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8.1.2. Noun phrases in clause-initial position

This section is confined to wh-movement and topicalization of noun phrases, and discusses some restrictions on these operations that are related to the type of noun phrase moved; cf. Section V11.3 for a more extensive general discussion of these movements. But first consider the examples in (6). These examples show that topicalization may only target the initial position of the main clause, whereas wh-movement may target the initial position of both main and embedded clauses. Note that if the initial position of an embedded clause is filled by a wh-phrase, the interrogative complementizer of'whether' can but need not be overtly realized.

Example 6
a. Wati heeft Jan met plezier ti gelezen?
  what  has  Jan  with pleasure  read
a'. Dat boeki heeft Jan met plezier ti gelezen.
  that book  has  Jan  with pleasure  read
b. Ik weet niet [wati (of) Jan met plezier ti gelezen heeft].
  know  not  what  comp  Jan  with pleasure  read  has
b'. * Ik denk [dat boeki (dat) Jan met plezier ti gelezen heeft].
  think  that book  that  Jan  with pleasure  read  has

Realizing of in embedded questions is often stigmatized as being substandard, and is not often found in written language; cf. taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/592 for more discussion. In some Southern dialects dat is used instead of of. For some speakers it is even possible to realize both: Jan vroeg [wie of dat hij bezocht had]'Jan asked who he had visited'. See, e.g., De Rooij (1965) and Hoekstra & Zwart (1994) for more details.

[+]  I.  Wh-movement

Noun phrases can only be wh-moved if they are interrogative. This means that the noun phrase must be an interrogative personal pronoun like wie or wat, or be explicitly marked as being interrogative by having an interrogative determiner or quantificational modifier. Some typical cases are given in (7). This subsection will discuss a number of additional restrictions on wh-movement of noun phrases.

Example 7
a. Wiei/Wati heeft hij ti meegenomen?
personal pronoun
  who/what  has  he  prt.-brought
  'Who/what did he bring with him?'
b. [Wiens boek]i heeft hij ti gestolen?
possessive pronoun
  whose book  has  he  stolen
  'Whose book did he steal?'
c. [Welk/Wat voor een boek]i heeft hij ti gelezen?
demonstrative pronoun
  which/what for a book  has  he  read
  'Which/What kind of book did he read?'
d. [Hoeveel boeken]i heeft hij ti gelezen?
  how.many books  has  he  read
  'How many books did he read?'
[+]  A.  Wh-movement is obligatory

It is generally claimed that movement of interrogative noun phrases is obligatory; if the movement does not apply, the interrogative meaning is normally lost. The examples in (8), for example, are not true questions but receive an echo interpretation: sentences like these, in which the question word is heavily stressed, are used when the speaker did not properly hear what the addressee just said, to express astonishment on the part of the speaker about what he has just heard, or in teacher-pupil interaction as test questions.

Example 8
a. Hij heeft wie/wat meegenomen?
  he  has  who/what  prt.-brought
b. (?) Hij heeft welk boek gelezen?
  he  has  which book  read
  'Which book did he read?'
b'. ? Hij heeft wat voor een boek gelezen?
  he  has  what for a book  read
c. Hij heeft wiens boek gestolen?
  he  has  whose book  stolen
d. Hij heeft hoeveel boeken gelezen?
  he  has  how.many books  read

Still, we have observed from our own language behavior that strings like those given in (8) are occasionally also used as “true” questions when given a more interrogative intonation pattern (with a fall in pitch after the question word). Since we do not know of any independent studies that indicate that this use is more generally found, we leave this as an issue for future research, while stating that using examples without wh-movement as true wh-questions is certainly the exception rather than the rule.

[+]  B.  Superiority effects in multiple questions

A clear and systematic exception to the general rule that a wh-phrase must be moved into clause-initial position can be found in so-called multiple questions that contain more than one wh-phrase. In this case, the requirement that a wh-phrase be moved is overruled by the fact that only a single constituent can be placed into clause-initial position. Generally speaking, it is the wh-phrase that is superior (≈ closest to the target position) that is moved. The effects of this so-called superiority condition can be observed most clearly in embedded clauses like (9). Example (9a) shows that, if both the subject and the direct object are wh-phrases, it is the subject that occupies the clause-initial position; moving the object instead, as in (9a'), gives rise to a severely degraded result. Example (9b) shows that to a slightly lesser degree the same contrast holds for examples where both the direct and (bare) indirect object are questioned; it is clearly preferred that the indirect object undergoes wh-movement, not the direct object. Example (9c), finally, shows that if the indirect object is periphrastic, it is the direct object that preferably undergoes movement.

