09 October 2007

A Linguistic Puzzle, or Cockiness Ill Becomes Me

Sorry to everyone who thinks this post is boring, which may well be everyone.

A few years ago in my introductory syntax course, we were learning about government and binding.

(What that is exactly isn't important; just know that it has partly to do with cases and noun declension. My readers will be familiar with noun declension if they've studied Russian, Latin, German, or any other language where you have to memorize a bunch of different noun endings.)

Anyway, we learned that one universal linguistic principle is that verbs and prepositions can never govern nominative case. Nominative case is the ending the noun has when it's the subject of the sentence, but the object of a verb or preposition can never be in nominative case. (That is, in the phrase "to give a gift," gift can't be nominative; ditto for house in the phrase "in the house.")

It was only later that I learned that you can't always trust "universal linguistic principles," and with two years of Russian under my belt at the time (that is, enough time to know nothing but still believe you know everything), I was pretty dubious when a grad student – a native speaker of Russian – raised her hand in class and said that in Russian there are prepositions that govern nominative case.

I won't share exactly what I thought of this declaration; suffice it to say that it was neither very charitable nor very wise. And I got my comeuppance, so to speak, in the form of this puzzling construction, which has been a thorn in my side for the past six months or so:

Что за невоспитанный мальчик?
Chto za nevospitanny mal'chik
What PREP ill-bred-NOM little boy-NOM
What's with this ill-bred little boy? or Why is this little boy behaving so badly?

I overheard a mother saying this to her misbehaving son on the bus last spring in Vladivostok. (His crime: trying to pull his wool hat off.) Despite the fact that I've heard the construction many times since, I still can't quite put my finger on what it means, so that gloss might not be quite right. But it sure looks like the preposition za (which has several meanings, such as "behind," "beyond," "to," "for") is governing a noun phrase in the nominative. But prepositions CAN'T govern nominative!

One solution is that za is actually governing chto ("what"), which has the same form in nominative and accusative case. In that case, "ill-bred little boy" is the subject of the sentence and the word order is highly unusual. But I've never come across another instance in Russian of a preposition following rather than preceding the noun it governs. (Doesn't a language have to be head-initial for that to happen? My syntax is rather rusty.)

Another solution is that I'm mishearing it, and that grad student was talking about a different construction.

If anyone has an insight, I would be happy to hear it. Russian native speaker linguists (here I am looking at Michael, who may or may not read this)? People who like syntax more than I do?

As a side note, воспитание/upbringing (like the oft-cited ремонт/renovations) is a word that gets a lot more airtime in Russian than in English, and seems to have much deeper and wider roots in the cultural soil. I'll try to write about it sometime if I can make it into an interesting post.


Lisa said...

2 quick thoughts:
1) The rules of Gov't, etc. have since been disproven (by Chomsky himself, thus theories that he named the rule that way intentionally, so he could later say that "Government is wrong" in an anarchist way)
2) Is it possible that this "chto za" expression is a reduced form of something else, and there are words "missing" now? Like "WHAT IN the world (other case) THIS BOY (nom)?"


Mike S. said...

Here I come to save the day!

First of all, as far as my intuition goes, it's not an interrogative but an exclamation, and I'd gloss it as "What an ill-bred boy!" -- though I don't think there's really a great equivalent of невоспитанный in English. I would be surprised if the inflection you heard on it was truly interogative. If it were a question, I don't think you could get away without невоспитанным малчиком, making it totally different ("what's behind the ill-bred boy?")

I don't think that GB theory cared much about exclamations of this sort, even in English, but I'll take a stab at it anyway. I think that first of all, you could probably argue that while the morphological case here is nominative, the syntactic Case is Oblique, which would get you out of the issue - but also be unintuitive and gloss over the fact that "za" does not seem to control that NP or in fact behave in any way like a preposition (either semantically or syntactically).

What I think is going on, is that this is some manner of crystallized structue - note that (as far as I can tell of the top of my head) you cannot do the same with other wh-elements, other prepositions, or pronouns as the NP's. That still leaves the question of how we got there, and if anything I would treat it as some manner of an wh-cliticized particle previously required in exclamations of this sort that got frozen. Someone with knowledge of old Russian / old Church Slavonic would have to help me out on that one.

So that's my stab at it. Not very satisfying, but the gist of it is that I don't think that "za" in this case is really a preposition. I'll think about it some more and let you know. Man, I miss syntax.

