they have any wood at all for burning’)

These patterns exemplify one type of a cross-linguistically wide-spread and well-attested phenomenon known as insubordination (Evans 2007, 2009; Evans & Watanabi 2016), whereby an erstwhile subordinate clause introduced by a dedicated subordinating complementizer retains its form but loses its main clause and develops new conventional meanings. In this talk, I will concentrate on the cluster of questions concerning the gradual loss of the main clause (full clause > lexically fixed reduced clause > discourse particle > 0), specifically zeroing in on the resulting polarity patterns in the free-standing jestli-clauses; the use of negation is observably different from the regular syntactic counterparts. I suggest that the origins and development of insubordination must be analyzed primarily as an issue of discourse organization rather than from a purely syntactic perspective (such as loss of a paratactic structure or simple ellipsis of main clause), but with consequences for their syntactic behavior as well.

The analysis speaks to both typological and theoretical concerns. (i) It confirms that this subset of jestli-insubordination in conversational Czech can be related to the typology proposed by Evans in two of the three general categories: expressing a broad spectrum of modal meanings (here, subjective epistemic assessment, as in 1-2) and signaling presupposed material (negation and disagreement in 2). And (ii) from a broader theoretical perspective, insubordination makes a case for a particular approach to grammatical description, namely, one that takes into account both internal features of linguistic units and a ‘holistic’ perspective on specific conventionalized constellations of linguistic units. This multi-dimensional view is the basic conceptual tenet of constructional approaches and allows naturally for integrating both compositional and non-compositional properties of linguistic patterns.