Generative Perspectives on the Syntax and Acquisition of Japanese

Project Leader
MURASUGI Keiko (Nanzan University)


Background and Purpose

Syntactic theory based on the Minimalist approach is a hypothesis that uses minimally required mechanisms such as Merge and Labeling to explain basic characteristics of language such as phrase structure, the distribution of noun phrases, obligatory application of movement, cyclicity of movement, locality of movement, Binding conditions on co-referents, conditions on ellipsis, etc. Accordingly, an analysis of Japanese within this framework has significance in itself.

But in addition, such a project has a profound meaning in that it may become a direct impetus toward developing syntactic theory in general. Universality and variation in language have been explained in LGB (Lectures on Government and Binding) Theory by hypothesizing a set of syntactic principles and accompanying parameters. On the other hand, in Minimalism, which posits a limited universality only, there is not even this latitude. Accordingly, in order to adequately describe the typological characteristics of Japanese and its acquisition process, and in order to explain language variation more generally, it is necessary to pursue research grounded in basic concepts and operations. How can we define basic operations and concepts such as Labeling, Feature Valuation, Phase, etc. so as to represent the typological characteristics of Japanese language? Can such a hypothesis explain the facts of other languages broadly and generally? Research on the theory of Japanese grammar at the present stage could become basic research into the foundations of syntactic theory.

Objectives and Methods

This research makes a contribution to general linguistic theory through the exploration of the syntactic analysis of Japanese language and its acquisition, while at the same time aiming to explain the typological characteristics of Japanese. Set in the core problem of the descriptive analysis of Japanese, this research pursues the program of a syntactic theory that has as its components the basic operations and concepts set out below (Minimalist Approach; Chomsky 2013, 2016).

  1. Merge, which forms a constituent from two syntactic objects, and Labeling, which determines the characteristics of that constituent
  2. Valuation of φ Features and grammatical Case through Probe and Agree
  3. Phase as a unit which provides information for syntactic derivation and interpretation

This syntactic theory has extremely high explanatory power, resolving many questions, but it is still not clear how it can capture the facts of a language with the typological characteristics peculiar to Japanese, or the facts of cross-linguistic variation. Looking at Japanese grammatical phenomena in detail, this project focusses on phenomena of Japanese (multiple subject constructions, free word order, argument ellipsis, compound predicates, Wh-phrase interpretation, etc.) that can’t be explained by a simple application of the theory described above. It aims to develop theory by proposing hypotheses that not only explain these facts, but also provide an explanation for the typological characteristics of the Japanese language.