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Unagreement is an illusion

Apparent person mismatches and nominal structure

Abstract

This paper proposes an analysis of unagreement, a phenomenon involving an apparent mismatch between a definite third person plural subject and first or second person plural subject agreement observed in various null subject languages (e.g. Spanish, Modern Greek and Bulgarian), but notoriously absent in others (e.g. Italian, European Portuguese). A cross-linguistic correlation between unagreement and the structure of adnominal pronoun constructions suggests that the availability of unagreement depends on whether person and definiteness are hosted by separate heads (in languages like Greek) or bundled on a single head (i.e. pronominal determiners in languages like Italian). Null spell-out of the head hosting person features high in the extended nominal projection of the subject leads to unagreement. The lack of unagreement in languages with pronominal determiners results from the interaction of their syntactic structure with the properties of the vocabulary items realising the head encoding both person and definiteness. The analysis provides a principled explanation for the cross-linguistic distribution of unagreement and suggests a unified framework for deriving unagreement, adnominal pronoun constructions, personal pronouns and pro.

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Notes

  1. Norman also notes previous treatments of Bulgarian by Stojanov (1964, 313) and Popov (1988, 11) and refers to Piper (1998, 28–29) for the availability of a similar construction in Slovenian and its absence in Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (BCMS).

  2. For a brief discussion of potential cases of singular unagreement see the Appendix.

  3. Thanks to Dimitris Michelioudakis for coming up with this example.

  4. Kaneis and kanenas differ wrt. whether they allow a nominal complement.

  5. Examples such as (i) and (ii) are grammatical only in the presence of some phrase “supporting” their distributivity. Furthermore, the definite determiner with the quantifier kathe is dispreferred and there is a preference for the quantified phrase to be located postverbally in these cases (Dimitris Michelioudakis, personal communication).

    1. (i)
      figure p
    1. (ii)
      figure q

    Michelioudakis (2011, 110, fn. 27) notes that the Greek distributive quantifier behaves exceptionally in other respects as well. In Greek, indirect objects can be expressed either by PPs like ston kathigiti ‘to the professor’ or the genitive tou kathigiti ‘of the professor’. Usually, only a genitive indirect object can be doubled by a clitic, but if the PP contains the quantifier kathe paired with an indefinite distributee, it may exceptionally be doubled by a genitive clitic too, cf. (1) adapted from Michelioudakis (2011, 110f., (43a)).

    1. (iii)
      figure r
  6. I have also found a speaker of Spanish raised in Venezuela who only allowed third person singular agreement with cada and ninguno. If this represents a stable pattern, one might speculate that some South American varieties of Spanish are more restrictive than Peninsular ones with respect to unagreeing negative and universal distributive quantifiers. Against this background, the comparable patterns found in Spanish, Catalan and Galician could be at least partly due to an areal effect.

  7. If third person is a “non-person” (Benveniste 1971) marked by the absence of features relating to discourse participants (Harley and Ritter 2002; Panagiotidis 2002), then the verbal φ-features on T simply lack a nominal controller in unagreement configurations, cf. (i). If, on the other hand, third person corresponds to substantive features, e.g. [−author, −participant] (Nevins 2007, 2011), unagreement configurations display an outright mismatch between the φ-features on the subject and T, see (ii).

    1. (i)
      figure ab
    1. (ii)
      figure ac
  8. For the interpretability of verbal φ-features cf. the hypothesis that in null subject languages verbal inflexion satisfies the EPP and receives the subject theta-role of the verb (Jelinek 1984; Borer 1986; Barbosa 1995; Alexiadou and Anagnostopoulou 1998).

  9. Den Dikken (2001) also assumes an appositive analysis for British English “pluringulars” of the the committee have decided type and Costa and Pereira (2013) adopt it to explain how European Portuguese a gente ‘we’ (literally ‘the people’) comes to trigger first plural agreement.

  10. The term adnominal pronoun is borrowed from Rauh (2003).

  11. Choi (2013) makes basically the same observation. As with most descriptive generalisations, there are potential complications for this one. Arabic, Hebrew and Romanian have articles in APCs, yet lack standard unagreement. The special nature of definiteness marking in these languages may turn out to be crucial for understanding these restrictions.

  12. I am not going to address here some issues specific to English, such as the preference of many speakers for the accusative form of the pronoun (us students) or the restricted occurrence of apparent type II APCs (we the people). For an approach to the first issue see Parrott (2009).

  13. Following Roehrs (2005, 2006), the pronominal determiner may move to D from a lower art head.

  14. This has been used as an argument against the pronominal determiner analysis in general (Choi 2013).

  15. She calls the two types “non-appositions” and epexegesis—from the Greek grammatical term επεξήγηση ‘explanation, comment’. These seem to correspond to the notions of close and loose apposition respectively, cf. Lekakou and Szendrői (2007, 2012).

  16. On this view, one could entertain the hypothesis that postnominal anaphoric demonstratives are derived by movement of DP to Spec,PersP. Such an analysis offers a potential account for why in Spanish the definite article shows up with postnominal, but not prenominal demonstratives (estos (*los) estudiantes vs. *(los) estudiantes estos ‘these students’). Assuming that its absence with prenominal demonstratives is due to a morpho-phonological linear adjacency effect between Pers and D, movement of DP would bleed the necessary structure for this effect to apply.

