beach todo better description
beach todo better description

The syntax of nominal copular clauses: theoretical and empirical perspectives

PIs: Jutta M. Hartmann, Caroline Heycock
Co-Is: Isabelle Roy, Roberto Zamparelli
(DFG-AHRC funded project, 2024-2027)

One fundamental aspect of language is that sentences are composed of a subject and a predicate. In the best understood cases, the predicate is built around a verb, as in (1a). But predicates can also be built around nouns, as in (1b). The copula "be" that English requires here is absent in some other languages: semantically the predicate in the nominal copular clause (1b) is "a teacher”.

(1a) My cousin teaches.
(1b) My cousin is a teacher.

The properties of nominal copular clauses are a long-standing issue for linguistics and philosophy: this project aims to address the challenging and potentially revealing questions posed by such clauses through systematic and detailed cross-linguistic investigation into their syntax and semantics, broadening the empirical landscape beyond well-studied languages to less studied ones. Issues that will be investigated include those in (I)–(III):

(I) How many structurally different kinds of nominal copular clauses do languages use? If we start from the traditional distinction between predicative examples like (1b) and equatives like (2), how do we analyse examples like (3), which also involve two individuals, but change their meaning if reversed?

(2) Stephen King is Richard Bachman! (= `Richard Bachman is Stephen King')
(3) In the dark, I thought your aunt was you! (≠ `I thought you were your aunt')

Is it just a coincidence that some languages use the same copula in all these cases—and others—or are some of them in fact structurally identical despite differences in meaning? Given that identity is a quintessentially symmetric relation in logic, why is its expression in language typically asymmetric?

(II) Is the structure of noun phrase predicates different from the structure of noun phrases in their other uses? What does the answer tell us about how the meaning of complex expressions is built up from their parts?

(III) Nominal copular sentences are unusual in that the second noun phrase can have some unexpected subject properties. For example, in some languages the typical subject position is taken by the first noun phrase, but the verb agrees with the second, which also has the case for a subject (German ‘Das Problem bin/*ist ich/*mich’ vs English ‘The problem *am/is *I/me’). These “edge cases” allow us to refine and test competing hypotheses about the nature of fundamental processes like agreement and case-assignment. Where documentation is lacking for relevant languages, online questionnaires will be used to elicit data in carefully constructed experiments using methods and paradigms already honed by the PIs. In addition to the empirical and analytical work done within the project, it will also contribute to future crosslinguistic work by producing and disseminating a detailed framework for eliciting data on copular constructions designed for use by researchers working with less well documented languages.

For further details see the short version of the project proposal (pdf)