Wolof wh-movement at the syntax-morphology interface


This paper is concerned with the seemingly complex morphosyntax of \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement in the Niger-Congo language Wolof. Wolof exhibits three different \(\mathrm{A}'\)-extraction effects: morphological marking of the cyclicity of movement, agreement in class between the wh-complementizer and the extracted phrase, and a subject/non-subject asymmetry, akin to the that-trace effect. The effects seem to surface in two seemingly different structural configurations, with their distribution not straightforwardly explainable as being of semantic of information-structural provenance. The analysis developed here advocates a unified syntax for all \(\mathrm{A}'\)-structures in Wolof, and aims to show that their surface morpho-syntactic properties can be understood as resulting from the general mechanisms underlying the operation Agree, such as the presence of particular uninterpretable features and their location, and the interaction of agreement with post-syntactic processes, specifically an OCP-type effect, akin to the Doubly-Filled-COMP Filter, resulting in post-syntactic impoverishment and complementizer allomorphy. This paper offers not only a unified analysis of \(\mathrm{A}'\)-extraction effects and maintains a unified syntax of \(\mathrm{A}'\)-extraction in Wolof, but crucially offers a principled account for the distribution of different shapes of the CP-layer in different instances of \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement in Wolof.

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  1. 1.

    Abbreviations: aux = auxiliary, cm = class marker, def = definite, dist = distal, fut = future tense marker, imperf = imperfective marker, indef = indefinite, neut = neutral, perf = perfective marker, pl = plural, pred.foc = predicate focus, prox = proximal, Q = question morpheme, sg = singular.

  2. 2.

    Unless otherwise noted, all the data in this paper come from my own field work with native speakers of Wolof in Saint-Louis, Senegal, Chicago, and Paris.

  3. 3.

    I translate Wolof EI constructions as English clefts, since this is the closest English meaning equivalent. It is important to keep in mind that Wolof EI structures are not syntactic clefts, as I extensively argue in Sect. 3.

  4. 4.

    Another difference is the position of the verb. This is not relevant for the present purposes.

  5. 5.

    For a detailed analysis of the difference between the two clause types—the one with obligatory pronominal subjects and the one without—see Martinović (2015a).

  6. 6.

    All pronominal clitics in Wolof cluster together immediately to the right of C, preceding the lexical subject, if there is one. If the subject is a clitic, it is the initial element in the clitic cluster. The subject clitic and the lexical subject therefore do not appear to occupy the same surface position in the syntax. For different analyses of Wolof cliticization, see Dunigan (1994), Russell (2006), Martinović (2015a).

  7. 7.

    They are sensitive to islands, exhibit reconstruction effects, and pass a Wolof-specific \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement test where the applicative suffix -al is obligatory on the verb when an applied object undergoes \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement, and is impossible otherwise. For details, see Torrence (2005, 2012a).

  8. 8.

    Other syntactic differences aside, EI constructions, comparatives and copular clauses all have the surface shape of the CP-layer in common: they all have an overt DP in Spec,CP. In EI structures it is the exhaustively identified constituent, in comparatives the DP which is the target of comparison, and in Double-DP copular sentences the predicate DP. Since there is no obvious unifying featural factor for these three structures, I argue in Sect. 5 that the fact that they all contain (l)a is the result of post-syntactic operations.

  9. 9.

    Wolof is a noun class language, like other Atlantic languages, and class membership is usually indicated on DP elements other than the noun, such as articles and demonstratives (Torrence 2005, 2012a,b).

  10. 10.

    Many Indo-European languages have cleft questions, English and French being among them. Austronesian languages, for example, have cleft- and pseudocleft-questions, in addition to wh-fronting (e.g. Potsdam 2009) and wh-in-situ. I am not aware of an ex-situ wh-question strategy aside from simple \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement that does not involve clefting or pseudoclefting.

  11. 11.

    This is not to say that \(\mathrm{C}_{\mathit{WH}}\) could not have additional features, some type of a focus feature amongst them. The claim I am making is that the presence of any additional features on \(\mathrm{C}_{\mathit{WH}}\) is not what determines the distribution of the two allomorphs. In other words, (l)a is not the spell-out of a head which always carries a focus feature.

  12. 12.

    But see Torrence (2013b) on a proposal for successive-cyclic clefting in Wolof.

  13. 13.

    By information-structurally neutral, I mean an out-of-the-blue or a broad sentence focus context.

  14. 14.

    See, for example, Potsdam (2009) and Potsdam and Polinsky (2012) for tests of bi-clausality of \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement constructions in Austronesian languages.

  15. 15.

    This is the only preposition that behaves in this way in Wolof. Other prepositional elements, ag ‘with’ (which is also a conjunction) and ngir ‘for’ cannot pied-pipe or be stranded in \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement, but are replaced with applicative/benefactive suffixes on the verb (Torrence 2012a).

  16. 16.

