Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Case for Case

Send me back to Ling-610 if you want, but I still find something fishy or funny about the claim that Case is a vacuous, meaningless item void of any interpretation whatsoever. We have to admit that there's a high coincidence in, especially more synthetic languages, Case marking and theta-role interpretation. In fact, the first thing I go to when learning a language is the Case system, as that's intrumental in expressing a thought (the second would be relative clause markers). Besides, is there anything that we could pinpoint as a theta-role marker aside from Case, or, in some languages word order, or in some languages, both? I dearly hope the point of disparaging Case marking is not to light a candle at the alter of the supremacy of word order; just because some languages like English don't have profligate Case marking doesn't mean that Case is worthless other than serving as something that allegedly drives syntactic process by serving to highlight the availablity of an alleged Goal. After all, in languages with free word order, Case marking is the only savior in decoding the object-action schemas. And please don't tell me that that device is better served by a 'scrambled' underlying word-order, as that just smacks of English hedgemony.

So, the point up to here is that Case and Theta seem to overlap quite a bit. As for the two distractors offered in class: ECM and Passive, I think they're trivial. For one, the passive is a marked form. In English, there's something about the + participle that tells you Case interpretation isn't what it normally is. There's a Passive marker in Arabic telling you the same thing. In German, too. Secondly, the fact that the Agent in the subordinate class of an ECM verb is marked with the Accusative form may only be a synchronic fact. Has anyone looked at the history of this construction? Funny things happen all the time in the course of language development. Greek (modern, I think) has no infinitive, but that doesn't mean the infinitive is a useless form; on the contrary, when Greek lost the final 'n' in cases, the infinitive looked identical to the third person singular. Consequently, people started to reinterpret the syntax of an control infinitivals. But the fact that Greek lacks an infinitive shouldn't be used as evidence for some theory, because it had an infinitive at some point. Perhaps the same holds with the English case.

As an endnote to all of this, I just discussed these views with a fellow linguist trained in the Generative tradition who also happens to have a PhD in theoretical syntax, and he agrees with the above argument. Why not send him back to Ling-610?


Rebecca said...

I think that the ECM and passives examples show pretty clearly that case markers do not correspond directly to theta markers: nominative Case can be used for non-agents (passives), and agents can be used with non-nominative Case (ECM).

But I do find it very interesting, as you do, that even though Case does not correspond directly to theta-role, it seems that Case is often necessary to show what a DP's theta role _is_. And I do find it surprising that (to my limited knowledge-- please tell me of any exceptions you know about) there are lots of languages with Case markers on the DP and none with theta-markers on the DP. That's very odd! It even seems fairly redundant-- wouldn't it have been simpler and easier to mark thematic role directly, rather than using Case markings which correspond imperfectly with thematic role?

For my own nefarious purposes (which involve a lot of controversial assumptions, such as the movement theory of control), I've been playing with the possibility that once a DP has a theta-role, it must not move over any Case-marked positions. However, it may pick up multiple theta-roles before getting Case, as long as it doesn't skip over any places where it could have gotten Case. If that's on the right track, then maybe Case-marking a DP basically sends the message that every theta position lower than that Case position and higher than the next-lowest Case position must have been filled by that DP.
If so, then Case is explicitly used as a way to show a DP's theta-role(s), even though the Case marker used does not correspond exactly to which theta-roles the DP has. So it's not crucial, say, that agents get nominative Case: but agents do need to get the "next" available Case after they get their agent theta-role. In finite clauses, this will be nominative Case, but in ECM infinitivals, this could be accusative Case, assigned by the next verb up.

Anyhow, under this view, Case marking would be vital for a user to interpret the sentence, even though Case could still be considered 'uninterpretable' in that, say, being 'nominative' or 'accusative' doesn't mean anything all by itself.

(I'm still playing with this idea, but if you have any thoughts/objections/relevant data to share with me, I'd be really appreciative.)

Alex Drummond said...

And please don't tell me that that device is better served by a 'scrambled' underlying word-order, as that just smacks of English hedgemony.

Even in scrambling/free word order languages, case is not a direct indicator of thematic role, since you still find passive-like operations in some of them.

The argument that scrambling theories have something to do with "English hegemony" is a bit dubious. It was generally assumed that free word order should not be accounted for in terms of scrambling right up until the 80s. For example, Chomsky in Aspects is quite skeptical that transformations are an appropriate device for capturing free word order, and in early GB theory it was often assumed that there was a "configurationality parameter" which allowed some languages to have relatively free base-generated word orders. (Ross's dissertation argues for a scrambling transformation, and indeed coined the term "scrambling", so this is one exception to this generalization.)

I haven't really done my homework on this point, but I think modern scrambling theories trace back to work on Japanese scrambling by Saito in the mid 1980s, so it's really not a case of English-speaking linguists imposing the structure of English on free(er) word order languages. Really, if free word order was a simple as "string words together in any order", no-one in his right mind would be coming up with scrambling theories at all. We could just say: screw around with the base word order as much as you like so long as there's enough morphological information to undo the changes. The challenge is to account for all the restrictions on scrambling and the various effects it has on scope, binding and information structure.

Tim Hunter said...

I don't think anyone meant to claim that Case is completely "vacuous, meaningless" or "void of any interpretation whatsoever". Of course, Case markings do indicate the structural configuration underlying a sentence, and given that the underlying structure is what gets interpreted rather than the surface string, Case obviously is something you're going to need to take note of when determining the meaning of a sentence.

The big question, though, is why there isn't a more direct relation between Case marking and theta roles. Of course it's true that Case and theta do overlap quite a bit, and "mismatches" like passive and ECM constructions are the exceptions, but the big question is why these exceptions exist at all.

Rebecca's idea suggests one possible reason for why we can't just mark each NP with its theta role: sometimes NPs have more than one theta role, so no single theta marking would be appropriate. If what Rebecca says is right, then each Case marking unambiguously determines a set of theta roles, which are really the things we need to associate an NP with to interpret the sentence.