Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Too strong to get out

At four, my nephew speaks English (his dominant language) very well. He still shows some interesting divergences from the standard of those around him, though. Some are influenced by German (a close second): he uses "mine" as a determiner in English (like German "mein") rather than "my", saying things like "mine house". Others seem to result from language-internal overgeneralization, as when he said:
  • If I push the Lego box then the carpet will destroy. [intended meaning: be destroyed]
Presumably, he's interpreted "destroy" as a labile verb, like "open" or "burn".

At first blush, I thought the following sentence was another example of overgeneralization:

  • I'm too strong to get out, so you can't. [intended meaning: I'm too strong for anyone to get me out]
However, reflection suggests that this ought to be perfectly grammatical in English, since "get out" is already labile. "This stump is too heavy to pull out" works fine, so why not "I'm too strong to get out"? Yet, for me at least, the clause immediately receives a pragmatically absurd interpretation with "I" as the subject of "get out", and the obviously intended interpretation is barely accessible even when I've consciously concluded that it should be grammatically acceptable.

In terms of the classic Chomskyan analysis of control, the two interpretations correspond to different unpronounced pronouns PRO:

  1. Ii'm too strong [PROi to get out]
  2. Ii'm too strong [PROarb to get PROi out]
A lot of linguists really dislike the idea of an unpronounced pronoun. Whatever its psychological merits, though, this analysis has the advantage of suggesting why the first interpretation comes more easily than the second here: it only involves one empty pronoun, whereas the desired interpretation needs two. So if anything is going wrong in this sentence, it's not so much the syntax as the pragmatics: an adult speaker might be more aware that listeners could have trouble processing a clause of this form, and avoid it in favour of something less ambiguous. That would need empirical checking though.


Y said...

I don't understand. For both "destroy" and "get out" the semantic patient is the preceding syntactic subject, absent a syntactic object. How are the examples distinct?

Aside, many verbs (maybe all?) are labile in the Trinidadian Creole of Naipaul's novels, as opposed to Standard English, where Labile verbs are a closed set. Maybe your nephew and creole speakers followed similar paths to express the passive?

David Marjanović said...

Passive "destroy" can't be German, which has a lot fewer labile verbs than English. But passive "get out" could be: it is possible (though it wouldn't be preferred in this case) to say such things without any pronoun or person at all – ich bin zu stark zum Herauskriegen, basically "I'm too strong *for the getting-out", more literally of course with "to" instead of "for".

David Marjanović said...

Oh, forgot:

So if anything is going wrong in this sentence, it's not so much the syntax as the pragmatics: an adult speaker might be more aware that listeners could have trouble processing a clause of this form, and avoid it in favour of something less ambiguous.

I think this happens a lot. I've probably undergone this development myself, and still occasionally recapitulate it.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Y: "Get out" is labile in standard English too: he got out safely vs. he got him out. So the problem with that sentence lies elsewhere.

Many West African languages (Mande, at least) use zero-derived passives, effectively making every verb labile, so substratum influence seems conceivable in Trinidad...

David: Interesting to know that works better in German - is the construction also ambiguous there?

Y said...

I see. To compare apples and apples, "I am too strong to destroy" (i.e. be destroyed) is grammatical in standard English. "I am too strong to get out" (i.e. be gotten out) is not quite so. Perhaps it's because the latter is a phrasal verb?

David Marjanović said...

is the construction also ambiguous there?

No; "too strong that I could get out" would be zum Herauskommen. We have plenty of polysemous verbs, but English get is simply impossible to catch up with. :-)

zero-derived passives

Speaking of those and German... we've got one: heißen, "to be called" in the sense of having a name, whose active senses ("to call so. sth.", "to tell/order so. to do sth.") have died out within the last century. Diachronically, the passive sense is the last survival of the synthetic passive, which was productive in Gothic but came to sound the same as the active after a thousand years of continued neglect of unstressed syllables.

David Marjanović said...

Forgot to mention that heißen also means "to mean" as in "to have a meaning": das heißt "that means".

petre said...

Seems verb lability is productive in English. At first reading, I interpreted your nephew's 'destroy' as 'self-destruct', but am re-reading.

Blasius Blasebalg said...

My humble interpretation:

"Get" has two main domains of meaning, "become" or "come/reach", and "obtain"/"retrieve".

For some reason, the first area seems dominant in the sense that in an ambiguous context, the verb defaults to the second meaning.

Why is that? Hard to say. With the meaning "become" (which is not relevant here, but sytactically comparable), "get" is an important structure word, more like a copula than a regular verb from the lexicon. Particularly consider the special case when "get" is combined not with primary adjective, but a participle (e.g. "get pulled out"): This is already (or almost?) an alternative passive form, so a grammaticalized rather than lexical function. This might help explain its dominance.

Moreover, in this particular context, the transitive interpretation "get someone out" is probably a lot rarer than "(manage to) get out". Again, that has an effect in ambiguous sentences.

And yes, there is so much to learn about language from toddlers ...