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Experimental Approaches to Syntactic Optionality


Funding body: The Research Council of Norway

with Drs. Björn Lundquist (PI), Jennifer Culbertson, Meredith Tamminga, Gillian Ramchand, Sverre Stausland Johnsen and Anders Nøklestad
The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø
Project webpage:

True syntactic optionality is rare among the world's languages. Seemingly arbitrary variation, when examined more closely, typically reflects some sort of semantic nuance. In Swedish, for example, the following two constructions are considered acceptable and interchangeable by most lay native speakers:

(1) a. Igår kom bagaren inte för sent till jobbet

          Yesterday came baker.DEF not too late for work.DEF

      b. Igår kom inte bagaren för sent till jobbet

          Yesterday came not baker.DEF too late for work.DEF

          'Yesterday the baker did not get to work too late.'

In other Nordic languages, however, this apparent optionality is not present. In Danish, for example, only 1a is considered acceptable today. However, during the 1800s, more optionality was present in Danish. Why did it disappear? Are there cognitive processing advantages to 1a over 1b? Is this shift related to contact? Are there universals at play?

This project seeks to investigate apparent optionality among the Nordic languages with the aim of discovering the sources of regularization, i.e., the reduction of variation in a language. Our focus on regularization will bring new insights to one of the most debated issues in linguistics: are languages shaped predominantly by the usage patterns of adults (evident in processing, register/style choices, MacDonald 2013, Bybee 2015), or the learning preferences/limitations in children (Clark 1987, Newport 2005, Yang 2017, Chomsky 1986)?

The empirical basis will be four word order phenomena where at least one of the languages shows an apparent word order optionality and at least one of the languages is restricted to one word order only: subject shift, particle shift, object shift and long object shift. By studying the acquisition (L1 child and L2 adult), and processing, both in production and comprehension, in closely related languages that differ in the presence/absence of variation for a certain phenomenon, we can pin down where preferences for regular systems arise. Four questions addressing fundamental issues in the establishment of rigid grammars will be asked: (I) are there processing benefits (or costs) associated with categorical rules; (II) is the L1 language learner disposed to categorical rules, or do categorical tendencies develop later (III) is the variation within speakers conditioned by register/dialect, and (IV) how should this kind of non-meaning related variation in word order be modeled theoretically.

The PI is Dr. Björn Lundquist at The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø). My role in the project is primarily supportive and connected to phonetic forced alignment, the extraction of segmental measurements and the architecture of analytical tools. For example, we currently are looking at response times for our experiments, and we are bootstrapping forced-alignment technology to automatically extract the reaction time between the experimental "beep" and the onset of the participant's speech.

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