Thursday, October 30, 2008

Demonstratives and Linguistic Interfaces

In writing up the section on use of kinship terms as pronouns in 3rd person contexts, I came across the following phenomenon, which, it seems to me, may have interesting implications for Minimalist conceptions of interfaces.

"Nguyễn Đ. H. (1997:43) mentions a third strategy for speakers of the Saigon dialect, namely, where the demonstrative element ấy is deleted and marked instead by a tone change on the kinship label itself. Nguyễn Đ. H. provides the following examples (observing also that this strategy cannot apply to words that bear inherent high tones such as chú or bác):

(5) a. bà ấy > bả ('she')
b. ông ấy > ổng ('hé)
c. cô ấy > cổ ('she')
d. anh ấy > ảnh ('he')
e. chị ấy > chỉ ('she')

f. thằng ấy > thẳng ('that guy, he')
g. thằng cha ấy > thằng chả ('that bloody guy')

Notice especially the contrast between the last two examples, which suggest that this operation is quite productive: tone-shift applies to the right-edge of the word. This would seem to indicate that the process is not purely lexicalized. On the other hand, it is lexically constrained, since elements bearing inherent high tones cannot be affected. It would also appear to have implications for Minimalist assumptions about the ways in which semantics and phonology can interact outside of narrow syntax (given that it is implausible to suppose that these phonetic properties enter into syntactic computations).

Briefly, then, this appears to be a morphophonological operation that is sensitive to phonological constraints, but which expresses a semantic property. Since the relevant phonetic property (the high tone which is realised as/changed to a low-rising tone when shifted to the left-adjacent segment) would seem to be syntactically inert, the question is how this phonetic change is able to affect interpretation unless semantics and phonology are able to interact independently of the syntactic computation?

Does anyone else think this is really a theoretical problem? or have I missed or misunderstood something obvious?


Anonymous said...

Hi Nigel,

1. I understood you to mean that the phonological change (e.g. [bà ấy] -> [bả]) correlates with a change in meaning, say from a definite description to a pronoun. If you meant that, then I disagree. For me, [bà ấy] and [bả] mean the same thing: 'she'. The latter is just a reduced form of the former.

2. I find (5f) problematic. I don't think [thẳng] can be a short form for [thằng ấy]. But I might be wrong here, since I don't really speak Saigonese.

3. But if my intuition about (5f) is correct, the problem for minimalism still exists, although in a different form: the phonetic change in question applies only to kinship terms (bà, ông, cô, anh, chị, cha). Note that 'thằng' is not a kinship term. As far as I know, and as far as my idiolect is concerned, this seems to be a valid generalization. (Of course, it should be tested.)

In other word, you think - if I understood you right - this paradigm poses a problem for minimalism because the structural change of a phonological rule has semantic consequence. While I believe there is no such semantic consequence, I agree with you that minimalism has a problem: the structural description of the relevant rule has to refer to a semantic property of one of its terms. Unless we want to postulate the interpretable syntactic feature [+kinship], of course...


Anonymous said...

Apart from these examples:

a. bà ấy > bả ('she')
b. ông ấy > ổng ('hé)
c. cô ấy > cổ ('she')
d. anh ấy > ảnh ('he')
e. chị ấy > chỉ ('she')

f. thằng ấy > thẳng ('that guy, he')
g. thằng cha ấy > thằng chả ('that bloody guy')

in which (f) is weird (actually I've never heard it), there are some others I could provide as follow.

1. More kinship

dì ấy > dỉ
cậu ấy > cẩu
mợ ấy > mở
dượng ấy > dưởng

2. Some spatial

trong ấy > trỏng
ngoài ấy > ngoải
trên ấy > trển
bên ấy > bển

3. Temporal

hôm ấy > hổm

4. Others

bạn ấy > bản
con mẹ ấy > con mẻ

Interesting exception is 'em ấy' cannot undergo this change pattern to become *'ẻm'.

Le Cong Tuan