    A (maybe not very attractive) way to retain a phrasal analysis of demonstratives in this framework might be to assume that they move to Spec,PersP and that the realisation of Spec and head of PersP is subject to some contemporary version of the doubly filled COMP filter, e.g. the Edge(X) condition of Collins (2007) as stated by Terzi (2010, 180):

    1. (i)
      figure bn
  17. Some additional provision is needed to restrict this effect to positions that are φ-identified by a probe, cf. e.g. Roberts and Holmberg (2010), to prevent overgeneration of null objects.

  18. Note that Ackema and Neeleman’s (2013) contrast between “quantificational” and the simple “referential” unagreement is presumably based on exactly this property.

  19. A potential, if limited, correlate of these considerations is the overall absence of determiners with these kinds of quantifiers in Greek. Against this background, the somewhat unexpected obligatory definite article in oi perissoteroi ‘most’ deserves further attention.

  20. One consultant found this reading marginal, hence the % marking. Note that the sentence is unacceptable with past tense, plausibly for semantic reasons.

  21. As noted in fn. 24, this underspecification of the utterance author’s belonging to one group or the other is only possible in future contexts. For some discussion of the semantics of unagreement, cf. Höhn (2014).

  22. An empirical argument against attempts to reduce object unagreement to a configuration where the Pers head in a simple xnP head-adjoins to the verb as a clitic comes from the fact that the clitic doubled argument can also be a full APC, cf. Sect. 3.3.

  23. Notice that (82) might be derived from the structure of type II APCs in (72) by head-movement of D to Pers and subsequent fusion, or alternatively it could be an effect of Svenonius’ (2012) spanning or indicate that there is cross-linguistic variation in which functional head person features associate with. I will not further discuss this question here, since the representation in (82) is sufficient for present purposes.

  24. In order for the demonstrative to be mandatory in the reported sentence, the contrast should be between two subgroups of students, rather than between a a group of students and another one of non-students. In order to indicate the required interpretation, the second occurrence of studenti ‘students’ is included in brackets, although it would normally undergo nominal ellipsis.

  25. If it were underspecified for person features, on the other hand, the subset principle (Halle 1997; Harley and Noyer 1999) would trigger insertion of the most specific VI for a given node. Hence, the more specific noi should also be inserted. Note that on this view something would need to be said about the absence of gender specification in VI for the pronominal determiner.

  26. For this intuition compare also Ioannidou and den Dikken (2009, 399): “[…]the phonological properties of the MG definite articles are such that they demand something to their right within the complex noun phrase: being proclitic, they cannot be final in DP. […] whenever [the article] is stranded in final position, the copy of the definite article in this [final] position must remain silent.”

  27. A less general alternative would be to state that no overt material may follow the head at vocabulary insertion. However, this would not account for Bulgarian and Aromanian.

  28. The particle re indicates familiarity (see Karachaliou and Archakis 2012 and also Tsoulas and Alexiadou 2005).

  29. See http://forum.eimaimama.gr/t11189p800-topic; accessed 26 February 2013. I thank Dimitris Michelioudakis (personal communication) for this relaying this.

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Acknowledgements

This research originated from my UCL master’s thesis supervised by Andrew Nevins and the significant modifications and improvements it has undergone since were funded by the European Research Council Advanced Grant No. 269752 “Rethinking Comparative Syntax”. A special thank you to Ad Neeleman for recommending unagreement as a research topic. I am indebted to my language consultants for sharing their linguistic intuitions with me and to the many people who helped me with their comments or by providing relevant material, i.a. Klaus Abels, Rusudan Asatiani, Ioanna Balamoti, András Bárány, Hagit Borer, Cinzia Campanini, João Costa, Emilia Dimitrova, Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin, Maia Duguine, Ricardo Etxepare, Javier Fernández Sánchez, Ion Giurgea, Aritz Irurtzun, George Hewitt, Concha Höfler, Anders Holmberg, Gianina Iordachioaia, Beste Kamali, Katerina Danae Kandylaki, Vital Kazimoto, Thomas Leu, Giuseppe Longobardi, Cristina Isabel López Sanjurjo, Eleni Malideli, Simona Mancini, Nikoleta Mukareva, Andrew Nevins, Eleana Nikiforidou, Phoevos Panagiotidis, Konstantinos Papadopoulos, Marko Perić, Aurelio Romero Bermúdez, Anna Roussou, Andrés Saab, Giuseppina Silvestri, Ioanna Sitaridou, Sapfo Sitaridou, Stavros Skopeteas, Vassilis Spyropoulos, Melita Stavrou, Konstantinos Tsaltas, Arhonto Terzi, Julio Villa-García, Philipp Weisser and Christos Zarkogiannis. I am particularly obliged to Dimitris Michelioudakis for detailed discussions of various aspects of the phenomenon, to Melita Stavrou for written comments on an early version of the manuscript and to Theresa Biberauer, Ian Roberts and Michelle Sheehan for their support throughout the production of this article. Last but not least, I am very grateful to three anonymous NLLT reviewers whose detailed comments have helped greatly to improve the article. All remaining shortcomings are my own.

