Norvin Richards

Norvin Richards is Professor of Linguistics at MIT and the author of Uttering Trees (MIT Press).

  • Contiguity Theory

    Contiguity Theory

    Norvin Richards

    An argument that the word order of a given language is largely predictable from independently observable facts about its phonology and morphology.

    Languages differ in the types of overt movement they display. For example, some languages (including English) require subjects to move to a preverbal position, while others (including Italian) allow subjects to remain postverbal. In its current form, Minimalism offers no real answer to the question of why these different types of movements are distributed among languages as they are. In Contiguity Theory, Norvin Richards argues that there are universal conditions on morphology and phonology, particularly in how the prosodic structures of language can be built, and that these universal structures interact with language-specific properties of phonology and morphology. He argues that the grammar begins the construction of phonological structure earlier in the derivation than previously thought, and that the distribution of overt movement operations is largely determined by the grammar's efforts to construct this structure. Rather than appealing to diacritic features, the explanations will generally be rooted in observable phenomena.

    Richards posits a different kind of relation between syntax and morphology than is usually found in Minimalism. According to his Contiguity Theory, if we know, for example, what inflectional morphology is attached to the verb in a given language, and what the rules are for where stress is placed in the verb, then we will know where the verb goes in the sentence. Ultimately, the goal is to construct a theory in which a complete description of the phonology and morphology of a given language is also a description of its syntax.

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  • Uttering Trees

    Uttering Trees

    Norvin Richards

    A study of the interface between syntax and phonology that seeks deeper explanations for such syntactic problems as case phenomena and the distribution of overt and covert wh-movement.

    In Uttering Trees, Norvin Richards investigates the conditions imposed upon syntax by the need to create syntactic objects that can be interpreted by phonolog—that is, objects that can be pronounced. Drawing extensively on linguistic data from a variety of languages, including Japanese, Basque, Tagalog, Spanish, Kinande (Bantu language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Chaha (Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia), Richards makes two new proposals about the relationship between syntax and phonology. The first, “Distinctness,” has to do with the process of imposing a linear order on the constituents of the tree. Richards claims that syntactic nodes with many properties in common cannot be directly linearized and must be kept structurally distant from each other. He argues that a variety of syntactic phenomena can be explained by this generalization, including much of what has traditionally been covered by case theory.

    Richards's second proposal, “Beyond Strength and Weakness,” is an attempt to predict, for any given language, whether that language will exhibit overt or covert wh-movement. Richards argues that we can predict whether or not a language can leave wh in situ by investigating more general properties of its prosody. This proposal offers an explanation for a cross-linguistic difference—that wh-phrases move overtly in some languages and covertly in others—that has hitherto been simply stipulated. In both these areas, it appears that syntax begins constructing a phonological representation earlier than previously thought; constraints on both word order and prosody begin at the beginning of the derivation.

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