Betty Birner (Northern Illinois) will be giving a colloquium today at 3:30 in the Greenberg room. Her talk is entitled: ‘How is inversion like an allophone?’ If history is any guide, there will be a social at 5 (following the talk), so come on out for both!
How is inversion like an allophone?
By the same reasoning that leads us to posit abstract phonemes with contextually conditioned allophones, we can discern abstract syntactic constructions defined by a single discourse function but instantiated by distinct ‘alloforms’ conditioned by their syntactic environment. I argue that inversion and by-phrase passives in English constitute one such pair of alloforms, based on shared functional constraints and complementary distribution. I propose that two subject postposing constructions in Italian constitute another set based on similar evidence. I moreover argue that, as with phonemes, minimal pairs of syntactic constructions may be found which differ in a single feature and have correspondingly distinct discourse functions, and also that the mapping of syntactic forms into more abstract constructions is language-specific. Finally, I report on ongoing research pointing to a possible new analysis of English inversion as an alloform of two distinct abstract constructions.