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Appendix: Singular unagreement in Greek

Appendix: Singular unagreement in Greek

Pronominal determiner structures, i.e. type I APCs, have been observed to show a rather consistent singular-plural asymmetry cross-linguistically (e.g. Delorme and Dougherty 1972; Pesetsky 1978; Lyons 1999, 141–145). While plural APCs seem to be readily available in many languages, their singular counterparts are usually highly restricted if at all available. English, for example, restricts singular pronominal determiners to second person exclamations (*I idiot, you idiot!), they cannot be subjects of declarative sentences. To the extent that a singular APC like you linguist! is acceptable, it is likely to be construed as emotionally charged.

In German, on the other hand, singular APCs are less restricted. They can be used as arguments, most commonly with emotively marked expressions/epithets at the lexical core (101), but in principle also with “emotionally neutral” nouns, cf. (102) adapted from Rauh (2004, 96). There seem to be stricter contextual restrictions on the use of singular APCs as compared to plural ones (Rauh 2004), so in that sense a singular-plural asymmetry is attested here as well.

  1. (101)
    figure cc
  1. (102)
    figure cd

Against the background of the proposal that unagreement is basically a special form of APC, it is not surprising that there is a singular-plural asymmetry for unagreement as well, as indicated by the lack of singular unagreement in Spanish (cf. Sect. 6.1). Greek also prefers unagreement with plural subjects, however it also allows a few cases of singular unagreement, most readily with emotionally charged nouns like vlakas ‘stupid, idiot’ as in (1) or the expressions o anthropos ‘the human’ or i gynaika ‘the woman’, which indicate a certain emotional involvement as well, cf. (2). The same goes for nominalised adjectives as in (105).

  1. (103)
    figure ce
  1. (104)
    figure cf
  1. (105)
    figure cg

As an aside, second person singular unagreement seems to be harder to access for many speakers. This is likely due to interference from the vocative, which is used frequently in Modern Greek, particularly in contexts involving emotives like vlakas ‘stupid, idiot’. The already rather restricted singular unagreement seems to lose the competition against the common vocative construction for these speakers, as illustrated in (106).Footnote 28 However, instances of second person singular unagreement can be found, cf. examples such as (2).Footnote 29

  1. (106)
    figure ch
  1. (107)
    figure ci

The fact that emotively marked nouns are more readily available for unagreement is illustrated by the contrast in (1). Importantly, the German examples in (2) show a comparable pattern.

  1. (108)
    figure cj
  1. (109)
    figure ck

Nevertheless, in both languages it is also possible to use less marked nouns if they can be related to the context as in (2)—the Greek version was kindly provided by Dimitris Michelioudakis (personal communication). In these examples, the subject indicating that the speaker is a linguist may provide a justification for the contextually relevant interest in dictionaries.

  1. (110)
    figure cl

Regarding the general lack of singular unagreement in Spanish, Torrego (1996, 115f.) notes that “[t]he fact that floating definites have to be plurals also seems to be rooted in semantics […] Since singulars denote atomic individuals, they are entities that are not distributable.” Based on a similar intuition, Rauh (2004) suggests that the restricted availability of singular APCs in German results from the conversational maxims of relevance and quantity (Grice 1975). The noun in plural APCs is relevant insofar as it helps to disambiguate reference. In singular APCs, on the other hand, the complement nominal needs to add new information about speaker or hearer or highlight some property of the speaker/hearer that is contextually relevant. This explanation naturally extends to Greek singular unagreement under the current proposal.

Notice that the contrast between the unacceptability of the emotionally neutral nouns in (108) and (109) and the acceptability of (110) may not be accounted for by Rauh’s approach alone. It is at least feasible that the fact that the speaker was the designated driver for the trip in (108) would be relevant new information, since it would explain why it was particularly bad for him to be late. The distinction between stage-level and individual-level predicates may play an additional role here. Possibly, (108-b) and (109-b) are bad because the property the APC is based on is a stage-level property, i.e. it is not the speaker’s profession that is under discussion, but his temporal assignment as driver for the day trip.

In conclusion, these data illustrate a striking parallel between German singular APCs and Greek singular unagreement. In both languages, emotively marked nominal expressions are easily available in these constructions, while common nouns need some additional contextual cue. While an explanation for the lack of argumental singular APCs in English and singular unagreement in Spanish is still outstanding, the present view implies that an explanation for one of these phenomena would provide an account for the other one as well. I defer to future research the investigation of the relation of singular and plural constructions of these sorts to epithets, which seem to differ in their binding properties from both R-expressions and pronouns (cf. Lasnik 1991).

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Höhn, G.F.K. Unagreement is an illusion. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 34, 543–592 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9311-y

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Keywords

  • Unagreement
  • Subset control
  • Pronominal determiners
  • Adnominal pronouns
  • Person mismatch
  • Nominal structure
  • Distributed Morphology
  • Modern Greek