A cognitive analysis of <i>John’s hat</i>

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A child&#8217;s experience of <i>X&#8217;s</i> possessives could, and probably does, justify two different syntactic analyses, both of which survive into adulthood and co-exist happily in the adult grammar. The first is a direct descendant of the Old English inflected genitive, a single word inflected by the suffix &#123;z&#125; which, unlike the Old English genitive, doubles as a determiner. Assuming that determiners are heads, this reversal of the syntax means that dependent-marking case has been replaced by head-marking of the noun-phrase&#8217;s internal structure. The second syntactic pattern is the &#8216;group genitive&#8217;, in which the &#123;z&#125; counts as a clitic, a separate syntactic word POSS (a determiner) realized by a mere suffix as in <i>John and Mary&#8217;s house</i> and <i>the man across the road&#8217;s house</i>. This diachronic innovation may have been encouraged by the parallel historical development of reduced auxiliaries which are also realized by &#123;z&#125;, as in <i>John&#8217;s arrived</i> and <i>John&#8217;s working</i>. Each of these analyses has attractions for a language learner. The inflected genitive gives a transparent one-to-one mapping from syntax to morphology, but at the cost of a relatively complex analysis of the possessor: in syntax it has a double classification as both a common/proper noun and a pronoun, and in semantics, it has an extra referent. This may well be the preferred analysis for single-word possessors such as <i>John&#8217;s</i>, though there may be considerable variation from person to person. In contrast, the group genitive is the only possible analysis for examples where &#123;z&#125; is separated from the head of a possessor phrase. Its advantages in other cases are a simpler mapping from syntax to semantics and direct mapping from syntax to morphology, rather than mapping via an inflectional rule. These advantages are offset by a more complex syntactic structure and the exceptional morphology of a clitic. If grammar is learned from usage, then we may assume that an adult grammar reflects the frequencies of the patterns experienced, which are expressed in the grammar as activation levels attached to different stored patterns. The main point of this chapter is to show the benefits of cognitive analysis when applied to familiar data such as the English <i>X&#8217;s</i> possessive. These benefits include a theoretical framework which rests firmly on elementary principles of cognitive psychology, but perhaps the most important attraction for a linguist is the possibility of facing uncertainty and complication in the data without feeling obliged to arrive at a single coherent and complete analysis. If a multiple, messy and incomplete analysis is good enough for a language learner, it should certainly be good enough for us.


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