Faculty of Arts


Syntax: Function and Typology


Course overview

This course is a continuation of the functional-typological component of LINGUIST 200. The aim of this course is to gain a finer-grained understanding of how certain cross-linguistic phenomena affect the morphosyntactic structure of a clause, valency (the arguments a sentence has) and the mappings between grammatical roles and semantic roles. More specifically, we will explore the (morpho)syntax of three phenomena from a functional and typological perspective:

Ergativity (mappings): there is considerable cross-linguistic diversity in the mappings between semantic roles (i.e., Agent, Patient, Subject and so on) and grammatical roles (i.e., Subject, Object, Indirect Object and so on). However, this diversity is constrained in certain ways that divide the world’s languages into two basic types: nominative-accusative languages (like English and most other European languages) and ergative-absolutive languages (like many languages in Australia). Given this division, many (if not all) ergative languages also have nominative-accusative properties, or what is called "split ergativity". An examination of these systems will give us an insight into how these mappings are determined. Clause structure plays a central role here: we will focus in on how matrix versus embedded environments are often the locus of split ergativity across the world’s languages.

Modality (meaning and structure): there is a fairly robust generalisation in the literature on English that the difference between epistemic modals (i.e., modals involving the belief or evidence of the speaker) and root modals (modals involving external circumstances, wishes, desires, laws and so on) reduces to the syntactic and semantic properties of auxiliary modals (such as "might" and "must") and certain embedding verbs (i.e., "seems"). We will explore the cross-linguistic viability of this generalisation. Interestingly, many languages do not have a modal system like English; rather, they possess a paradigm of "grammatical evidentials": lexemes that encode specific kinds of evidence a speaker has for making a statement about the world. How do we create a viable typology of modals and evidentials - especially in languages where the embedding facts are not so clear?

Causativisation (valency): basically speaking, all languages have the grammatical means for causing things to happen, or getting other people/things to do things. This has important consequences for morphology and syntax, which can be seen in a simple pair of sentences in English: the sentence "The horses ran away" is a simple intransitive clause with a Subject/Patient (the horses). In Gitksan, an endangered indigenous language spoken in Canada, this same sentence is "kuxw kyuwatan" (kuxw= run away, kyuwatan= the horse). However, a related sentence reveals an interesting and robust cross-linguistic difference: "John chased the horse away" is a simple transitive clause with a Subject (John) and "the horse" is now the Object/Patient. This is both lexical ("run" versus "chase") and syntactic (intransitive versus transitive) in English. In Gitksan this same sentence is "kuxw-in John kyuwatan", which could be literally translated as "John caused the horse to run away". In Gitksan, the same intransitive verb "run" (kuxw) undergoes causativisation: the verbal suffix "-in" increases the valency of the underlyingly intransitive "kuxw" to an transitive. Gitksan is a language that does not have (what we can tentatively call) syntactic causativisation; rather, all causatives in Gitksan are morphological, which has interesting consequences for its syntax. More specifically, this is an example of "direct causativisation", and it sits at the core of lexical semantics and syntax. We will explore the body of research that hypothesises that languages can be placed on a cline of causativisation from purely syntactic/lexical (i.e., English) to the morphological (i.e., Gitksan), and languages that have both strategies.

Course outcomes 

A student who successfully completes this course will have the opportunity to:

  • Acquire knowledge and apply it to x situations
  • Understand and carry out [practical skills]
  • Acquire skills in report writing, critical thinking academic literacy/ numeracy/ oral presentation and so on

Availability 2018

Semester 2


Coordinator(s)  Saurov Syed


Readings will be made available.


Coursework + exam


LINGUIST 300: 15.0 points


LINGUIST 200 or 203

Contact details | Search | Accessibility | Copyright | Privacy | Disclaimer | 1