Home More on Clausal Complementation and Selection Link

Project Directors: Mark Baker and Ken Safir , Rutgers University

This research initiative explores how predicates select for clausal complements. Natural languages most typically make available several different clause types which can function as the complements to a verbal (or adjectival) matrix predicate and it is frequently possible, in a given language, to predict which of the several clause types in the language the predicate will select based on the lexical semantics of that predicate. Native speakers appear to acquire the typology of clausal complementation in their language without explicit instruction, which raises familiar poverty of the stimulus questions that imply a great deal of tacit knowledge about the consequences of what a verb means for the syntactic form of the complement it selects. Although work on the semantic and syntactic selection by verbs that take nominal or prepositional complements has been a staple of linguistic work for many years (as, for example, in the work of Levin and Rappaport, 1995 and much work on thematic roles), relatively little research has sought to use crosslinguistic contrasts to identify the key factors, or even the key generalizations, that should inform our account of how speakers arrive at the classification of clausal complementation in their native language. Our proposal is to use the Afranaph resources to explore this question.

This is attractive in that the African languages permit us to investigate two types of crosslinguistic comparison: comparisons between languages that are broadly different, both in history and typology (e.g. across Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, and Nilo-Saharan), and comparisons among languages that are broadly similar, but differ in the details of clausal selection in ways that reveal smaller cleavages in classification (e.g., across the Bantoid languages).

We focus on the following questions:

(A) How does the meaning of a verb influence the set of syntactically realized clausal complements it can select?

(B) How does the set of possible clausal complements influence the lexicalization of verb meanings? Do certain verbs mean what they do because of the complements they can select?

(C) Can the same complement clause have a different presuppositional commitment based on the sort of verb that selects it? In other words, do certain clause types mean what they do because they are selected by certain verbs?

(D) Is there a relationship between what a complement clause means and its internal syntactic structure? How is that relationship explained?

(E) How are the answers to questions (A-D) affected by the fact that the inventory of possible clausal complement in any given language can be strikingly different from the inventory of clausal complement types in other languages? Our leading hypothesis is that these relations are orderly.

The Systematic Selection Hypothesis: If the inventory of clausal complement types in a language is known, then the sorts of clausal complements a given predicate allows is predictable from its meaning.

It may turn out that the SSH is not defensible, or that it must be qualified in ways that will turn out to be systematic and interesting, but the strength of the SSH insures that only a thorough examination of the empirical patterns surrounding clausal complementation will allow us to decide the matter. If the SSH is supported in one form or another, it still remains to explain the results by answering questions A-E.

Insofar as our research must identify which differences in the meaning of a predicate influence its selection, the first order of business is to track the variation in clause types to see what the verbs that select them have in common. This in turn requires that we can identify what the clause types are in a given language, that is, to identify the inventory of possible distinctions in a given language based on the clause types it contains. Some languages have very few clause types while others provide a richer inventory. Thus our elicitations must be careful to explore not only the internal structure of clausal complements, but the fine-grained selectional distinctions that correlate with any detectable syntactic or semantic variation in the behavior of a complement clause.

Clausal Complementation Questionnaire