In the episode, we supposed that sentences like the one below involve moving the object out of the verb phrase at the end, followed by deleting whatever’s left over — in this case, moving “Shane” and deleting “prove innocent.”
(1) Hogarth can’t prove everyone innocent, but she can Shane
But this raises a curious question: why can’t we do make that move, but then leave the verb phrase intact? In other words, why don’t we see objects shifting to the left in English all the time, like in (2) below?
(2) Hogarth can’t prove everyone innocent, but she can Shane prove innocent
Moreover, since we claimed that objects move in Irish to get accusative case (as opposed to some other case, like genitive), why don’t we ever see accusative pronouns in English preceding the verb?
(3) She can them prove innocent
We could suppose that objects only move when they need to, like before VP ellipsis is about to happen, and that objects don’t really need to move around to get case after all. But this feels very ad hoc, and it would mean that English is different from Irish in a way that seems pretty random. Thankfully, we can do better, because it turns out that we have a ready-made explanation for why English objects seem to stay put.
To understand how this works, we have to take a closer look at the different kinds of clauses in Irish, each of which has its own particular rules, to see how English fits in.
In tensed Irish clauses, the typical word order is verb-subject-object (VSO). In past episodes, we’ve explained that this comes about by lifting the verb up out of the verb phrase, over the subject (which stays low in the clause), all the way to the front.
(4) Phóg Máire an lucharachán
Kissed Mary the leprechaun
“Mary kissed the leprechaun”
This is actually similar to what happens in French, but with the subject moving up pretty high in that language too, keeping its overall word order SVO. We’ve argued in the past that this explains why verbs in French show up before things like adverbs and negation, unlike their English counterparts.
(5) J' oublie presque mon nom
I forget.PRES almost my name
“I am almost forgetting my name”
(6) Nous (n') écoutions pas la radio
we ne listen.IMPERF not the radio
“We weren't listening to the radio”
Unlike tensed Irish clauses, or French for that matter, the verbs inside tenseless Irish clauses stay low, with the subject showing up at the beginning, and the object showing up either before or after the verb — depending on the context and the dialect. The word order of the embedded tenseless clause in the sentence below is SOV.
(7) Ba mhaith liom Seán an abairt aL scríobh
John the sentence.ACC AGR write
“I want John to write the sentence”
To complete the overall picture, we have to include one more important detail that we originally left out of our episode, to keep things manageable. Specifically, subjects in Irish, and in every other language, don’t make their way into the sentence via the verb phrase, like how objects do. Instead, they’re introduced by way of a separate mechanism whose job it is to insert agents and causers into the events that sentences depict. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, this is easiest to see in languages where the mechanism is overt, like in Japanese.
In the sentence below, the nominative subject Taro is brought into the sentence via the suffix “sase,” meaning he caused Hanako to eat pizza.
(8) Taroo-ga Hanako-ni pizza-o tabe-sase-ta
Taro-N Hanako-D pizza-A eat-CAUS-PST
“Taro made Hanako eat pizza”
And while this agent-injecting bit of grammar is hard to see in Irish, it’s impossible to miss in the closely related language of Scots Gaelic. In the sentence below, we quickly spot in the lower clause the agent-adding “bhith,” often referred to as a ‘light verb’ and so represented with a little ‘v.’
(9) Bu toigh leam sibh aL bhith air an dorus aL dhùnadh
you AGR v PERF the door AGR close
“I'd like you to have shut the door”
We even get a peek at the overall order that all the different parts of the sentence come in, since we can see that the object-oriented agreement morpheme “aL” (the second one, after “an dorus”) must reside above the main verb phrase housing the word “dhùnadh,” but below the light verb and the aspectual marker “air,” in order for everything to make sense.
All this put together means that the structures for tensed and tenseless clauses in Irish look something like this:
We’ve left out a few details to save space, but what the tree diagrams above show is that every sentence in Irish is at minimum a tense phrase (TP), followed by an agent-introducing light verb phrase (vP), a case-related agreement phrase (AgrP), and a VP. What changes from one sentence to the next is where each of the words — especially the verb — ultimately end up.
Turning our sights back to English, we know that verbs don’t end up too high in the clause by comparing it to French; in examples (5) and (6), the English paraphrases always involve adverbs and negation coming before the main verb, and never after. So English verbs do stay low. But they don’t stay quite as low as they do in Irish. While it’s hard to see exactly where they’re going, since English isn’t as morphologically rich as some other languages, we catch a glimpse of what must be happening by way of ditransitive verbs.
(10) The vendor poured the coffee on himself
We can make an educated guess about what the structure of this sentence looks like, because of the asymmetry we see between the direct object and the indirect object. Since we could also say “the vendor poured the coffee on itself,” but not “the vendor poured itself on the coffee,” we know the direct object has to be higher up in the verb phrase than the indirect object. Since the verb doesn’t come between these objects, but instead precedes them, it must be even higher, having moved up into the agent-adding light verb phrase mentioned above. (Like French, English subjects end up pretty high in the tree, too.)
All this means that objects in English actually do move, but that the relative position of the verb usually hides this fact, meaning we never see sentences like (2) or (3). If the process of ellipsis (marked in green) targets the verb — and everything below it — before it moves, we get the partial VP ellipsis seen (1), down on the left. But if ellipsis happens after the verb moves, we get full VP ellipsis of the sort seen at the beginning of our episode, on the right.
As it turns out, silence has a lot more going on in it than you would think!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about ellipsis and all the ways we can say things without actually saying them. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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