Example 9
a. Ik vroeg [[welke jongen]iti welk boek gelezen had].
  asked    which boy  which book  read  had
a'. * Ik vroeg [[welk boek]i welke jongen ti gelezen had].
b. Ik vroeg [[welke jongen]i hij ti welk boek aangeboden had].
  asked    which boy  he  which book  prt.-offered  had
b'. ?? Ik vroeg [[welk boek]i hij welke jongen ti aangeboden had].
c. Ik vroeg [[welk boek]i hij ti aan welke jongen aangeboden had].
  asked    which book  he  to which boy  prt.-offered  had
c'. ? Ik vroeg [[aan welke jongen]i hij welk boek ti aangeboden had].

The gradual increase in acceptability of the primed examples in (9) is probably related to the fact that the order of the subject and direct object is really fixed in Dutch, whereas it is not entirely impossible to have an accusative DP preceding a dative one, and it is certainly not uncommon to have a periphrastic indirect object preceding the direct object.
      Judgments are less clear in the case of main clauses. As expected, all speakers agree that the primeless examples in (10) are preferred to the primed ones, but many speakers find that the latter are much better than the primed ones in (9). So far, it is not clear what causes the contrast between the primed examples in (9) and (10).

Example 10
a. [Welke jongen]i heeft ti [welk boek] gelezen?
  which boy  has  which book  read
a'. % [Welk boek]i heeft [welke jongen] ti gelezen?
b. [Welke jongen]i heeft hij ti [welk boek] aangeboden?
  which boy  has  he  which book  prt.-offered
b'. % [Welk boek]i heeft hij [welke jongen] ti aangeboden?
c. [Welk boek]i heeft hij ti aan [welke jongen] aangeboden?
  which book  has  he  to which boy  prt.-offered
c'. ? [Aan welke jongen]i heeft hij [welk boek] ti aangeboden?

It seems that the wh-phrases in the primed examples in (10) must be of the same sort in order to be able to violate the superiority condition; as soon as one of the two DPs headed by a demonstrative is replaced by an interrogative personal pronoun, the results seem to get worse. Again, it is not clear what causes this effect.

Example 11
a. *? [Welk boek]i heeft [wie] ti gelezen?
a'. *? [Wat]i heeft [welke jongen] ti gelezen?
b. *? [Welk boek]i heeft hij [wie] ti aangeboden?
b'. *? [Wat]i heeft hij [welke jongen] ti aangeboden?
c. ?? [Aan welke jongen]i heeft hij [wat] ti aangeboden?
c'. ? [Aan wie]i heeft hij [welk boek] ti aangeboden?
[+]  C.  Long wh-movement and subject-object asymmetries

Wh-movement need not target the initial position of the minimal clause containing the moved argument, but may also trigger the initial position of some higher clause. In order for this to be possible the clause containing the wh-phrase must be the complement of a limited set of so-called bridge verbs, generally a verb taking a propositional complement like the verbs of saying or thinking.

Example 12
a. Wati zei Jan [dat hij ti gelezen had]?
  what  said  Jan   that  he  read  had
  'What did Jan say that he had read?'
b. Wati denk je [dat je ti voor je verjaardag zal krijgen]?
  what  think  you  that  you  for your birthday  will  get
  'What do you think that youʼll get for you birthday?'

      It has been argued that in many languages there is an asymmetry between subjects and objects (as well as other non-subjects) with respect to this kind of “long” wh-movement. Whereas objects can undergo long movement, subjects cannot unless the language has some special proviso that makes this movement possible: Whoi do you think (*that) ti came, for example, shows that dropping the complementizer that makes extraction of the subject possible in English. In traditional generative grammar this led to the empirical generalization that a complementizer cannot be followed by a subject trace, which was formulated as the complementizer-trace filter in (13), in which C and ti stand for, respectively, the complementizer and the trace of the subject; cf. Chomsky & Lasnik (1977).

