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Tonal reflexes of movement in Asante Twi

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We argue that Asante Twi has a process of tonal overwriting on verbs that are crossed by an A’-dependency. It is shown that this view captures the distribution of the process across ex-situ focus constructions, relative clauses and adverbial clauses, which are all contexts involving operator movement. Furthermore, we illustrate that this process is unbounded and applies to each verb in a long-distance dependency. We therefore conclude that this is a reflex of successive-cyclic movement through vP. Additionally, we provide a detailed study of resumption in Asante Twi, showing that despite island-insensitivity, resumption is still derived by movement. Finally, the morpho-phonological side of the phenomenon is investigated. It is shown that overwriting affects only those affixes below v and not those above, which follows from cyclic Vocabulary Insertion. This provides support for Kandybowicz’ (2017) assumption that aspect and negation are lower than vP in Asante Twi.

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  1. 1.

    All non-cited data come from the first co-author of the paper, who is a native speaker of Akan and has native intuitions about the Asante Twi and Fante dialects. Crucial judgments have been cross-checked with other native speakers of the Asante Twi dialect. High tones are marked with an acute accent (e.g. á) and low tones are generally unmarked (but sometimes with a grave accent à). Downstepped high tones are marked with a superscript exclamation mark (!). Note that we focus on Asante Twi in particular here since other dialects of Akan (such as Fante) exhibit tonal polarity where the corresponding low-toned habitual verb stems in Asante Twi actually surface with high tones even in discourse-neutral contexts (see Abakah 2005:123ff.). While Akan has a rich array of segmental phonological processes such as assimilation (Schachter 1969) and ATR harmony (Casali 2012; Kügler 2015), we follow standard Akan orthography and do not represent such processes graphemically, unless immediately relevant.

  2. 2.

    Note that this process is not limited to extraction of arguments. Tonal overwriting is also found with extraction of adjuncts such as dabέn (‘when’) (11b) and Ɛhéńfá (‘where’) (11d).

    1. (i)
  3. 3.

    It is worth noting that there are other kinds of tonal overwriting in Asante Twi. For example, Dolphyne (1988) discusses high-tone spreading in associative constructions, and Paster (2010) discusses low tone overwriting in the imperative (see Sect. 4.1). Certain kinds of prefixes also trigger tonal alternations on verb roots (Schachter and Fromkin 1968; Paster 2010) (see Sect. 4.2). As far as we can tell, these processes are fully independent of the particular kind of high-tone overwriting described here.

  4. 4.

    It was originally suggested that only transitive vP (i.e. v*P) was a phase. However, subsequent work argued that unaccusative and passive vP should also constitute phases (see e.g. Legate 2003; Sauerland 2003).

  5. 5.

    It is important to note however that this is only straightforward for transparent reflexes which occur uniformly along the extraction path (what Georgi 2014 calls Pattern I reflexes). As Georgi (2014, 2017) discusses, there are also patterns which mark exclusively final or non-final movement steps, which can motivate treating the reflex as a realization of Spec-Head wh-agreement.

  6. 6.

    There is an additional complementizer aN (triggering nasalization of the following segment) that occurs with resumptive dependencies (34).

    1. (i)

    McCloskey argues that this results from a base-generated pro in Spec-CP that binds the resumptive pronoun í directly. Thus, no movement is involved in an example such as (33). Thus, we would have to refine the Vocabulary Items in (34) to involve an OP(erator) feature, as McCloskey (2002) suggests. Such cases are not relevant for the Asante Twi data. Although Asante Twi has overt resumptives with animates, they behave exactly like gaps do, and also show movement effects (see Sect. 3).

  7. 7.

    Titov (2019:29f.) follows Boadi (1974) and Ofori (2011) in assuming that na-focus constructions are actually bi-clausal structures, where the focus particle na is the result of phonological fusion of the copula ne and the relative marker áa. In particular, Titov (2019) treats this as an underlying inverse pseudocleft with fusion of ne and áa (35).

    1. (i)

    This is not a plausible synchronic analysis for the na-construction, however, since free/headless relative clauses in Asante Twi do not take the áa relative marker, but rather the topic marker déέ (35) (Boadi 2005:155ff.).

    1. (ii)

    Furthermore, despite some similarities between focus constructions and relative clauses (e.g. regarding tone), there are also surface differences such as the distribution of the clausal determiner (cd). While the CD is obligatory with relative clauses (Saah 2010:100), it is typically optional in na-focus constructions. This difference would be unexpected if they shared the same underlying source.

