Most words have their own independent meaning, so things like book and Dutch and basketball. But that's not the case for all words: some words, like pronouns, can only be understood when they're associated with some other noun. Sometimes, that's by pointing out something in the world, but a lot of the time, we can get the information from within the sentence itself. We still have rules for how to interpret our nouns and pronouns, though, for what can be linked up to what else in a sentence. These are the binding principles.
Binding Principle A deals with reflexive pronouns, words like myself or themselves that point within the sentence. Reflexives are the pickiest about how they're used, and they require that they have a noun to refer to in their own clause that c-commands them, about which more below. Principle B deals with regular personal pronouns like I or they, and it's the opposite of Principle A: it says that personal pronouns can't be linked to nouns in their clause that c-command them. Finally, Principle C applies to regular nouns, like Amsterdam or oxygen. Because regular nouns have their own independent meanings, they're very standoffish, and they'll only be linked with other pronouns if they don't c-command them at all. If you put these three rules together, you can work out what meanings can go with what nouns, all the time!
In the episode, we talked about c-command, which turned out to be a vital part of understanding when personal and reflexive pronouns can mean what they mean. We used the metaphor of spectators in a stadium, where those in the back rows can see those in the front, but not the other way around. In more syntactic terms, any given word or phrase in a sentence can “see” some words, but not others; it depends on where it sits. More technically, any given part of a tree c-commands the parts that are immediately to the left or right of it (its siblings), or just below those parts (its nieces and nephews). To get a better idea of how this works, have a look at the tree below:
In this sentence, Hazel not only loves Gus, she c-commands him, too! But as much as Gus might love her back, in this sentence, the c-commanding only goes in one direction: from left to right.
And as we talked about in the episode, we need this machinery because just relying on word order, like Hazel preceding Gus, isn’t enough. The fact that the order looks enticingly helpful turns out just to be a quirk of English. So, let’s take a gander at Malagasy! In the sentence Hendry ny ankizy, which roughly means the children are well-behaved, the subject of the sentence — ny ankizy , for the children — comes at the end of it. To accommodate this, we swing our subject around to the right and draw our tree as follows:
It might look a little funky, if you’re more used to looking at English, but the sentence still fits into our X-bar template. We simply adjust the order that the parts of the tree come in, to account for the fact that subjects show up at the ends of sentences in Malagasy, instead of at the beginning. More to the point, while the subject no longer precedes the rest of the sentence, it still c-commands it. So, it really is its own thing.
Returning to English, we actually do find a few cases where c-command and precedence don’t match up. In (1) below, Hazel precedes her, but because her name is deep inside a relative clause, Hazel does not c-command her. To be sure of this, we can try replacing the pronoun with a reflexive, as in (2).
- The boy that Hazel loves also loves her.
- *The boy that Hazel loves also loves herself.
As the asterisk indicates, the sentence in (2) just isn’t very good. That’s because herself is trying to refer back to Hazel (the only workable noun it can hook up with), but it’s failing. The first principle of Binding Theory, Principle A, tells us that reflexives must be c-commanded by what they’re trying to refer back to, and that crucial relationship just isn’t anywhere to be found. The sentence is kind of DOA.
Without c-command, we have no consistent way of explaining why the sentence in (2) can’t work. The idea of c-command, it turns out, is essential to our understanding of Binding Theory. And given its importance there, it’s not so surprising that c-command turns out to be an invaluable tool in other areas of syntax, too. For instance, if you think back to our episode about scope, you might recall that English makes use of words called quantifiers, like some and every and all. Comparing (3) and (4) below, we can see that the order that quantifiers come in drastically alters the meaning of the sentence they appear in. We say that this is because, in each case, which quantifier has scope over the other one gets switched up, depending on their order.
3. Every doctor asked for the medical records that belong to some patient.
4. Some doctor asked for the medical records that belong to every patient.
Although the effect of scope on meaning is a semantic one, originally borrowed from the domain of logic, it has since been connected with the syntactic phenomenon of c-command: if one quantifier has scope over another, it’s because the first c-commands the second. Many linguists have even adopted the idea that the kind of ambiguity discussed in episode 8 comes about because the c-command relationships between quantifiers can silently change, so that which one has scope over the other can stay independent of the order they’re pronounced in.
More generally, the relationship of c-command has been linked to the wider topic of syntactic ambiguity. The noun phrase in (5) can either be interpreted as referring to someone who’s definitely from Amsterdam but who may or may not be an author, or as referring to someone who may or may not be an author and who may or may not be from Amsterdam. That is, the word that calls things into question — alleged — can either only apply to the word author, or it can apply to all of author from Amsterdam.
5. the alleged author from Amsterdam
In order to explain these differences in interpretation, we can create not 1 but 2 equally valid X-bar diagrams with the sentence in (5), where each structure corresponds to exactly one interpretation. In the first tree, alleged c-commands only the word author, and so can only apply to it. That way, only the person’s author-hood is open for debate, and not where they came from.
But in this second tree, the word alleged c-commands both author and the prepositional phrase from Amsterdam; this way, it can apply to everything all at once, and nothing is certain.
C-command has been an integral part of modern syntactic and semantic theory, and will probably continue to be for quite some time. What’s maybe surprising is that such an abstract, mathematical concept, which most speakers probably aren’t even aware of, holds such a commanding role in the production and processing of human language. And you can bet we’ll be seeing it again in the future!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how we can work out what pronouns mean, and how we can put together meaningful sentences. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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