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Reversibility in specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts

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Abstract

In this paper I discuss one property of specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts, the apparent reversibility of the order of their two major constituents. In English, this manifests itself in reversible surface word order. It has been argued in the literature that reversibility in specificational pseudoclefts does not indicate reversibility in the syntax, meaning that the two word orders are not derivationally related (den Dikken et al. 2000). In copular sentences, on the other hand, the reversal of the order is generally argued to be the result of inversion in the syntax.

Copular sentences and pseudoclefts in Wolof provide us with the opportunity to observe a part of their derivational history, as the focused referential expression A′-moves to Spec,CP, with the other element being topicalized. A′-extraction in Wolof is morphosyntactically marked on the complementizer, which exhibits a subject/non-subject asymmetry, and therefore reveals whether an element has moved there from Spec,IP or another position. This straightforward diagnostic shows that in specificational pseudoclefts either of the two constituents, the FR or the NP, can in fact raise to Spec,IP, contra the claim in den Dikken et al. (2000) for English. The same kind of reversibility is not found in specificational copular sentences; specifically, only the non-referential expression can move to Spec,IP. The focused NP, which is extracted to Spec,CP, cannot move there from Spec,IP.

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Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Wolof data in the paper come from my fieldwork in St.-Louis, Senegal, between 2014 and 2018.

  2. In order to express the intended meaning in (18), the quantifier must be embedded inside a phrase such as someone amongst us here, someone in this room, etc.

  3. The wh-clause in pseudoclefts has been argued to be a question (at least in some pseudoclefts) (den Dikken et al. 2000; Schlenker 2003; Romero 2005), or a free relative (Akmajian 1979; Heycock and Kroch 1999; den Dikken et al. 2000; Caponigro and Heller 2007). Wolof distinguishes Cs that head interrogatives and those that head free relatives. Caponigro and Heller (2007) show that specificational pseudoclefts (which exhibit Principle A connectivity) allow only for the free-relative complementizer.

  4. The difference between predicational and specificational pseudoclefts can be clearly seen in the following example (due to den Dikken 2006a: 304), which has two possible meanings:

    1. (i)

      [What John does not eat] is [food for the dog].

      1. a.

        John feeds the things he does not eat (i.e. his leftovers) to the dog.

      2. b.

        John does not eat the following thing(s): dog food.

    As this example illustrates, the two meanings are not achieved by reversing the word order of the two constituents around the copula.

  5. Recall that nominal predicates that are not focused also move to Spec,CP.

  6. A reviewer points out that A′-movement of the NP to Spec,CP in (33) occurs across a free relative that is in Spec,IP. Such movement in specificational sentences is extremely difficult in English and related languages (e.g. *‘Which children is the biggest problem?’; see Mikkelsen 2005 and the references therein for more details). First, note that the left-dislocation of the FR in Wolof is not necessarily derived by movement; it is likely that the FR is base-generated in Spec,TopP, as it involves resumption, which A′-movement to Spec,CP does not. The reviewer suggests this might be an information-structural conflict in English, and that Wolof fixes this by left-dislocating the non-referential term to Spec,TopP. This seems like a reasonable possibility to me, as cliticization has been noted to license movements that are otherwise illicit (e.g. Anagnostopoulou 2003). I thank the reviewer for pointing this out.

  7. A reviewer proposes that this could be the result of a ban on subject extraction. I find there to be no basis for this assumption. Wolof has a subject/non-subject asymmetry reflected in the morphosyntax of its wh-complementizer, meaning that some sort of a mechanism already exists that enables subjects to extract. There is no reason to suspect that this mechanism would fail in just this type of copular sentence, so that Wolof would have an extraction asymmetry on top of an already existing extraction asymmetry.

  8. This does not exclude the possibility that there is another available underlying structure that results in a pseudocleft in Wolof, as is claimed in den Dikken et al. (2000).

  9. This alternative proposal presupposes that a non-subject that moves to Spec,IP could still be pronominalized with the subject pronoun. I have no evidence for this, but also no evidence against it.

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Acknowledgements

I am deeply grateful to my consultants in St.-Louis, Senegal, without whom this work would not be possible. Thanks to Karlos Arregi and Itamar Francez for extensive discussion of various topics related to specificational sentences, and Vera Gribanova and three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. Research related to the topic of this squib was presented at a number of conferences over the years; I thank audiences at the 86th LSA, 39th BLS, 44th ACAL, and the workshop Current Issues in Comparative Syntax: Past, Present, and Future held at the National University of Singapore in 2018. All errors are my own.

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Martinović, M. Reversibility in specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 41, 249–266 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-022-09540-7

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