Example 13
Complementizer-trace Filter: *[ ... [C that] ti ...].

In subsequent stages of the theory, the filter in in (13) developed into a more general, cross-linguistic principle, which excludes the sequence of an overt complementizer and a subject trace (unless the language has some special mechanism to license the subject trace, like the French que/qui rule). At first sight, Dutch seems well-behaved with respect to this principle: whereas the examples in (12) are fully grammatical, example (14a) is marked (although not as bad as its English translation with the overt complementizer that). On closer inspection, however, it turns out that the acceptability of examples of this sort is influenced by the type of noun phrase: D-linked noun phrases like welke jongen do not readily allow this movement whereas non-D-linked noun phrases like wie do.

Example 14
a. ? Welke jongeni denk je [dat ti het boek zal krijgen]?
  which boy  think you  that  the book  will  get
  'Which boy do you think (*that) will get the book?'
b. Wiei denk je [dat ti het boek zal krijgen]?
  who  think  you  that  the book  will  get
  'Who do you think (*that) will get the book?'

A possible reason for the difference in acceptability of these two examples may be that, despite appearances, the traces of the two wh-phrases do not occupy the same position in the clause. This can be made clearer by considering embedded clauses that do not contain a definite object, like those in (15).

Example 15
a. Welke jongeni denk je [dat *(?er) ti heeft gelogen]?
  which boy  think you  that  there  has  lied
  'Which boy do you think (*that) has lied?'
b. Wiei denk je [dat *(er) ti heeft gelogen]?
  who  think  you  that  there  has  lied
  'Who do you think (*that) has lied?'

As can be seen in (15b), the example with wie requires that the embedded clause contain the expletive er. Since the expletive normally precedes the indefinite subject (cf. Gisteren heeft er iemand gelogen'Yesterday, someone lied') and can therefore be assumed to occupy the regular subject position, we may conclude that the subject trace does not occupy the regular subject position of the clause in (15b); see Section 8.1.4 for more discussion. If this is a general property of non-D-linked interrogative personal pronouns, the same thing must hold for (14b). If we now reformulate the generalization given earlier such that it expresses that a complementizer cannot be followed by a trace in the regular subject position, we can conclude that Dutch behaves in accordance with this generalization. Since this chapter is clearly not the place to exhaustively discuss all intricacies of (long) wh-movement, we will end our discussion at this point.

[+]  II.  Topicalization

The term topicalization refers to the movement process that places some constituent into the clause-initial position of the main clause. The name was probably invented to express that topicalization plays a role in determining the information structure of the clause by moving the discourse topic (the entity the discourse is about) into the first position of the clause. Although this idea might be on the right track, it may not be entirely correct for Dutch since the constituent filling this position may perform several functions, the pragmatic function of expressing the discourse topic being only one of these. In the following we will discuss some questions concerning topicalization. We start with the question as to whether clause-initial subjects occupy the same position as other topicalized noun phrase, then continue with the information-structural function of topicalization, and conclude with a short discussion of long topicalization.

[+]  A.  Topicalization of subject and object pronouns

In the unmarked case, the initial constituent of a main clause is the subject. As we have already seen in the discussion of example (1) in Section 8.1.1, nearly all noun phrase types can function as the clause-initial subject, the only exception being weak noun phrases, which normally occur in the expletive construction, in which case it is not the subject itself but the expletive that fills the clause-initial position. A noteworthy property of clause-initial subjects is that they may also surface as weak (phonetically reduced) pronouns, with the exception of the third person singular masculine form -ie, which always follows the finite verb in second position, and the second person plural pronoun, which simply lacks a weak subject form in most varieties of Dutch.

Example 16
Clause-initial subject pronouns
  singular plural
1st person Ik/’k ben ziek. ‘I am ill.’ Wij/We zijn ziek.‘We are ill.’
2nd person Jij/Je bent ziek.‘You are ill.’ Jullie/%Je zijn ziek.‘You are ill.’
masculine Hij/*-ie is ziek. ‘He is ill.’ Zij/Ze zijn ziek. ‘They are ill.’
  feminine Zij/Ze is ziek. ‘She is ill.’  
  neuter Het/’t is ziek. ‘It is ill.’  