    Torrence (2012a) reports that there is variation in whether cm-u can occupy \(\mathrm{C}_{\mathit{WH}}\) in these types of questions. I have found no variation amongst my speakers from Saint Louis and Dakar, but I address Torrence’s data in Sect. 5 in more detail and show that my analysis can easily be extended to account for them as well.

  17. 17.

    Under this proposal, elements which are farther away can only move once the closest element has moved, following the Principle of Minimal Compliance (Richards 1997).

  18. 18.

    P&T argue that, though novel, this is not as radical as it may seem: “We are used to the idea that T (and its projections) bears features that are uninterpretable on it but would be interpretable were they found on D (e.g. person and number). Hypothesis (8) [i.e. that nominative case is uT on D] is simply the proposal that the reverse is also true. D and its projections bear features that are uninterpretable on it but would be interpretable were they found on T. We call the features proper to D “agreement” when borne by T, and we call the features proper to T “nominative” when borne by D.” (p. 364)

  19. 19.

    P&T propose that (41) arises due to the fact the C’s complement, TP, already merged with it once. Were it to move again, it would be in effect be merging with the same head twice. They suggest that, in such a case, only the head of the complement moves.

  20. 20.

    If C has the option of checking its uT either by attracting the subject or by attracting the TP, the question arises why this is not possible in object extraction in matrix questions, i.e., why both (ia) and (ib) are not well-formed:

    1. (i)

    P&T claim that this is in fact a possibility, but that in English this happens to have consequences on interpretation. According to their analysis, if a C with uWh has a non-wh-phrase as a specifier, the clause is interpreted as an exclamative. This is illustrated by examples that support exclamative interpretation, as in (ii):

    1. (ii)

    This predicts that it should not be possible to form an exclamative if the moved wh-phrase is the nominative subject—if the closest constituent that carries uT and uWh is the same phrase, no non-wh-phrase can move to Spec,CP, and the exclamative interpretation will be unavailable. This is the pattern we find:

    1. (iii)
  21. 21.

    I argue the reason for this to be that Wolof only allows for one specifier position. I return to this point shortly.

  22. 22.

    The subject could also value iφ, however, the object with iWh could then no longer move to Spec,CP, again, due to the fact that Wolof’s C only has one specifier position.

  23. 23.

    A reviewer points out that, for example, the perfective morpheme (w)oon can occur below C in the clause in which T-to-C movement presumably takes place. There is, however, no reason to believe that (w)oon occupies T, and not some lower projection (e.g. Aspect; see Martinović 2015a for a proposal along these lines). Furthermore, this analysis assumes that l- is the Spell-Out of T in C, and not of T in T. Even if (w)oon was generated in T, one feature could be spelled out in two positions. Multiple expression of a single element in different structural positions, as a result of A-movement, has been proposed, for example, for Clitic Doubling (Anagnostopoulou 2003; Harizanov 2014), and is also similar to analyses of resumption in languages where the resumptive pronoun behaves as a phonetically realized trace of movement (Engdahl 1985; Demirdache 1991).

  24. 24.

    This involves an implicit claim that the number of epp subfeatures (here all the relevant features have an epp subfeature) does not necessarily correspond to the number of specifier positions. At this point, this is only a stipulation which needs to be further tested.

  25. 25.

    Recall that P&T claim this is a possible derivation in English, with consequences for interpretation in matrix clauses (being felicitous only in structures that support an exclamative interpretation), and resulting in the optionality of that in embedded clauses in non-subject extraction.

  26. 26.

    Under the assumption that Wolof does not allow for two specifier positions and that the local subject from Spec,TP cannot satisfy uT by moving to Spec,CP, since it would block the movement of the wh-phrase to that position.

  27. 27.

    Whether or not there is an intermediate stop of the wh-phrase in Spec,vP is not relevant for our purposes.

  28. 28.

    I have not systematically explored this proposal, but according to my data, speakers commonly place a pause after ni.

  29. 29.

    Another question is why something like Prosodic Inversion (Halpern 1995) does not take place, moving the clitic a immediately to the right of its prosodic host at PF. The simplest answer is that this is not how the prosodic requirements of \(\mathrm{C}_{\mathit{WH}}\) are satisfied in Wolof. Arregi and Nevins (2012) (Chap. 5) show that the Noninitiality requirement of some morphemes in Basque is satisfied in different ways in different dialects—some employ inversion, and others a default epenthetic process which provides an ‘expletive clitic’. As shall become clearer in the following section, cross-linguistic variation in mechanisms used to satisfy post-syntactic requirements is not an exception, but the rule.

  30. 30.

    Analyses which assume they are syntactically different, such as Torrence (2005) (and his subsequent work), do not have an account of their distribution.

  31. 31.

    This formalization of the OCPφ constraint accounts for all of the Wolof data. There is no subject-verb agreement in Wolof, so this constraint would not interfere with φ-agreement in T. Obliviously, it is too broad for languages which have DFCF effects and subject-verb agreement in T. Since this paper does not attempt to extend the current analysis to cover all types of DFCF effects, this formulation is sufficiently precise for our purposes.