Leslie said...

1. Oh, Chomsky. But Government or no Government (haha, now *I'm* thinking of it in an anarchist sense), it's still a weird construction.
2. Yeah, that also crossed my mind, but the post was getting long and I didn't have any good ideas for what could be missing there, especially given the likely function of 'za' (I'm assuming here it would mean 'for;' it's used as 'for' in exchange contexts, like paying for something, thanking someone for something, toasting something, etc.). Could definitely be, though.

Definitely - despite understanding perfectly what невоспитанный means, I couldn't figure out how to translate it, and just went with ill-bred because that's what my Russian/English dict says.

I assumed it was a question because it starts with a Wh-word, not because of any observed question intonation, so I'm perfectly willing to accept the idea that it's not, with the caveat that it probably was at some point (if we're going on the crystallized form hypothesis). Like Что ты, maybe.

"I don't think that GB theory cared much about exclamations of this sort, even in English, but I'll take a stab at it anyway." Maybe, but if it didn't, I don't understand why not. They're worth investigating even if they don't pose any kind of threat to the theory. Personally, I think the "one morphological case/different underlying Case" argument is crap, and I get the impression you do, too. If we start saying that, what's the point in EVER using morphological cases to talk about deep Case? "Sure, it LOOKS like a dative subject, but it's Nominative on the inside." I should have turned in just that sentence for my final paper in Comparative Scandinavian Syntax. Actually in retrospect, I don't remember what my final paper was. Maybe that would have been better.

Anyway, to me, it's a more satisfying stab than you thought, though, since the argument that za isn't even a preposition here seems like a good lead, and restores my hope that there is someone somewhere who has a solution to this problem. I'll try asking the Russian teacher in our department, but since her principal aim in life is to get the first-year university students to talk like грамотные люди (that is, not at all like regular Russians), I doubt such questions are of much interest to her.

Thank you for saving the day! And if you really miss syntax... get thee to a graduate school! ;)

Mike S. said...

The reason GB didn't care about them is that they were not "core" phenomena - sort of silly, I'd say, since the concept of core/periphery was never too well-defined to my knowledge.

Re: case/Case - yes, I do think it's mostly garbage. The one thing here to take seriously, though, is the concept of morphological marking and structural/semantic licensing being possibly divorced, but you can't use that as an excuse to borrow on your 40% interest theoretical credit card (stealing that latter analogy from Maria).

I think I remember what I wrote my CompScan paper on... I was ripping on multiple SpecTP :).

Two things about grad school:
1. I feel like I need to be much more self-motivated, focused, and on the top of my game brainwise before I can go to grad school, so that I don't botch it like I (partially) botched my undergrad.
2. I think that we are not nearly at the point in our understanding of the underlying cognitive architecture of language when we can fall into abstract syntactic argumentation absent serious experimental work as a serious academic pursuit, unless we are satisfied with our musings being theory-internal and largely out-of-touch/irrelevant to our colleagues in other disciplines, theoretical frameworks, or degrees of practicality.

That was a really long, pretentious sentence.

gerard said...

Are you sure it is a nominative rather than accusative? The terminal vowels allowing the distinction have dropped out of the language, and za + Acc is as frequent as za + instr.
Being an 'amateur' russian speaker, I was precisely
wondering about the exact rules.

(he stayed in the room for one hour
would be za tchas).


Leslie said...

I'm not sure what you mean about the terminal vowels. You mean that in the accusative/genitive, masculine nouns don't have the -a ending anymore? I'm not sure I agree with that - at least not for all speakers. In any case, if it were accusative, we'd still have nevospitann-OGO, not nevospitann- And of course, if you take a feminine noun, it seems to me that the vowel is pretty clearly there even in fast speech, and pretty clearly nominative:

Что за книга? Chto za kniga?

Whereas the accusative would be:
Что за книгу? Chto za knigu?

Which I've never heard.

In the months since I posted this, I've heard this expression many more times, including with feminine nouns. It's definitely nominative. :)

Leslie said...

Sorry, that was supposed to be nevospitann-IY.

gerard said...

You are right. Accusative is ruled out. If I compare with the french, we would use 'comme', an adverb rather than a proposition to translate it. In your examples:
Qu'est-ce que c'est comme livre, qu'est-ce que c'est comme sorte de personnage, rather close to the russian construction if you accept that za can be a preposition or an adverb depending on the context