Peripheries pp 191-210 | Cite as

Cross-Linguistic Word Order Variation at the Left Periphery: The Case of Object First Main Clauses

  • Christer Platzack
Part of the Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory book series (SNLT, volume 59)


This paper demonstrates how a particular cross-linguistic variation at the syntactic level can be accounted for. We have studied main clauses with an object in first position in English, Finnish, Italian and Swedish, and registered both language internal and cross-linguistic differences. The answers we get to our question why object initial main clauses in these languages differ as they do are of the type expected if the minimalist program Chomsky (1995) is on the right track: the differences we find can be understood as automatic consequences of language specific lexical properties and a handful of universal principles. Taking a universal sentence structure like (1) as the basis for our study, we have shown that the variation is an effect of the universal principles Shortest Move and Minimal Compliance. Since the subject argument must be expressed in FinP, fronting a wh-object will be across this subject, leading to a violation of Shortest Move in case the subject is a DP. All four languages are wh-initial languages, and their grammars must therefore provide for different ways to avoid the Shortest Move violation. To achieve this, Italian makes use of its null-subject property, according to which the subject DP is not forced to go to [Spec, FinP], thus no Shortest Move violation is at hand. The other three languages, lacking the null subject option, have to use other means. In all three cases, the solution to the problem involves the Principle of Minimal Compliance, a principle that states that an interfering DP can lose its blocking property if it undergoes short movement, or if the head to which it is the specifier undergoes short movement. Finnish uses the first option, capitalizing the presence of a grammaticalized topic position within its left periphery. English and Swedish use the second option: the finite feature is raised from Fin° to Foc°. In English this raising can only take place if the finiteness feature is lexicalized as do or as an auxiliary, whereas in Swedish, which is a Verb Second language, any tensed verb will do. Since a topicalized DP object is merged in sentence initial position and not moved there, no Shortest Move violation arises in this type of constructions. As a consequence, many languages, including English and Italian, display different word orders depending on the status of the fronted object as wh-word or as DP. There is no similar language internal variation in Swedish and Finnish, where the devices used to lift the Shortest Move violation in the wh-cases, i.e. Verb Second and raising to topic position, are present in all types of main clauses.


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

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  • Christer Platzack

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