Sunday, February 19, 2017

A real-life subjacency problem sentence

There are some kinds of questions and relative clauses that you just can't form without resorting to a resumptive pronoun, even in languages - like English - that otherwise don't allow resumptive pronouns to begin with. Ever since Ross (1967) came up with a typology of "island constraints", syntacticians have hotly debated both which ones these are and how to account for them.

Unfortunately, real-life examples of people trying to say such things are very scarce on the ground. As a result discussion of this phenomenon tends to be dominated by artificial examples. Much of the literature on subjacency inadvertently demonstrates how unsatisfactory the result can be (as discussed here: 1, 2). Every once in a long while, however, you find a completely spontaneous case of someone running up against such constraints - and here's today's, courtesy of some person on Reddit:

Step zero: find a couple million complete and utter morons, who it's a miracle they can breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you.

Normally, a relative clause starting in "who" would have no overt subject within the clause itself apart from "who", as in:

Step zero: find a couple million complete and utter morons, who in all honesty Ø can barely breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you.

But that's impossible here: note the ungrammaticality of:

*Step zero: find a couple million complete and utter morons, who it's a miracle Ø can breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you.

Instead, you end up having to fill the subject position to which "who" refers with a resumptive pronoun "they".

12 comments:

David Marjanović said...

There are some kinds of questions and relative clauses that you just can't form without resorting to a resumptive pronoun, even in languages - like English - that otherwise don't allow resumptive pronouns to begin with.

The example gets completely subverted when I try to render it in German: Schritt Nummer null: Finde ein paar Millionen totale Vollidioten, bei denen es ein Wunder ist, dass sie ein- und ausatmen können, ohne... – relative clause to the rescue; anything closer to the original is flat-out ungrammatical. English happens to lack an equivalent to bei (which is about the same as French chez).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Interesting strategy - reminds me of mathematical English such that. Japanese relative clauses are a bit like that, but of course resumptive pronouns in Japanese are pretty unlikely since the language hates pronouns so much to begin with.

David Marjanović said...

Ooh... "find a couple million complete and utter morons to support you, (and find them in) such (a way) that it's a miracle they can"... :-)

petre said...

I struggle to find your third version, "Step zero: find a couple million complete and utter morons, who it's a miracle Ø can breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you" as grammatically deviant as the first, with the (to my British ear) intrusive "they", which sounds American, and in some vague way Yiddish. The third variant would not "shock my ear" at all in conversation, compare "Find a couple million complete and utter morons, who one can hardly believe can breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you."

The Belgian French I speak with my family is chock-full of subjacent adjectives, though I might baulk at direct pronouns. "Le type que tu as vu sa photo sur Facebook" (normative: "Le type dont tu as vu la photo sur Facebook.") seems acceptable because who uses "dont" in casual conversation?

French isn't my first language, but I suspect in the case of English our "native speaker intuition" may tell each of us rather different things, maybe just regional, maybe not. David's German "bei" is not unavailable to us in English: we could say "find a couple million complete and utter morons, of whom [or even, at a push, "where"] it's a miracle that they can breathe in and out without f***ing it up, to support you". But that "of whom" might feel intrusive in this example, just like "dont" in my French sample. I suspect both English and French are moving towards a simplification of their subordination structures, which may well lead us to greater use of of resumptive pronouns. But that's just a guess.



David Marjanović said...

Good that you mention "where" – it what I'd probably have picked if pressed.

petre said...

Hey, David! Yes, "where" is my go-to word for "bei" when interpreting, though not translating of course (-: . One might even get away with "wo" in the sloppy Luxembourg German that I speak, to render the English example.

David Marjanović said...

All over Alemannic and beyond, wo is the universal relative pronoun (no agreement with anything).

Hans said...

In this case, "wo es ein Wunder ist" would also work in Northern and Western varieties of colloquial Standard German.

David Marjanović said...

Ah. I'd misinterpret this wo as applying to the whole situation, not just the "complete and utter morons" – like wobei (which I'd prefer for that).

petre said...

That "feels" right David. "Wo" is obviously a vaguer relativizer than "bei denen". It was genuinely sloppy on my part to refer to "sloppy Luxembourg German", which reading it back seems judgmental in a way I didn't intend. My point was that speakers there might regard "bei denen" as over-egging the pudding, or over-icing the cake, in casual speech. The same speakers might prefer French "où" over "chez qui" (same meaning, same context), though "bei denen" and "chez qui" are well within our repertoire, if called upon to disambiguate or delivering a formal speech. Register. "We" are well aware that people further south in the Sprachraum use such expressions routinely and unselfconsciously, but might find it tiresomely pedantic in "one of our own". Gib mi' räson, Hans!

petre Tepner said...

Resumptive pronoun/VP? Overheard yesterday: "She has an Irish sort of name, that I knew once, but can't remember what it is now." Speaker (south-east?) English, female, 50-60 y.o., addressing similar.

*******

Though resumptive pronouns have a perfectly legitimate (obligatory?) place in Spanish grammar, over-use of them is a recognized way of "dumbing down" Spanish, and, for script-writers, of signalling "yokelism". See Cletus and his wife in the (European) Spanish version of Los Simpson. If anyone knows where I can access the American Spanish dubbing of The Simpsons, I'd be fascinated to compare them, in my sad language-nerdy way.

Daniel N. said...

I thought if I can twist your sentence in any way to be forced to use a resumptive pronoun in Croatian, but I couldn't. The instrumental case comes to the rescue:

Nađi milijun kompletnih morona, koji nekim čudom mogu disati... nekim čudom = by means of some miracle

Of course, it's impersonal "it's a miracle", which can be rephrased. But even if I add a subject ("you know them") there's a way to get out.