“So what is your PhD about?”

A pause in the conversation, a heavy silence, and eager anticipation of an easy-to-grasp answer.

“Discourse-configurationality in Finnish and Japanese and its repercussions to the Minimalist architecture of syntax. Y’know.”

The exact formulation of my research topic is not exactly conducive to small talk. More often than not, it makes the conversation engine cough and jerk, finally coming to a halt at levels of iciness comparable to the initial interaction between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

Talking about my research - as icy as Mr Darcy. norika21.
Talking about my research – as icy as Mr Darcy. norika21.

To avoid the premature death of all small talk – and to boost my cool and hip student factor – I have discovered that the way to go is to keep things nice, simple, and very much digestable to the uninitiated. Let’s try again.

“Well, I look at look Finnish and Japanese.”

“Oh that’s a very interesting choice of languages. How did you come up with that?”

Well, let me tell you.

Finnish and Japanese are very much historically unrelated, but they both show some curious phenomena, among them relatively free word order. In Japanese, the verb must come last in the sentence but otherwise constituents are basically free in their ordering; Finnish is somewhat more constrained but words can still be moved around much more freely than, say, in English. To illustrate, in English The dog ate the cat and The cat ate the dog mean very different things. In Japanese, however, changing the order of the subject and the object preserves the state of affairs:

Neko-wa inu-o tabemashita.
cat-top dog-acc ate
“The cat ate the dog.”

Inu-o neko-wa tabemashita.
dog-acc cat-top ate
“The cat ate the dog.”

(-wa is a topic marker that marks the phrase the sentence is about; -o is an accusative marker marking the object. Similar grammatical functions will come up in the other examples as well; all you need to know is that having these is part of the reason why the sentences above can have the same basic meaning even when the word order changes.) And the same holds in Finnish:

Kissa söi koira-n.
cat ate dog-acc
“The cat ate the dog”

Koira-n söi kissa.
dog-acc ate cat
“The cat ate the dog.”

Prepare to eat! Or to be eaten..? A_Peach.
Prepare to eat! Or to be eaten..? A_Peach.

“Ah okay… So what exactly are you doing with this?”

A bit of theoretical machinery first. In syntactic theory, there is a notion of movement. Think of a wh-question in English (these are questions formed with so-called wh-words such as who, which, where, how (I know, I know, no wh in the spelling there), and so on):

What did Easter Bunny hide?

The question word what serves more than one function here: on the one hand, in the sentence-initial position it alerts the listener to the fact that the sentence to follow is a question, and on the other, it is the object of hide. To capture this, it is assumed that what in fact starts off in a position after hide, so that at some level of representation, the sentence looks like

Easter Bunny hid what.

Interestingly, this is exactly what you hear in echo questions:

A: Easter Bunny hid bottles of liqueur.

B: Easter Bunny hid what?!?

To cut many theoretical corners, the idea is that what moves up in the structure to where we hear it, but it is also represented silently at its original position. What makes it move is assumed to be a feature higher up in the sentence: in this case, a so-called wh-feature, which, if checked by moving a wh-word to it, makes the sentence a question.

Easter Bunny is WHO?!? Eric Mueller.
Easter Bunny is WHO?!? Eric Mueller.

“Okay… So what about Finnish and Japanese?”

I said that there is a wh-feature that triggers the movement of the wh-phrase in English. But, as in life, nothing is ever nice and simple in linguistics either. Some linguists argue that purely pragmatic notions (basically things that don’t affect the truth of a statement) can’t have corresponding formal features in the syntax. Now, whether something is a question or not is obviously not only a matter of pragmatics, so having wh-features is not a problem. However, in Finnish you seem to be able to move phrases much like wh-phrases in English but for purposes of contrast. To illustrate:

Sofia nai prinsessa-n.
Sofia married princess-acc
“Sofia married a princess.”

Prinsessan Sofia nai.
princess-acc Sofia married
“It was a prince Sofia married (and not a prince).”

The latter utterance has a contrastive reading unlike the former, but this difference is difficult to pin down in non-pragmatic terms. The question that has to be asked, then, is whether this movement is in fact different from that in the case of wh-phrases, and if not, whether postulating a feature for contrast is necessary.

A case of contrast: marrying a princess, NOT a prince! Ross Hawkes.
A case of contrast: marrying a princess, NOT a prince! Ross Hawkes.

“I think I just about get this… Is Japanese the same then?”

I wish. Japanese offers different sort of complication to linguistic theory. It is often assumed that movement doesn’t just happen without a reason: it has to have some sort of interpretive effect, semantic or pragmatic. Japanese has a phenomenon called scrambling (fancy, I know), where nearly any phrase can be moved nearly anywhere in the sentence, or even out of it. Have a look at these examples:

Zen’in-ga sensei-ga syukudai-o dasu to omowanakatta (yo)
all-nom teacher-nom homework-acc assign that think part
“All did not think that the teacher would assign homework.”

Syukudai-o zen’in-ga sensei-ga dasu to omowanakatta (yo)
homework-acc all-nom teacher-nom assign that think part
“Homework, all did not think that the teacher would assign.”

The object syukudaio ‘homework’ starts off in the that-clause, as in the first example, and ends up in the main clause, as in the second one. In cases like this where the moved phrase crosses a clause boundary, it’s argued that there is no difference in meaning. So, what has to be done is to try to tease apart even slight differences in interpretation. If any appear, the questions will be much the same as with Finnish contrast; if not – well, that’ll be a more complicated story of reassessing our theoretical assumptions.

“Gosh, I never thought you could achieve so much by looking at such distant languages, and that linguists are such cool people!”