Nominal Modification

The Research Training Group on Nominal Modification at the Goethe University Frankfurt

Home » Virtual GK Colloquium June 2: Fenna Bergsma & Ruby Sleeman

Virtual GK Colloquium June 2: Fenna Bergsma & Ruby Sleeman

On Tuesday, June 2nd virtual GK Colloquium will be hosting talks by Fenna Bergsma entitled ‘Case competition in headless relatives: a Germanic typology‘ and Ruby Sleeman entitled ‘Modifying superlatives: German ordinal-compounding vs. the Dutch exceptive op…na‘. See below for the abstracts. 

When: 4:15 pm-6:00 pm
Where: Online via Zoom
(please send an e-mail to to get access link)

Case competition in headless relatives: a Germanic typology
Case competition is a situation in which two cases are assigned but only one of them surfaces. One of the constructions in which case competition appears is headless relative clauses, i.e. relative clause constructions that lack a head. I give an example from Modern German in (1). In this example, the two competing cases are accusative and dative, and the dative surfaces.

(1) Ich lade ein wem du vertraust.I invite[acc]] REL.DAT you trust[dat]’I invite who you trust.’

In my dissertation, I address two aspects of the construction: the first one holds for all languages I investigate, and the second one differs per language. I discuss three Germanic languages, namely Gothic, Old High German and Modern German.
The first property has to do with which case wins the competition. All three languages obey to the case scale in NOM < ACC < DAT in which cases more to the right win over cases more to the left (cf. Harbert 1978, Pittner 1995). That is, accusative wins over nominative, dative wins over accusative, and dative wins over nominative. I derive this from taking morphology as a point of departure. Several morphological patterns (e.g. formal containment, *ABA in syncretism and suppletion) can be derived by making case complex in morphology (Caha 2009). From such a perspective, case competition boils down to a more complex case licensing a less complex case. The observed pattern in headless relatives in syntax is merely a reflex of how morphology is organized.

The main focus of my talk is going to be the other, crosslinguistically differing, aspect of headless relatives. The two cases in headless relative clauses come from predicates internal to the relative clause or external to the relative clause (i.e. the main clause predicate). It differs per language whether it is allowed to let the internal or external case surface. Metaphorically speaking, even though a case wins the competition, sometimes it refuses to pick up the trophy. In Gothic, the more complex case surfaces, whether it is the external case or the internal (Harbert 1978). In Modern German, the more complex case only surfaces if it is the internal case (Vogel 2001). If it is the external case, the headless relative is ungrammatical. Old High German is the exact opposite from Modern German: there exist only examples in which the external case is more complex, and no examples are attested with a more complex internal case (Pittner 1995). 

So far, this variation has mostly been put away as language and construction specific. My aim is to show that the variation actually follows from the morphology of the relative pronouns in the different languages. Gothic uses a D-element, a phi-feature morpheme and an invariant complementizer. Modern German uses a wh-element and a phi-feature morpheme. Old High German uses a D-element and a phi-feature morpheme. I show my ongoing research on how the properties of the relative pronouns have consequences for the headless relatives. This analysis predicts that languages with similar morphology as the Germanic languages I discuss should behave similarly in their headless relative constructions as well. 

If time permits, I briefly touch upon my take on languages that only allow identical cases in headless relatives (such as Polish and Italian).

Modifying superlatives: German ordinal-compounding vs. the Dutch exceptive op…na

In this talk, I compare the closely related languages Dutch and German in terms of their strategies for modifying superlatives. The talk aims to answer the following three questions:

  • Why is the German ordinal-superlative strategy not available in Dutch?
  • Why does Dutch use the exceptive PP op…na to modify superlatives?
  • What is the syntactic structure of superlative modification in Dutch and German?

First, I will argue that Dutch resists forming ordinal-superlative compounds like German zweithöchste due to general differences in restrictions on compounding between Dutch and German (Hüning 2010). Second, I will argue that the exceptive PP marker op…na is an excellent superlative modifier because exceptives depend on the presence of a universal quantifier, which is part of the semantics of the superlative (Heim 1999, Hoeksema 1996, Von Fintel 1993, Matushansky 2008, Paardekooper 1986). Finally, I will show how to accommodate both modifiers plus some additional superlative-modifying elements in a big extended adjectival projection à la Corver (1997, 2005).

Corver, N. (1997). The internal syntax of the Dutch extended adjectival projection. NLLT 15, 289–368.
Corver, N. (2005). Double comparatives and the Comparative Criterion. Revue Linguistique de Vincennes, 34, 165-190.
von Fintel, K. (1993). Exceptive constructions. Natural Language Semantics 1: 123–148.
Heim, I. (1999). Notes on superlatives. MIT lecture notes.
Hoeksema, J. (1996). The semantics of exception phrases. In quantifiers, logic, and language, ed. J. van der Does & J. van Eijck, 145–177. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Hüning, M. (2010). Adjective + noun constructions between syntax and word formation in Dutch and German. In Onysko, Alexander & Michel, Sascha (eds.), Cognitive perspectives on word formation (Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 221), 195-215. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.
Matushansky, O. (2008). On the Attributive Nature of Superlatives. Syntax 11/1, pp. 26-90.
Morzycki, M. (to appear). Semantic Viruses and Multiple Superlatives. In Proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society (CLS) 54.
Paardekooper, P.C. (1986). Beknopte ABN-syntaksis [A concise syntax of Dutch]. (7th ed.) Eindhoven: Independent publication.

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