Linguistics Anonymous

02 April 2006

FOCUSing on WH Interpretability

Note: this post treats the analysis presented in Boskovic, Z. 1999. "Oh multiple feature-checking: Multiple wh-Fronting and multiple head-movement." in S. Epstein and N. Hornstein (eds.). Working Minimalism. 159-187. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

In his 1999 paper on multiple wh-fronting in Slavic languages, Boskovic deals with the issue of what forces wh-words beyond the first to front after the [+wh] feature on the COMP has been checked by the first wh-word. As a solution to this problem, Boskovic proposes that each of the wh-words beyond the first moves into the left periphery because of [FOCUS] features. This post is a collection of thoughts on this idea.

First, let us summarize Boskovic's analysis for a sentence such as (1), from Bulgarian:

(1) Koj kogo obica
who whom loves
"Who loves whom?"

This analysis allows Boskovic to capture the overt movement of the wh-words in multiple wh-fronting (MWF) languages, as well as the superiority effects that subsets of these languages exhibit (this data is not repeated here. The reader is referred to the original article). The interesting claim that Boskovic makes in this analysis is that all wh-elements are focused elements for these languages. This means that the [FOCUS] feature in the tree for (1) will be strong on each of the wh-phrases.

What I would like to comment on is the nature of interpretability of the features Boskovic proposes. He does not comment in his paper on which of the features are interpretable and which are not. This will become crucial, however, in order to predict the correct word order. In order for the FOC head to be able to attract multiple wh-phrases (in the case of three or four-wh-word sentences) the [FOCUS] feature on the FOC head must be interpretable (note that it would also be possible to derive a phase-based analysis of feature deletion in order to account for this, but this solution is not pursued here). If the [FOCUS] feature is not interpretable, it would necessary delete under Minimalist accounts of feature checking, and not be able to attract wh-phrases beyond the first.

In a way, this is also an implicit argument for the existence of a FOC head in the left periphery. If there were not this head, either COMP or some other functional projection would be forced to bear an interpretable feature representing, semantically, focus. Since this is probably something we would like to avoid (not to mention issues of having functional heads represent more than one semantic role...), we can posit the FOC head to bear this feature and attract each of the wh-phrases beyond the first in MWF sentences.

Finally, there is one question left to be resolved, and that is how to make this analysis work vis-a-vis Rizzi's account of the FOC head. In his analysis, this head is unique - it is not iterated multiple times in the periphery as TOP is. This raises the obvious question in light of what we have discussed here: if there are more than two wh-phrases in the MWF language sentence, how can we account for them all being moved to the left periphery? The obvious issue would lie in whether we want to allow multiple wh-words to occupy [SPEC, FOC] or to allow FOC to be iterated beyond the first (contra Rizzi). I believe this is a matter that needs further investigating.

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