July 27, 2005

Aux-initial clause with complex subject heard in spontaneous speech!

It was on 26 July 2005, at about 6:24 a.m. Pacific time on the BBC World Service as relayed by KAZU of Pacific Grove in California, that I definitely heard one. I wasn't really listening, but I suddenly heard this sentence, as clear as a bell, and leaped out of bed to write it down. It was a spontaneous, unrehearsed, utterance of a closed interrogative clause with a complex subject containing an auxiliary. For such a clause, the initial auxiliary would not be the first auxiliary in the corresponding subject-initial clause, but rather the second. Real linguistics aficionados will already know why this is important and how it relates to certain theoretical issues in the study of language acquisition; others will perhaps have learned about the topic by reading my previous post on such sentences. For the rest, trust me, it's really important, and I got a real thrill from hearing such a clear case in ordinary conversation. It has been asserted by Noam Chomsky (reference given here) that you could easily go through your whole life without ever hearing one (though he gave no evidence for his statistical claim of rarity). But I heard one. Let me explain.

The sentence I heard was part of a description given by a man who had been a member of an Islamic extremist group. He was talking about what the group had taught him you should ask yourself each day:

(1)   "Is what you're doing enough, or not?"

The relevant part here is very short — just five phonological words: Is what you're doing enough?. The corresponding subject-initial declarative would be What you're doing is enough. It is the second auxiliary, is, that has to be placed in clause-initial position to make the closed interrogative. The first is are (here pronounced in a reduced form with the spelling 're). Choosing that one would yield a hopelessly ungrammatical result:

(2)   *Are what you doing is enough, or not?.

The question has been raised among linguists of how any child could possibly learn the regularity involved here. From all simple cases, it looks as if the closed interrogative corresponding to a declarative clause differs from solely in having the first auxiliary, wherever it might be, repositioned at the beginning of the clause (before the subject rather than after it). That works for all of these:

(3)a.You are an idiot.
 b.Are you an idiot?

(4)a. It is easy to do.
 b.Is it easy to do?

(5)a.She can go out later
 b.Can she go out later?

The sentence I heard, in (1) above, is crucial evidence in that it shows the "first auxiliary" generalization to be misleading and incorrect. The correct generalization is that the closed interrogative corresponding to a declarative clause differs from solely in having the auxiliary of the main clause placed at the beginning of the clause (regardless of what the subject might contain).

Do children learn that from the evidence of what they hear in the speech they are exposed to, or do they just sort of know it instinctively from birth? Barbara Scholz and I have written a lengthy journal article on the question of what sort of investigations might settle that question empirically. It turns to at least some extent on how much crucial evidence that separates the wrong guess from the right one does occur in speech. Well, at least some such evidence does occur. My previous post cited two examples that provide crucial evidence of the right sort, but those were open interrogatives — how-questions, in fact (sentences like How radical are the changes you're having to make?). Those are perfectly relevant evidence too, but what I hadn't been able to catch in my reading and listening until now was an example of the simpler closed interrogative type: no question word like how or who, just an auxiliary before the subject, with another included in the subject.

So now I know: I did not live the whole of my life without hearing one. I heard it yesterday, and I'm still alive. So that settles the question of whether they occur in spontaneous speech. They do. (Geoffrey Sampson actually suspected that Chomsky might be right about their non-occurrence: see his "Exploring the richness of the stimulus", The Linguistic Review 19 [2002], 73-104.)

How many other such examples have I heard in my past life without noticing? And how many did I hear while I was learning English? And could that have been relevant to how I learned to form interrogative sentences correctly? I have no idea. Nobody has any idea.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 27, 2005 06:59 PM