Description for Non-Linguists

Much work in modern linguistics has been devoted to finding properties that hold universally across languages: By investigating and comparing individual languages, we can draw conclusions about the abstract cognitive system ‘Language,’ which is taken to underlie all individual human languages. A particularly interesting class of such universal properties is the type with a scalar nature, where certain properties entail other properties—implicational universals. The investigation of precisely such a universal lies at the heart of this project, whose domain is the various constellations formed by combining verbs such as claim or manage with subordinate (complement) clauses, such as that the square root of nine is three (a finite clause), or to eat seventy-six cookies (an infinitival clause).

If we try to combine these verbs (claim, manage) with these clauses, we find that there are some restrictions, since one can claim that the square root of nine is three, and manage to eat seventy-six cookies, but not claim to eat seventy-six cookies, or manage that the square root of nine is three—whatever that may mean. On the other hand, there are verbs that can occur with either type of complement clause: One can either forget to eat the cookies or forget that one ate the cookies. But in such cases, the different forms and grammatical properties of the complements usually influence the meaning of the configuration: In the first case, the cookies are still on the table, whereas in the second case, they will be gone. The phenomena we are interested in exploring are precisely such restrictions on verb-complement combinations and the interactions between grammatical properties and meaning; in particular the reasons underlying them and the mechanisms through which they arise. Our core hypothesis is that even though languages show different restrictions and use a variety of grammatical strategies to convey certain meanings, all of these language-specific properties follow a universal implicational hierarchy, which forms part of the cognitive system ‘Language’ itself, and is based on elements of general human cognition.

This universal implicational hierarchy consists of three broad complement classes of gradually increasing complexity, whose traits can be derived from basic cognitive concepts. To illustrate, if a bear managed to eat the cookies, then the eating and managing occur simultaneously: The complement signifies only an abstract eating relation between the bear and the cookies, without a time of its own. This is the simplest, most basic class, which, in English, always occurs in the infinitival form. If, on the other hand, the bear decided to eat the cookies, the eating will happen after the decision: Even though the complement can have the same grammatical property—an infinitive—as the one combined with manage, an abstract time has been added to the abstract relation, leading to the middle class. Objecting to this sentence by a vehement That’s not true! denies the fact that the bear decided such a thing, but does not say anything about its cookie-eating. Not so if this exclamation follows a sentence in which the bear claims that it ate the cookies: In this case, the objection can concern both the bear’s claim and its eating the cookies. This is rendered possible by anchoring the eating relation, together with its time, to a particular context in the real world, giving it the possibility of being true or false, and thus building the third, most complex class. This last class is realized in English by the complement typically being finite—a different grammatical property, which is also found in independent sentences (e.g. The bear ate the cookies).

Independent sentences are built in the same manner as the complements: The starting point is an abstract relation, which then receives an abstract time, and is finally anchored to a concrete context through being uttered by a speaker at a particular time and place. A crucial difference between independent sentences and complement clauses is that independent sentences have to reach the final, most complex stage, while complements may stop, as it were, at any of the three stages (subject to certain restrictions). This yields the three complement classes, illustrated above by combinations with the verbs manage, decide, and claim, and reflected by the infinitival-finite contrast in English. However, not all languages show the same contrast: Other grammatical properties that languages use to distinguish the three classes include gerunds, participles, subjunctives, nominalizations, independent subjects, or different subordinators (words like that).

So, in which sense is this hierarchy implicational and what does it have to do with universals? While there doesn’t seem to exist a universal grammatical property that is tied to a certain class in an absolute manner, the universality lies in the existence of these three classes, and in the implication that arises from their Matryoshka-doll-like gradual building: If a class contains a grammatical property signalling a degree of independence (e.g. being finite), then this implies that the more complex (and hence more independent) classes will necessarily contain this property as well. In other words, even though individual languages may make use of various grammatical properties in different complements, these properties will always adhere to the outlined implicational hierarchy, which is rooted in the three (universal) classes, and forms part of the cognitive system ‘Language.’ As the general properties of the three classes (an abstract relation, a relation in time, and a relation anchored to its own time and world) are directly related to human cognition, studying the grammatical properties of complements across languages in this way provides a new testing ground for gaining further insights into the nature of the conceptual workings of the human mind.