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» Wednesday Linguistics: What’s in a sentence?


Wednesday Linguistics: What’s in a sentence?

2006-04-12 @ 2:40

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I was saying, last week, how sentences are built from the word up. That words incorporate requirements, both in terms of semantics and syntax, that allow for the construction of meaningful, grammatical utterances.

Before we can dig into how that is done, there’s a few concepts to introduce. First one is the distinction, within parts of speech (word classes), between predicative (or notional) ones and non-predicative (or transpredicative) ones. The former comprises (in English) nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. All parts of speech that “mean something” (in a strict sense), open-ended classes where it is always possible to add new members. Non- predicative words include prepositions (to, of, from), conjunctions (and, or, but), determiners (the, this) and others. These are the more grammatical words.

Another particular concept – at least in this theory – is incidence, which is part of a word’s grammatical meaning. This is the mechanism by which words link themselves to each other. And not just individual words but also phrases.

The basic division, within notional parts of speech, is between what has internal incidence (nouns) and what has external incidence and within this group, words with first degree incidence (adjectives and verbs) and second degree (adverbs). That is to say that the adjective differs from the noun in that whereas the former refers to something outside itself (a noun) — external incidence (of the first degree) — the latter is, so to speak, self-contained — internal incidence. Adverbs refer to something which is not self-contained (adjectives, other adverbs or even verbs, which require the support of person) — external incidence of the second degree.

Prepositions, on the other hand, bridge two parts of a phrase. The relation thus established is from an import of meaning (e.g. an adjective) and the support (e.g. a noun).

When we say that one part of the utterance (the import, be it morpheme, word, phrase or even sentence) is made incident to another (the support), we mean that its meaning is brought to bear on the support which lies at the heart of the specific structure involved (noun phrase, verb phrase, sentence, etc.). Since illustration often helps to best explain something, here is a representation of the interplay of incidences involved in uttering the phrase “The very lovely child” :

The very lovely child

Syntax, in Psychomechanics, stems from the interplay of incidences. Like words, clauses can have internal incidence, as well as first and second degree external incidence (respectively, in noun clauses, relatives (adjectival clauses) and adverbial clauses). Within the sentence, the verb phrase is supported by the subject noun phrase, and in turn supports the direct object — and through the mediation of a preposition, any complement.

All this is subject to iterations; the same processes replicating on various levels. The relations between the various elements of the structure are pretty well defined within the viewpoint of iteration. There are in Psychomechanics no transformations, hence no Deep or Surface Structure, just the structure of the utterance and the underlying meaning.

If, in an interrogative sentence, a word is not in its ‘accustomed’ position — i.e. in a supposed D-Structure — it does not play the same role as in others, there is a different incidencial interplay at work. If a wh-word is found at the beginning of a sentence, it is because it is conceived, in this particular sentence, (by the speaker and hopefully, as they decipher the utterance, the hearer) as the support of the sentence. Having no predetermined support, the pronoun referent is non-specified and so open, hence a question (or general statement, as in “Whoever does this, he will be punished.”).

What do you think?