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The Linguistic Review

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Volume 35, Issue 3


Equidistance returns

Nicholas Longenbaugh / Maria Polinsky
Published Online: 2018-05-31 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2018-0002


Modern generative linguistic theory furnishes a variety of general principles that appear to be at work in the grammar of all the world’s languages. One of the most basic and uncontroversial of these principles is that Agree/Move operates according to the constraint Attract Closest, which dictates that the closest suitable goal must be the target for the relevant operation (Rizzi 1990; Chomsky 1995, 2000; Richards 1998).

The Polynesian language Niuean (Tongic subgroup, predicate initial word order, ergative-absolutive case system) presents a well known challenge to the universality of {Attract Closest}. The challenge manifests in a variety of distinct constructions in Niuean, but the best known case involves an operation first documented by Seiter (1980), which he terms “raising.” Specifically, Niuean raising appears to license an A-type dependency between the subject position of the matrix clause and the object position of an immediately embedded clause. This is illustrated in (1), where the semantic object of the embedded subjunctive clause, Sione, appears as the syntactic subject of the matrix predicate maeke.


‘It’s possible the doctor can help Sione.’ (lit.: Sione is possible that the doctor help [him])

Granting that the filler-gap dependency in (1) is A-type, this is both a clear violation of {Attract closest} (Rizzi 1992; Chomsky 1995; Richards 1998) and a typological anomaly.

Our aim in this paper is to argue that such apparent violations of {Attract Closest} are only that. Specifically, we show first that the challenge inherent in Seiter’s raising construction is pervasive throughout the language: in general, objects are accessible to syntactic operations even if the intervening clause-mate subject is also a licit target. In other words, Niuean clause-mate subjects and objects are equally accessible to syntactic operations. Then, we argue that this typologically uncommon equal-accessibility follows from the convergence of several otherwise independently attested operations: (i) a configurational system of case licensing, with a vP as the case computation domain; (ii) obligatory object shift to Spec(vP); (iii) an EPP on T triggering V/VP-raising rather than DP externalization. The resulting basic clause structure is then as below, so that Niuean adheres to standard locality constraints.


Keywords: equidistance; subject/object asymmetry; raising; copy raising; ergative; genitive; Niuean; Polynesian; configurational case


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-05-31

Published in Print: 2018-09-25

Citation Information: The Linguistic Review, Volume 35, Issue 3, Pages 413–461, ISSN (Online) 1613-3676, ISSN (Print) 0167-6318, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2018-0002.

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