Linguistics Anonymous

24 April 2006

The Arabic Pronoun Asymmetry: Solved

For reference, see my post: Partial Agreement in Arabic Clauses

In the above post I noted that there was a particular problem with the analysis that I had developed of the Arabic asymmetry given by feature strength in that pronouns seemed to be a marked exception. Concretely, pronouns do NOT raise to a pre-verbal position despite a verbal element which inflects fully for number, unlike other VSO clauses in spoken Arabic.

The major insight is this: a hidden thrust of the previous post was that syntactic movement and agreement of the kind seen in Arabic might be analyzed wholly in terms of feature checking and the mechanism of AGREE, in line with Checking Theory (Chomsky 1995). So in furthering this analysis, it makes sense to ask a rather bold question: to what extent could we forgo major category features and concentrate solely on agreement relations between syntactic constituents?

Luckily enough, this is precisely what Ouhalla (2005) seeks to do. In his analysis, specialized category features have no theoretical motivation (or status). Instead, categorization is driven by context: [PERSON] (on the head Pred) values a syntactic element verbal and [CLASS] (on a head of the same name) values a syntactic element nominal, once an agreement relation is established between the two.

This is a fairly hefty proposal, and I cannot do it justice here. However, there is one thing that can be of use to us: Ouhalla points out that it is not a good idea to associate the [PERSON] feature with EPP in his analysis (which one might be tempted to do upon reading his work), since it conflicts with the modern notion of EPP. However, it is still necessary for pronominal elements to check and delete their [PERSON] feature against the Pred head to avoid conflicting feature sets with Pro[PERSON, CLASS]. Regular nominals, on the other hand, do not have a [PERSON] feature, since unless they are a pronoun, they carry default 3rd person (obviously I am skimming over a lot here in the interests of brevity - I direct the reader to Ouhalla's article for a proper treatment of his analysis).

Since we do not want to associate EPP (in other words, the feature associated with raising to [Spec, T]) with [PERSON], but pronominals must check and delete it, we can see that pronominals must enter into an Agree relation with the verbal element (thereby valuing it for number, unlike regular nominals, which do not do so for phi-features) in order to check off [PERSON]. But since [PERSON] does not trigger raising, the pronominal must stay in-situ.

This leaves one open question: how do regular nominals raise, then, if they are not agreeing with the verbal element for [NUMBER] (as was claimed in the initial post). The exact mechanisms of this are still to be worked out, but one might gain insight from Ouhalla:

"...while nouns have [CASE], pronouns have [PERSON], or, to put it differently, [CASE] is to nouns what [PERSON] is to pronouns" (pp. 682).

Thus the conditioning factor on number agreement is the presence of a [PERSON] feature on the nominal that must be checked, and raising is obligatory in the presence of a [CASE] feature on a nominal.


Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ouhalla, Jamal. 2005. "Agreement Features, Agreement and Antiagreement." Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 23: 655-686.


Post a Comment

<< Home