  8. 8.

    It is important to note that this is not simply an effect of ‘clause-finality,’ since structurally higher clause-final material, such as the question particle anaa, does not license an inanimate pronoun (49b) (also see Korsah 2017:27f.).

    1. (i)

    Furthermore, adding a pause before the adverb in examples such as (48a) and (49b) leads to the disappearance of the pronoun. As a reviewer suggests, this may highlight the role of prosodic phrasing, i.e. pro-drop applies when the pronoun is final in its intonation phrase (see Reglero 2007 on with wh-in-situ in Spanish). Furthermore, the special intonation of the yes-no question in (48b) may also have a similar effect (as also noted by the reviewer).

  9. 9.

    Titov (2019) disputes the existence of WCO in Akan. This is not too surprising, since WCO is known to be a somewhat fragile diagnostic, subject to inter-speaker variation (see e.g. Salzmann 2017b:197). Regarding WCO with resumptives in Swedish, Asudeh (2012:245) notes that ‘as is common with weak crossover judgments, there is some speaker uncertainty and variation here. For some speakers, the judgments are quite robust, though.’ (also see Baker and Kramer 2018:1045 on WCO variation in Amharic). As far we can tell, the situation is similar in Asante Twi, with some speakers having robust sensitivity to WCO. Speakers without WCO might be employing a logophoric strategy, or treating the possessor as the resumptive (i.e. Left-Branch Extraction). Examples such as (64b) become relevant in this regard because epithets do not function as resumptives in Asante Twi and are generally assumed to be anti-logophoric (e.g. Dubinsky and Hamilton 1998).

  10. 10.

    A reviewer points out an interesting example in which a -construction is embedded under a focus construction. Here, we still observe tonal overwriting on the verb (76).

    1. (i)

    While we cannot investigate this construction in detail, there are a number of potential analyses that would be consistent with our proposal. One such analysis is that the subject simply moves across a base-generated topic pronoun. The alternative would be to assume that a moving phrase can exceptionally stop at Spec-Top (and trigger resumption) en route to its final landing site (however, we might expect to find a D-linked interpretation). For now, we leave such examples for further investigation in future research.

  11. 11.

    An anonymous reviewer provides the following example in which the idiomatic reading of the idiom ka ne mpaboa so (‘to polish one’s shoe’), i.e. ‘to be drunk,’ is also possible in the déέ-construction (78b).

    1. (i)

    If there are certain idiom chunks that license idiomatic readings even under base-generation, this is not necessarily fatal for our analysis, since idioms are known to vary with regard to their ‘transparency,’ i.e. their ability to participate in syntactic dependencies (see e.g. Fraser 1970; Nunberg et al. 1994). Thus, some idioms, such as the one in (77), could be able to control the (null) pronoun in a base-generation structure, whereas others cannot and would therefore require reconstruction to derive an idiomatic interpretation.

  12. 12.

    There are a couple of, still poorly understood, exceptions to this basic picture. As discussed by Korsah (2017:111), speakers allow for optional Ɛ-marking on the verb with animate subjects in some restricted contexts. These include serial verb constructions and with subjects of intransitive verbs (79a). Importantly, this option requires an overt DP subject and is not possible under pro drop (79b). We leave further investigation of these exceptions to future research.

    1. (i)
  13. 13.

    This can be thought of as analogous to the LF process of Trace Conversion (Fox 1999, 2002). It is also conceivable that Pronoun Conversion is the PF equivalent of vehicle change (Fiengo and May 1994), where an R-expression can be construed as a coreferent pronoun at LF. Importantly, vehicle change has also been claimed to apply to traces in movement chains (Giannakidou and Merchant 1998; Safir 1999; Hunter and Yoshida 2016). It could also be viewed as the same process as with island-sensitive resumptives, e.g. deletion (van Urk 2018) or m-Merger (Harizanov 2014), but with variation in the timing of when island constraints are evaluated. Crucially, Pronoun Conversion must apply before, and therefore feed satisfaction of, island constraints. In island-sensitive languages, the Pronoun Conversion process applies too late (counter-feeding).

  14. 14.

