I spent quite a lot of time as an undergraduate analysing Hungarian syntax with my generative head on and using the minimalist framework. Bear with me. This post is the result of me trying to marry all of them hours spent reading “The Minimalist Program” (Chomsky, 1995) and starring at Hungarian with what I’m currently doing¹ and ultimately trying to convince myself that I wasn’t wasting time.
So here’s a condensed summary of what my dissertation was about:
Hungarian has a massive case system which, as well as structural cases, has many items which have locational, instrumental and relational uses (lexical case markers). Because of this many constructions which feature prepositions in English, when translated into Hungarian can be translated as case markers or postpositions.
It struck me as odd that these 2 things; case markers and postpositions, despite having the same position in the structure (as a right-headed modifier to the noun) and very similar semantic function, would have different analyses in the syntactic framework, simply due to the fact that one was morphologically attached (case markers) and the other not (postpositions).
Postpositions fall into 3 categories in Hungarian and each of these shows varying degrees of similarity to lexical case markers. I spent most of the 10,000 words discussing these similarities (and differences) at length and drawing a lot of trees. I’m not going to go into all of that here but if you’re interested you can email me (hanachronism at gmail dot com) and I’ll send it to you (it really is dull dull dull).
Skipping to the conclusion because that’s always the exciting bit:
Historically a lot of case markers (at least 10) were once postpositions (Spencer 2008). I concluded that “type 1” postpositions are on their way to becoming fully fledged case markers and through language change will gradually become morphologically attached to the nouns they specify and undergo vowel harmony. Due to the weak prosodic status of both postpositions and case markers (Kiss 2002, Kabak 2006) and there being no determiner category that intervenes between the postposition and the noun they meet the conditions that allow the linear fusion hypothesis to occur. (Kabak 2006). (The Linear Fusion Hypothesis states that items which are used together are fused together (I love that this rhymes). (Bybee, 2002)).
“Type 1” postpositions also do not assign case to the nouns they modify (other postposition types do). Kabak (2006) states in his paper on the morphologisation of postpositions that:
Postpositions following an uninflected form of complement have a greater chance of turning into case suffixes or clitics than those following a case-inflected form.
All case suffixes that were developed out of postpositions in Hungarian had once assigned no overt case suffix, just like type 1 postpositions!
The Hungarian case system is growing and has been for some time.
Now I’m going to get to the part that’s relevant to Language Evolution.
Bentz and Christiansen (2010) in a talk at EVOLANG8 put forward the hypothesis that an SVO language with a small amount of case markers is what all languages are tending towards due cognitive constraints on learnability. They also make the assertion that the case system shrinking in romance languages demonstrates the presence of a constraint which may have shaped linguistic adaptation over evolutionary time. This is the sort of claim that, regardless of what the general direction of language change in the majority is, one language (or two, I’ve heard Estonian is going the same way as Hungarian) will disprove it because cognitive constraints on learnability are universal.
The assertion that a smaller case system contributes to the system being simpler (and therefore more learnable) as a whole isn’t very convincing. In the case of Hungarian, as the case system is getting larger, the postpositional system becomes smaller, and so the analogous systems together are staying pretty stable in terms of complexity.
So what can Hungarian Postpositions tell us about Language Evolution? Just that smaller case systems aren’t more learnable than larger ones I guess.
Bentz, C and M. H. Christiansen 2010. ‘Linguistic adaptation at work? The change of word order and case system from Latin to the Romance Languages.’ In The Evolution of Language. Eds. A. D. M. Smith, M. Schouwstra, B. de Boer and K. Smith. World Scientific. pp. 26-33.
Bybee J. 2002. Sequentiality as the basis of the constituent structure.’ In Givón, T. & B. F. Malle (eds.) The Evolution of Language out of Pre-Language, 109-134, Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist program. MIT Press.
Kabak, B. 2006. ‘An obstacle to the morphologization of postpositions.’ In Studies in Language 30: 1. pp. 33 – 68. John Benjamins.
Kiss, K.E. 2002. The syntax of Hungarian. Cambridge.
Spencer, A. 2008. ‘Does Hungarian have a case system?’ In Case and grammatical relations: studies in honor of Bernard Comrie. Eds. B. Comrie, G. G. Corbett and M. Noonan. Pp. 35-56
¹ Studying language evolution in an environment where almost everybody believes that structure in language is mostly a result of a cumulative result of cultural evolution, as opposed to the result of an innate universal grammar.