  32. 32.

    All the uninterpretable features are checked at this point of the derivation. I omit representing this (via a strikethrough) in subsequent trees for simplicity.

  33. 33.

    For example, Noyer (1997) argues that, if two features, A and B, are targeted by a constraint such as *[A, B], only the feature lower on the feature hierarchy can delete.

  34. 34.

    If my analysis is on the right track and the DFCF has its origin in post-syntactic restrictions on feature co-occurrence, we need to say something about the fact that the DFCF is commonly active in the CP-layer, but not in the TP-layer, where agreement does not usually seem to result in this type of a dissimilation. I do not have much to say about this at this point. It is in fact possible that similar feature co-occurrence restrictions are active in the TP-layer as well, in languages which do not have overt subject-verb agreement; in fact, Wolof is precisely such a language. It is of course also possible that this is something special to the CP-layer, which will then also need to be explained. I leave this as an open question for further research.

  35. 35.

    Recall from Table 1 that two other \(\mathrm{A}'\)-movement structures, comparative constructions and copular sentences with nominal predicates, also contain (l)a. As it was mentioned in footnote 8, other syntactic differences aside, their CP-layers are identical in that they involve movement of a non-wh DP to Spec,CP. Recoverability therefore prohibits their deletion, and such constructions also surface only with (l)a.

  36. 36.

    cm-u also occurs in temporal clauses and conditionals, which are a type of relative clause (Torrence 2012a), differing in some ways from regular relative clauses, but not in the shape of the CP-layer. In this paper I restrict the discussion to simple relative clauses, assuming that the analysis extends to temporal and conditional clauses.

  37. 37.

    Wolof is for the most part a head-initial language. Interestingly, it has a mixed determiner system, where the indefinite determiner is pre-nominal, and definite determiners post-nominal.

  38. 38.

    The three versions of this complementizer differ in their distribution. Only cm-u can be used in questions, and only cm-i in certain free relative constructions (Caponigro and Heller 2007). In this paper, I am disregarding these distributional facts, though the definiteness of the complementizer plays an important role in my analysis, as discussed in the remainder of this section.

  39. 39.

    In the variety of Wolof examined by Torrence (2012a,b), the determiner can optionally surface on the edges of the relative clause (the definite ones on the right, and the indefinite on the left edge), as in (i) (example from Torrence 2012a:103).

    1. (i)

    Such forms are not grammatical for any of my speakers, however, my analysis does not hinge on the exact position of the determiner, as I assume that a mechanism different from the OCPφ is involved in regulating the co-occurrence of C and D, as elaborated on later in this section.

  40. 40.

    It also cannot account for Torrence’s data, in which the determiners can optionally surface on the edges of relative clauses.

  41. 41.

    Another possibility which can account for reconstruction effects is the head raising analysis (e.g. Brame 1968; Schachter 1973; Vergnaud 1974; Åfarli 1994; Kayne 1994; Bhatt 1999, 2002), according to which the head NP originates inside the relative clause, but is not necessarily located in Spec,CP in the final structure (its final position varies in different analyses). Whether one of the two analyses should be given preference in Wolof is not relevant for the present purposes, and is left for future research.

  42. 42.

    This rests on the assumption that the complementizer obtains proximity and definiteness via agreement with D of the external head, and that the relative operator does not inflect for these features.

  43. 43.

    On more evidence for post-syntactic processes being able to feed syntax, see Martinović (2015a).

  44. 44.

    The fact that a higher copy of the move phrase exists does not affect Recoverability in the post-syntax, which only evaluates the immediate Spell-Out domain.


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This project started as a qualifying paper and evolved into a part of my dissertation, significantly influencing the overall direction of my research. Biggest thanks are due to Karlos Arregi for numerous discussions of various parts of this research and thorough comments on many versions of this paper. Thanks to Jason Merchant and David Pesetsky for their most helpful input, and especially to Julie Anne Legate and four anonymous NLLT reviewers for their very constructive criticism. I also wish to thank the audiences at NELS 42, LSA 86 and LSA 88, the students and faculty at the Linguistics Department at University of Potsdam and University of Göttingen, where various parts of this research were presented, for their thoughtful comments. Finally, I thank my many Wolof native speaker consultants, especially Aliou Sougou and Jean-Léopold Diouf, without whom none of this would be possible. This research was funded by the University of Chicago Linguistic Department’s Rella Cohn Fund for Graduate Research in Linguistics, the France Chicago Center François Furet Travel Grant and the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (BCS-1349105). All errors are my own.

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Martinović, M. Wolof wh-movement at the syntax-morphology interface. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 35, 205–256 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-016-9335-y

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  • Wh-movement
  • Complementizer agreement
  • Complementizer allomorphy
  • The that-trace effect
  • Subject/non-subject asymmetries
  • Morphological Optimality Contour Principle
  • Doubly-Filled-Comp-Filter
  • Dissimilation
  • Impoverishment
  • Obliteration
  • Feature co-occurrence
  • Wolof