In this respect, clause-initial subjects differ from topicalized object pronouns, which must always be realized in their strong form. Note that the neuter object pronoun het cannot be used at all, which is due to the fact that it is always pronounced in its weak form (cf. Section, sub V); instead, the neuter demonstrative dit'this' or dat'that' is normally used.

Example 17
Clause-initial object pronouns
  singular plural
1st person Mij/*Me heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see me.’
Ons heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see us.’
2nd person Jou/*Je heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see you.’
Jullie/*Je heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see you.’
3rdperson masculine Hem/*’m heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see him.’
Hun/*Ze heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see them.’
  feminine Haar/*’r heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see her.’
  neuter Dit/*’t heeft Peter niet gezien.
‘Peter didnʼt see it/this.’

      The discussion above has shown that subject and object pronouns differ in that the latter must be stressed in clause-initial position, whereas the former need not be. This difference between subject and object pronouns has been used to argue that, despite appearances, clause-initial subjects are not topicalized, but rather occupy the regular subject position, which may perhaps also account for the fact that the expletive er, which is generally assumed to occupy the subject position, can also be used clause-initially; cf. 8.1.4. This conclusion, if correct, has various theoretical ramifications in that it presupposes that in subject-initial main clauses, the finite verb does not occupy the C(omplementizer)-position but is placed in the lower I(nflection)-position, which in turn implies that the I-position is to the immediate right of the subject position: [IP subject I + Vfin [VP ... tVfin (V)]]. This breaks radically with the more traditional view on the syntax of Dutch, according to which the I-position is in the right periphery of the clause, following the base-positions of the verb(s). Since this is not the place to elaborate on these theoretical consequences, we refer the reader to Zwart (1997) and Broekhuis (2000/2008) for relevant discussion.

[+]  B.  Information structure

As was mentioned in the introduction to this section, the term topicalization suggests that this movement plays a role in determining the information structure of the clause by moving the discourse topic into the first position of the clause. A potential problem for such a claim is that clause-initial subjects need not be topics. It seems, however, that this problem can be set aside, as we saw in the previous subsection that there are reasons for assuming that these subjects are actually not topicalized but occupy the regular subject position. Therefore, it seems indeed possible to maintain that topicalization applies for information-structural reasons. However, we will see in the following subsections that the preposed phrase need not be a discourse topic, but may also be presented as a contrasted or emphatic focus; see, e.g., Neeleman & Van de Koot (2008).

[+]  1.  Focus

The fact that object pronouns must be stressed in topicalized position suggests that they are always focused in this position. In the examples in (17) we are simply dealing with emphatic focus, but focus may also be contrastive, as in (18).

Example 18
a. Mij heeft Peter niet gezien, maar hem wel.
  me  has  Peter  not  seen,  but  him  aff
  'Peter didnʼt see me, but he did see him.'
b. Jou heeft Peter niet gezien, maar mij wel.
  you  has  Peter not  seen  but  me  aff
  'Peter didnʼt see you, but he did see me.'

That focus may be involved in topicalization is also clear from the fact that the topicalized phrase can be preceded by focus particles like zelfs'even', alleen'only' and slechts'only', as in (19). These examples also show that these emphatically focused topicalized phrases can incorporate any type of noun phrase: in (19a), we are dealing with a proper noun and a pronoun; in (19b), the topicalized phrase is definite, and in (19c) we are dealing with an indefinite noun phrase containing a numeral/quantifier.

Example 19
a. Zelfs Jan/hem heb ik niets verteld.
  even Jan/him  have  nothing  told
  'Even Jan/him, I didnʼt tell anything.'
b. Alleen de/die man heb ik niets verteld.
  only the/that man  have  nothing  told
  'Only the/that man Iʼve told nothing.'
c. Slechts weinig/vier mensen heb ik gezien.
  only few/four people  have  seen

      The examples in (20) show that the subject can also receive contrastive or emphatic focus. Contrastive focus can be found in (20a), and emphatic focus in (20b). Note that in the latter example the indefinite subject has been moved across the expletive er into clause-initial position; the fact that the expletive may be present shows (i) that subjects can be topicalized, and (ii) that topicalized indefinite noun phrase can even be construed non-specifically. The latter fact is conclusive for showing that topicalized phrases need not be discourse topics.

