Naomi Nagy

Linguistics at U of T

Wanna experiment in syntax
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Testing the perception of a "categorical" rule:
Wanna experiment in syntax

This paper explores a new field of application for sociolinguistic methodology: the empirical testing of aspects of linguistic theory. The notion of a "grammatical utterance" within theoretical linguistics is traditionally based upon the non-experimental methodology of gathering data through introspection. While this approach was a necessary first step in developing linguistic theory, a social science must develop an objective means of gathering data. Labov (1975) convincingly demonstrated that introspective judgments on grammaticality do not accurately reflect actual usage of language in the speech community. In order to improve the objective accuracy of grammaticality judgments, we developed a methodology which does not rely upon intuition, but rather is grounded in empirically observable fact.

To demonstrate the methodology, we have selected one well-known phenomenon: English wanna-contraction. Chomsky (1981:180-82) states that the phonological reduction of want to to wanna is constrained syntactically, as illustrated in (1-2):

  • (1) They want [PRO to visit Paris]
  • (1') They wanna visit Paris
  • (2) Whoi do they want [ [ti] to visit Paris]?
  • (2') *Who do they wanna visit Paris?
According to GB syntax, (2') is categorically prohibited because there is illicit contraction over an NP-trace. While (2') intuitively seems ungrammatical, there is no extant methodology with which to empirically support this intuition.

To address this issue, we constructed and carried out an experiment to test the GB claim. Our experiment is a perception task, where an informant's response to a sentence indirectly but unambiguously indicates whether a sentence like (2') is grammatical for that speaker. The task consists of listening to a short story and answering the following question (posed with the contracted form to half the informants and with the uncontracted form to the other half):

(3) Who do you {want to / wanna} help?

The context of the story allows for either an object-extraction interpretation (as in (4)) or a subject-extraction interpretation (as in (5)):

(4) Object Which onei do you want to help ti ? i.e., I want to help X.
(5) Subject Which onei do you want ti to help? i.e., I want X to help.

We find the following distribution of responses:

Question Object interpretation (a) Subject interpretation (b) Total N
want to 8 20% < 32 80% 40
wanna 51 65% > 27 35% 78
chi-square = 20.01, p < .001

Our experimental methodology has allowed us to empirically support the GB claim: there was a significant shift toward the object-extraction interpretation when the stimulus question contained the contracted form. However, our results also reveal that the prohibition against contracting over a trace is not categorical: 35% of the responses to the contracted form did maintain the subject-extraction interpretation (which is prohibited in GB syntax). This finding suggests that syntactic rules may not be as categorical as the theory assumes. Similar methodology should be applied to determine what other parts of the theory are empirically supportable and which require revision, as well as where variable rules best describe the language.

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