Syntactic Variation: Sentences and Utterances

Ralph Fasold – Georgetown University
Course time: Tuesday/Thursday 11:00 am – 12:50 pm
2333 Mason Hall

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This course will explore how inherent variability, as asserted by linguistic variation scholarship, can be understood with respect to variation in syntax. We will limit ourselves to what Suzanne Romaine has referred to as “pure syntactic variables”, as opposed to morphosyntactic/ morpholexical, morphophonemic and pure phonological, variables.  The approach to syntax that we will assume is the Minimalist Program (MP) of Noam Chomsky. Relating variation in “pure syntax” to the MP is more daunting than it might at first seem, because MP theory and variation theory are not about the same thing.  MP syntax is about sentences.  Variation analysis is about utterances.  Sentences are abstractions; utterances are observable events. One cannot, strictly speaking, write or speak a sentence, only an utterance approximating one. The course will propose that we need separate approaches to sentences and utterances.  Both contribute to the understanding of language, but are fundamentally separate.

We will take up in detail four cases of “pure” syntactic variation: 1) the alternation among which, that and zero in relative clauses as studied by Tagliamonte et al (2005), 2)  the variation between pronouns and reflexives that exists even where the classic binding theory forbids it, 3) variation in word order in Dutch verb clusters as researched by Barbiers (2005), and 4) the alternation between preposition stranding and pied-piping of WH-noun phrases. The second and third cases emerge from my own research.

The approach will be in-class lectures augmented by Powerpoint slides.  There will be two out-of-class assignments, in which students will be asked to search an online corpus for examples that support or challenge the analyses of reflexives and pied-piping presented in class. The assignments will call for a discussion of how the examples relate to the presented analyses.

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