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What is Syntax?
Syntax is the how and why of sentence’s structured: the relationship between elements of a sentence and what those relationships encode. It’s the way a language organizes bits of meaning into representations of the world, of ideas, of situations, etc. Without syntax, there’d be no way of putting any particular meaning into sounds or symbols, and there’d be no way of getting a particular meaning out of sounds or symbols. In short, without syntax, there’s no language, just like without meaningful components there’s no language.
Some examples of word order affecting grammaticality:
- 1) The dog bit the man.
- 2) The dog is brown.
- 3) *Man bit dog the the.
- 4) *The is brown dog.
Some examples of word order affecting meaning:
- 5) The man bit the dog.
- 6) The dog bit the man.
- 7) Is the dog brown?
[Note: An asterisk before a sentence indicates ungrammaticality. A superscript question mark before a sentence indicates questionable or unknown grammaticality, or grammaticality to only some speakers.]
Syntax generally describes two things: where certain things can go, and what those positions mean. At this level we’ll be looking at various languages and comparing the different ways languages achieve the same thing. Later, in the advanced syntax tutorial, we’ll go back and attempt to find out if it’s possible to describe all languages using the same fundamental syntactic rules and structures, and why they seem to be so very different.
Unlike the simpler approach to syntax, this tutorial will be an in-depth look at linguistic theories. Where traditional approaches just discuss things like SOV vs. SVO vs. etc. word order, or such, this tutorial will explore the underlying structures and rules that produce those word orders. In the advanced syntax tutorial we’ll see how the rules we develop shed more light on the situation, and prompt us to throw out the simplistic notion of SOV vs. SVO vs. etc. word order as being a fundamental concept in syntax.
This tutorial will deal with some of the preliminary concepts used in syntax, primarily the structural components of sentences. As we’ll see by the end of the tutorial, we can account for a large number of features of languages with just this approach, but that we still miss a significant portion of what languages do in fact produce. The advanced syntax tutorial will take us into new territory, exploring a few different theories that aim to account for still more of language. Both this tutorial and the advanced syntax tutorial will be following the general structure of Andrew Carnie’s Syntax: A Generative Introduction (2nd edition), and could be considered a conlanger’s summary of that book. If you’re serious about understanding syntax from a P&P perspective, that book is highly recommended.
What's in this section?
The parts of this section are:
- Parts of speech: What classes do words fall into?
- Constituency, trees, rules: How do words combine?
- Structural relationships: How do words and combinations relate to one another?
- Binding theory: Why do pronouns seem to behave oddly?
- Linguistic universals: How do the syntaxes of various languages pattern?
- Applying knowledge: How do you apply this knowledge in creating a language?
- Finding problems: What problems still exist in this theory?