Research Projects

San Andrés de Teixido, Galiza, with sights of the cliffs of A Capelada in the background

Language acquisition in grammar change

Why do grammars change? Possibly more importantly, why do grammars change when they do? This is the longstanding actuation problem (Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968), an almost taboo notion amongst sociolinguists and formal syntacticians alike. However, provided enough relevant historical data, this question can be answered (albeit on a case-to-case basis). Taking a Child Innovator Approach (Cournane 2017), all of my work in this area is predicated on the idea that novel syntactic change happens in the mind of the child. On these grounds, my work in grammar change may be divided into two areas:

Synchronic phenomena

Although no change is synchronic in a true sense, investigators such as Ailís Cournane have begun tracking live data of multiple age groups with the intention of highlighting the patterns seen in diachronic change over shorter periods of time in which we have direct access to the grammars of these young speakers.

In this respect, I am interested in investigating the change of clitic directionality in languages that show an enclisis/proclisis split in finite clauses. This has been done to a limited extent in European Portuguese (Costa, Fiéis & Lobo 2015) and Cypriot Greek (Theoni Neokleous 2015), mainly concentrating on the synchronic patterns and how they vary from age group to age group. My goal is to collect data from Galician children 2-10 years of age over the span of several years in order to identify if this language is slowly losing certain triggers that once resulted in proclisis but are now mainly used with enclisis (e.g. É que… ‘It just that…’). Moreover, determining if Galician follows a similar learning pattern as argued for in E.P., particularly with respect to the morphosyntactic cues I argued for in my dissertation, would be particularly helpful in hypothesizing why the present-day speakers prefer enclisis in these instances.

Diachronic phenomena

As most of the longstanding views on grammar change have relied on semantic change as the catalyst, I believe there is a lot of work to do in order to show that these changes should be seen, first and foremost, as syntactic in nature.

My work in this respect thus far has focused on the reanalysis of single-word functional items and their syntactic distribution. In my dissertation, I showed contrasting differences between the presentatives velaí/velaquí in Galician and Ecco in Italian, voilà/voici in French, and vet aquí in Catalan regarding the syntactic properties retained in the latter group compared to those of the first. In a similar vein, Tim Gupton and I are working on delineating the syntax of the Brazilian Portuguese cadê and, eventually, comparing it to that of U-lo (elaborated on below).

I am also working on utilizing the idea of multiple workspaces to show its effects on syntactic change, particularly with respect to the NP1-of-NP2 phenomena (e.g. a lot of people *is/are…). I plan to show that not all attraction phenomena of this type (also referred to as ad sensum agreement) are related to processing errors (e.g. Wagers, Lau & Phillips 2009) but that many are indeed the result of syntactic change. (That is, there is only one agreement pattern accepted as grammatical anymore, as in the example above.)

Non-canonical wh-elements & null copulas in Romance

In an ongoing collaboration with Tim Gupton, we examine a number of unorthodox and understudied interrogative words in Galician, Asturian, and Brazilian Portuguese and their co-existence with null-copula constructions, a rare phenomenon in Romance. In our 2020 investigation, we showed that, unlike more common null-copula constructions cross-linguistically (e.g. Arabic), the Galician null copula headed by the interrogative complementizer U lacks all functional projection related to TAM. In our most recent analysis in which we compare U in Galician and Asturian, we show that the syntax of the surface-level U-lo phrase differs in these languages, with Asturian pairing with the theoretical consensus in the Semitic literature in boasting a [+PRESENT] feature on a bare Tº. Finally, we are currently presenting data and a theoretical proposal on the Brazilian Portuguese cadê, a functional wh-element that has been reanalyzed from the string Que é de…? (cf. Pereira da Silvan Menon 2014), and its syntactic behavior.

