Article by linguists from the University of Nova Gorica published in a very influential journal

Date of publication: 10. 1. 2018

Hierarchic structure versus distance in a linear order

Two linguists from the University of Nova Gorica, prof. Franc Marušič and Tina Šuligoj, a recent Master’s programme graduate, have just published study results in a very influential scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The study was undertaken in collaboration with colleagues from the University College London, University of Zagreb, University of Zadar, University of Sarajevo, University of Niš and University of Novi Sad, researching the behaviour of verb agreement in South Slavic languages, in examples with compound subjects.

As established by the long line of linguistic tradition, clauses are not simple sets of words, but words hierarchically ordered into smaller groups or phrases. The syntactic distance or closeness of two words is thus not measured by counting the words in a linear order, but by applying the hierarchy of the clause structure. By experimenting on carefully chosen clauses, we have shown that – contrary to the abovementioned general belief – when looking for agreement morphology within coordinated subjects, the verbs in South Slavic languages more often take the value of the linearly closer, not hierarchically higher part of the compound subject. The large-scale research included six locations with different languages or dialects in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, and has shown a remarkable consistency of this language phenomenon. Most of the differences were observed within individual speakers, which means that each individual can use several language systems at the same time, the most surprising of which is the system based on linear word order. The results of our study confirm that the “calculation” of agreement morphology is performed in several steps, at least one of which is partially independent from the hierarchal structure of the clause.

The research took place at the collaborating universities of Nova Gorica, Zagreb, Zadar, Sarajevo, Novi Sad and Niš, where we tested in total more than 300 students in the first and second year of non-linguistic programmes. In future, we will try to expand the research to other language groups which are known to use similar strategies of verb agreement with compound subjects.

Link to the article: " "