Example 20
a. Jan wordt ontslagen, maar Peter niet.
  Jan  is  fired,  but  Peter  not
  'Jan will be fired, but not Peter.'
b. Slechts weinig/vier mensen kwamen (er) naar de lezing.
  only few/four people  came  there  to the talk
[+]  2.  Topic

Topicalized phrases need not be discourse topics, but they certainly can function as such, as is shown by example (21a). Given the fact that discourse topics are always related to the previous discourse or to the non-linguistic context, in this function topicalized noun phrases typically surface as definite noun phrases, as in the first sentence in (21a), or, probably more commonly, as definite pronouns. If the discourse topic is very prominent, as in in the question-answer pair in the (b)-examples, it can occasionally be dropped; cf. Section V11.2.2 for more discussion.

Example 21
a. De man stond op het punt te vertrekken. Hij pakte zijn tas, maar ...
  the man stood on the point to leave  he took his bag  but
  'The man was about to leave. He took his bag, but ...'
b. Weet jij waar mijn sleutels zijn?
  know  you  where  my keys  are
  'Do you know where my keys are?'
b'. Nee, (die) heb ik niet gezien.
  no  those  have  not  seen
  'No, I havenʼt seen them.'
[+]  C.  Long topicalization

The examples in (6) above have shown that, unlike wh-movement, topicalization cannot target the initial position of an embedded clause. This does not imply, however, that it is impossible to topicalize some constituent that is part of an embedded clause; topicalization may also target the initial position of a higher main clause. In (22), we give an example of such long topicalization of a direct object, which is perfectly acceptable provided that the moved phrase is assigned contrastive accent.

Example 22
Dat boeki denk ik [dat hij ti wil hebben].
  that book  think  that  he  wants  to have
'That book, I think he would like to have.'

The examples in (23) involve “long” topicalization of a subject. In these cases there is a clear contrast between definite and specific indefinite noun phrases, on the one hand, and nonspecific indefinite noun phrases, on the other. Only the latter are acceptable, provided that the moved phrase is emphatically stressed. Again, this can be accounted for by referring to the generalization in (13) that a complementizer cannot be followed by a trace in subject position. If a nonspecific indefinite noun phrase is topicalized, it is not moved from the regular subject position, which is occupied by the expletive, but from some position following it. If we are dealing with a definite or specific indefinite noun phrase, the expletive is not present and movement proceeds from the regular subject position, resulting in unacceptability.

Example 23
a. ?? De jongeni denk ik [dat ti gelogen heeft].
  the boy  think I  that  lied  has
b. Een jongeni denk ik [dat ??(er) ti gelogen heeft].
  a boy  think I  that  there  lied  has

Since this chapter is not the place to exhaustively discuss all intricacies of (long) topicalization, we will end our discussion at this point.

  • Broekhuis, Hans2000Against feature strength: the case of Scandinavian object shiftNatural Language & Linguistic Theory18673-721
  • Broekhuis, Hans2008Derivations and evaluations: object shift in the Germanic languagesStudies in Generative GrammarBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Chomsky, Noam & Lasnik, Howard1977Filters and controlLinguistic Inquiry8425-504
  • Hoekstra, Eric & Zwart, Jan-Wouter1994De structuur van CP. Functionele projecties voor topics en vraagwoorden in het NederlandsSpektator23191-212
  • Neeleman, Ad & Koot, Hans van de2008The nature of discourse templatesJournal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics11137-189
  • Rooij, Jaap de1965Als - of - dat. Een semantisch-onomasiologische studie over enkele subordinerende conjuncties in het ABN, de Nederlandse dialecten en het Fries, vergelijkende-synchronisch beschouwdAssenVan Gorcum
  • Zwart, Jan-Wouter1997Morphosyntax of verb movement. A minimalist approach to the syntax of DutchDordrechtKluwer Academic Publishers
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