Copula Agreement Patterns

Recently, I have taken an interest in the agreement patterns across the varying copula types frequently highlighted in the literature (predicational, specificational, equative, identificational, and assumed identity). To date, I do not believe there has been a solid theoretical proposal for languages that may bear NP1 or NP2 agreement in any of these copula categories. Moreover, the line of investigation that approaches these patterns as stemming from some sort of φ-feature deficiency of one of the two available noun phrases (e.g. Béjar & Kahnemuyipour 2017) seems ad hoc at best. I am currently working on a proposal based on movement that requires that the probe on Tº agree with the only goal accessible rather than the posit of abstract features that may or may not appear on both nouns within the search space of the probe.

Eventually, this research will extend to multi-clause constructions in order to highlight the syntactic configurations in which probes in the matrix clause are or are not blocked from searching within their clausal complements.

Differential Object Marking

My work on differential object marking is divided into two approaches: DOM as a Last Resort strategy (cf. Kalin 2018) and DOM as a necessary licensing mechanism for structural reasons (e.g. heads that require licensing whereas phrases do not). The latter equates differential object marking of structurally deficient Dº elements to the licensing of clitics but without the availability to incorporate into their licensing head. This has been suggested, although not theoretically explored in as much depth as I argue for here, for certain types of Southern Italian dialects (Calabrese) by Ledgeway, Schifano & Silvestri (2019).

I have also worked with Monica Alexandrina Irimia on DOM as a repair strategy in both Romanian and Galician, highlighting the ability of these Romance varieties to license [PERSON] above the vP in contrast to Spanish which has a limited number of [PERSON] licensing heads. This manuscript is currently under review and should be out soon!

Head movement, cliticization, & the PCC

Although these phenomena are different, there is a great overlap between the three cross-linguistically and many of my research interests dealing with these topics combine at least two of the three.

There is a long line of literature that claims that clitics attach very low in the derivation (e.g. Roberts 2010), presumably to a functional head with which it undergoes subsequent movement. However, there are factors in languages with a finite enclisis/proclisis split that must be accounted for by assuming clitics attach high in the phrase marker (above Tº). This result alone dictates that certain preverbal positions be higher than what they would in languages in which clitics and their hosts stop at Tº whilst creating complications for certain postverbal positions when the verb complex is this high.

Outside of standard syntactic cliticization, I have also done research on clitics that appear to be morphophonological on the surface but, in fact, must be accounted for in the syntax proper. Uriagereka (1996) was the first to show that determiners heading full DPs can undergo syntactic movement, much like that of regular syntactic clitics (albeit with different morphosyntactic restrictions). More recently, I have compared this determiner cliticization phenomenon to a similar syntax-based cliticization pattern found in Icelandic (Sigurðsson & Wood 2019). I claimed that both must be accounted for within the syntax and showed similarities regarding the language-particular morphosyntactic properties of their host, the clausal restrictions, and phase restrictions they both demonstrate.

Most recently, I have explored PCC effects in non-canonical constructions (i.e., beyond simple clitic cluster combinations). Building off of the observations in Sheehan (2020), I have attempted to show that the PCC patterns that arise in causatives are a reflection (albeit not an exact one) of those that we find with clitics. (Ex. A true weak PCC language should bear a probe on the vCAUS head that is able to agree with a direct object goal that is 1st- or 2nd-person, whereas a strong PCC language should not.) Although there are certainly similarities in the restrictions between the two constructions, one question that remains to be answered is are the PCC effects seen in Romance causatives true PCC effects?

Second Language Acquisition

My interests in SLA do not stray far from those mentioned above for first language acquisition and diachronic change. In particular, my focus deals with the Feature Reassembly Hypothesis (e.g. Lardiere 2008) which attempts to explain the acquisition of a second language based on the featural configuration of a learner’s L1. An interesting and fairly unexplored aspect of this hypothesis deals with not only the reassembly of syntactic features but also the acquisition of features that are non-existent in a speaker’s L1. Moreover, the ways in which features present in both a speaker’s L1 and L2 are assembled onto syntactic nodes present in the L2 but not in the L1 also present the learner with a learning curve that requires discussion and profound investigation into the human learning device more generally.