    It seems that extrinsic ordering of Pronoun Conversion must be assumed in Asante Twi with regard to pro drop. Since island violations are still obviated by pro-dropped resumptives, we must assume that PF-islandhood is checked after Pronoun Conversion, but before pro drop applies (thanks to Ivy Sichel for pointing this out).

  15. 15.

    Although these affixes are cognates of the verbs for ‘come’ and ‘go,’ it is not possible to analyze them (synchronically) as serial verb constructions. In serial verb constructions, both verbs typically inflect for tense/aspect/agreement (see Hellan et al. 2003). In some aspects, the second verb in an SVC bears ‘infinitive’ or ‘consecutive’ marking as with in (97), which makes it distinct from its grammaticalized use as an aspectual prefix.

    1. (i)
  16. 16.

    Note that, in (101), although past tense is a floating mora (Ofori 2006; Paster 2010), Akan does not allow heavy syllables (*CVC, *CVV). Long vowels and final nasals are associated with separate syllables (Dolphyne 1988:52ff.). We assume that the additional syllable node is inserted as a repair to a constraint militating against bi-moraic syllables. Also, Kügler (2015) shows that there are some limited cases of ATR-harmony across words in Akan, however they only include regressive harmony between a sequence of [−ATR]-[+ATR] and only within a phonological phrase (φ). We therefore do not believe that such exceptions fundamentally undermine the applicability of this diagnostic.

  17. 17.

    We assume that the H tones belonging to the circumfix cannot be deleted due to a high-ranked constraint on morpheme realization (e.g. RealizeMorpheme; Kurisu 2001).

  18. 18.

    We diverge from Kandybowicz (2015) by continuing to represent the morpheme as , following standard Akan orthography.

  19. 19.

    This presupposes that the Head Movement Constraint cannot be absolute, but rather relativized for certain heads, see Baker and Collins (2006:313) for a similar assumption. Kandybowicz (2015) provides further evidence for V-to-T movement from the periphrastic expression of past tense with na, which will not be discussed here.

  20. 20.

    Furthermore, motion aspect seems to occur even lower than negation (and in conjunction with other aspects) (114) (also see Boadi 2008:14), suggesting it occupies another aspect head even lower than negation (e.g. Mot0; Kusmer 2011:18).

    1. (i)

    This aspectual marker does not block movement to T, since it is compatible with the -V past marker (97).

  21. 21.

    An anonymous reviewer points out that this problem might speak in favour of a different mechanism of successive-cyclic movement. For example, Bošković (2014, 2016) assumes that the entire phase (including the edge) is sent to Spell-Out (also see Harwood 2015). Bošković (2016) argues that in such an approach, successive-cyclic movement targets the phrase immediately dominating the phase. This would mean that subjects would also have to move from their base-position inside the phase. A potential drawback of this kind of non-feature-driven approach to successive-cyclic movement comes in accounting for the morphological reflexes at hand. Although Bošković (2008) suggests that some of these data could be reanalyzed as intervention effects, feature-driven approaches offer the most straightforward way of accounting for them, as they can tie allomorphic alternations to the presence of a movement-related feature. Furthermore, Georgi (2014, 2017) shows that they can also handle ‘opaque’ patterns, which seem more problematic for featureless, ‘Greed’-based analyses.

  22. 22.

    Also, (125a) shows that this morpheme occurs with progressive aspect re-, unlike (111b).

  23. 23.

    Indeed, a reviewer points out that the restrictions on wh-in-situ in Asante Twi seems to mirror those described for French (see Bošković 1998 and Cheng and Rooryck 2000 for arguments for a feature movement approach).


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We would like to thank three anonymous NLLT reviewers for their valuable and challenging comments. For helpful feedback on various stages of this work, we would like to thank audiences at Morphosyntactic Triggers of Tone at Universität Leipzig, Syntax Brown Bag at NYU, LingLunch at UConn, NELS 45 at Concordia University, Montréal, SyntaxLab at the University of Cambridge and colloquia at University College London, Leibniz-Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin and University of California Santa Cruz. Thanks also go to Augstina Pokua Owusu and Joana Serwaa Ampofo for discussion of the data. This research was completed as part of the DFG research training group Interaction of Grammatical Building Blocks (GRK 2011).

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Korsah, S., Murphy, A. Tonal reflexes of movement in Asante Twi. Nat Lang Linguist Theory (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-019-09456-9

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  • Movement
  • Phases
  • Successive-cyclic movement
  • Tone
  • Syntax