Monday, May 22, 2006

Center-embedding and Japanese

Lately I've been reading some of John Hawkins' A Performance Theory of Order and Constituency, which puts forwards some very appealing ideas about how to predict the relative frequency of different word orders (both cross-linguistically and within a language) by quantifying how easy they are for humans to parse. (For example, he derives such phenomena as Heavy-NP shift, the relativization hierarchy, and even the relative frequency of the six possible basic word orders SVO/SOV, VSO, etc.) Parsing issues certainly severely affect the grammaticality of sentences, as people who follow titles posts Language Log authors write have know.

I tried out a similar example in Japanese on a friend - going by the grammar books, one would expect "John said Mary thinks Bill came" to be translated as "Jon-wa Merii-ga Biru-ga kita to omou to itta", with three successive subjects followed by three successive objects. She unhesitatingly went for, as I recall, "Biru-ga kita to Merii-ga omou to Jon-ga itta" - moving the subjects to the "wrong" places to make the sentence processable - and said that the three-successive-subject one was "difficult". I can't think of any Arabic parallels offhand - postverbal objects and resumptive pronouns in relative clauses together stop most of the obvious possibilities - and Sylheti turns out to rather cleverly block almost (not quite) all possible ways in which problematic center-embedding might emerge. So my question to you is: in your language, can you think of similar examples of incomprehensible yet nominally grammatical sentences?


Paul Davidson said...

Writing it on my own, I would have come up with "Jon-ha, Biru-ga kita to merii-ga omou to itta." However, if I were trying to compose it verbally on the fly, I would end up saying it just like your friend did — it seems more natural that way, but I'm by no means fluent.

I'd like to see this in German. :) I couldn't quite attempt it on my own.

bulbul said...

"John said Mary thinks Bill came"
German, you say?

"John sagte das Mary glaubt das Bill gekommen ist". That's the first thing I would say. Then there is "John sagte das Mary glaubt das Bill kam" (which sounds a bit fishy to me) and the inevitable Subjunktiv "John sagte das Mary glaubt das Bill gekommen sei". Hm, that one doesn't sound quite right either. Anyway, no objects are moved.
If I were to try the example in Wikipedia (providing it means what I think it does): "Ich gab Bill die Bücher die mir mein Onkel als Teil der Erbschaft hinterlassen hat." I can't think of any other way of putting it.

Let's try that on Slovak (even adjusting the names :o): "Jano povedal, že si Mara myslí, že Vilo prišiel" (John said that Mary thinks that Bill came). Simple enough.

As for the other example, I would put the relative clause first: "Tie knihy, čo mi strýko nechal ako časť dedičstva, som dal Vilovi." (the books which my uncle left me as a part of the inheritance, I gave to Bill). This strikes me as the most natural way of putting in. On the other hand, Slavic word order is quite flexible, so we could turn it to "Vilovi som dal tie knihy..." (To Bill I gave the books ..., which would put emphasis on Bill), but also "Dal som Billovi tie knihy" (I gave to Bill the books ...).

I would attempt both examples in Hungarian, but I'm afraid I'm not fluent enough and my dad isn't picking up the phone :o)

Mark Liberman said...

Hi Lameen -- please drop me a note at -- thanks!

Paul Davidson said...

Thanks, Bulbul. I was thinking that the German might lump 3 or 4 verbs together at the end (especially if you didn't use the simple past for sagen).

David Marjanović said...

German? Take the English and restore all the missing "that". That's all. The first thing bulbul would say is right, except for the spelling of dass; the third is even more correct, but not colloquial; the second violates the consecutio temporum ("glaubt" is present tense, so present-perfect tense must follow).

What you're all thinking of is the fact that German allows to pack subordinate clauses inside subordinate clauses inside subordinate clauses inside subordinate clauses, with no limit imposed by grammar. Because relative clauses have SOV order, you can easily end up with "SO, SO, SO, SOV, V, V, V". If I try, I can largely replicate that in English: "John said that Mary, who thinks that Bill, whom she, who is lovesick, loves so much, has come".

Examples longer than the above actually do occur in some writings, though they are considered bad style.

Dave Kaufman said...

Hi Lameen:

I'm not a blogger myself, but I've been looking at your blog and am intrigued with your linguistic insights. I'm also a linguist about to do a PhD program at U of Kansas. My current focus is primarily on Amerindian languages and revitalization, specifically working on Biloxi (Siouan) and Rumsen Ohlone (Penutian). I enjoyed your paper on Siouan reduplication. Perhaps you could drop me a line. I'd like to learn more about your background and linguistic interests. I'm also a member of the Siouan List.

David Boxenhorn said...

Isn't there a joke about The house that Jack built in German?

David Marjanović said...

Thanks for the link:

This is the farmer sowing the corn,
That kept [alive???] the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

Normal translation into German:

Das ist der Bauer, der das Getreide gesät hat [no gerund in German],
Das den Hahn ???am Leben erhalten hat???, der am Morgen gekräht hat, Der den ganz rasierten und geschorenen Priester (auf)geweckt hat,
Der den hin- und hergerissenen Mann verheiratet hat,
Der das verzweifelte Mädchen geküsst hat,
Das die Kuh mit dem verschrumpelten Horn gemolken hat,
Die den Hund gestoßen hat,
Der die Katze [...whatever, artistic licence:] in den Wahnsinn getrieben hat,
Die die Ratte getötet hat,
Die das Malz gefressen hat,
Das in dem Haus gelegen ist/hat, das Jack gebaut hat.

So I just translated one line after another and put it into SOV.

But if I insist that every subordinate clause immediately follow the noun which it explains, and German grammar allows that, I unleash all horror:

Das ist der Bauer, der das Getreide,
das den Hahn, der am Morgen,
der den Priester,
der den Mann,
der das verzweifelte Mädchen,
das die Kuh mit dem verschrumpelten Horn,
die den Hund,
der die Katze,
die die Ratte,
die das Malz,
das in dem Haus,
das Jack gebaut hat,
gelegen ist/hat,
gefressen hat,
getötet hat,
in den Wahnsinn getrieben hat,
gestoßen hat,
gemolken hat,
geküsst hat,
verheiratet hat,
(auf)geweckt hat,
gekräht hat,
???am Leben erhalten hat???,
gesät hat.

Obviously nobody can keep track of which verb goes with which noun here. I wonder if Kiswahili... :^)

In shorter sentences, however, this construction is commonplace and sometimes even preferred: "Das ist das Malz, das in dem Haus, das Jack gebaut hat, gelegen ist".

Lameen Souag said...

Wonderful! Now that's what I call center-embedding :)

John Cowan said...

"Kept" in the House that Jack Built means "owned, raised, took care of."

The German center-embedded "translation" is hysterical, especially read aloud!