Implicational hierarchies in clausal complementation


A common feature of languages from diverse families is the expression of thoughts, beliefs, utterances, claims, conjectures, wishes, and many other concepts via clausal subordination—verbs corresponding to these concepts (e.g., believe, say, think, want) combine with a dependent subordinate clauses such as embedded finite clauses, infinitives, or others. Subordination involves construing a dependent state of affairs in relation to the state of affairs expressed by the main clause, and complementation is a particular type of subordination (other types are adverbial or relative sentences) where the dependent clause is an argument of a predicate. Languages exhibit a variety of different types of complementation, which can be divided into different classes based on their semantic properties (such as interrogative, propositional attitude, modal) and/or their morphosyntactic properties (such as finite, non-finite, subjunctive, nominalization, and others). A striking observation that has been made in many works on complementation is that there is a dependency between the meaning of a complementation configuration and its morphosyntactic coding—changing one often also results in a change of the other.

One of the core hypotheses of the project is that the relation between a complement clause and the matrix verb is bi-directional in that they may influence each other. This synthesis approach can be couched in a free merge system, where verb-complement configurations are computed freely in syntax, and their compatibility is determined at the output (when syntax feeds into the interfaces). The bi-directionality of the synthesis model allows for mutual influences, and the result is determined jointly by both components of the complementation configuration—a matrix verb can impose properties on the embedded clause, but properties of an embedded clause can also affect the matrix predicate. An area where the complement’s influence on the matrix predicate is observable particularly well is alternating verbs such as tell, forget, or know. In English, as in many other languages, these verbs occur in two frames: an infinitival construction, The bear forgot to eat the cookies, or a finite construction, The bear forgot that it ate the cookies. The meanings of the two configurations, however, show a clear difference: the infinitival construction is implicative and entails that the bear did not eat the cookies, whereas the finite construction is factive and means that it did eat them. Since factive verbs do not generally require finite complements, it is the interaction of the matrix verb and the morphosyntactic composition of the complement clause that determines the meaning of a complementation configuration.

While the morphosyntactic coding of complement clauses shows significant variation across languages, typological studies have shown that there is nevertheless a systematicity to the distribution which points to an abstract universal interaction of semantic and morphosyntactic properties, and more generally, a possibly universal organization of complementation. The broad goal of this project is to investigate the nature and distribution of, and regularities among the dependencies found between the meaning and the morphosyntactic coding of complementation configurations cross-linguistically.

The starting point is the typological observation that complementation configurations are ranked according to their semantic properties (see in particular Givón 1980), forming an implicational complementation hierarchy (ICH). The implicational nature can be observed in the distribution of syntactic or morphological distinctions, which, if present in a language, operate in a directional manner along the hierarchy leading to contingent predictions about adjacent configurations (such as ‘if a type of complement has property X, all complement types to its right/left also have property X’). Following such approaches, the overarching typological hypothesis of the project is thus that there is a possibly universal implicational complementation hierarchy  which is defined semantically and detectable through a diverse set of morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties.

Although a variety of semantic classifications can be found, a broad grouping reflected in most typologies is what can be defined as Propositions > Situations > Events. The most basic class (Events) involves complements expressing bare eventualities; the second class (Situations) is attained by adding time and world parameters to an Event; and the most complex class (Propositions) results from anchoring a Situation to an utterance or embedding context. Building on these concepts, a complementation hierarchy arises which shows increasing semantic complexity and is implicational in that lower classes are contained in higher classes. In contrast to matrix sentences, complement clauses do not have to be built up to the final stage, but may constitute smaller structures, of various sizes, subject to certain restrictions (including the requirement that the larger constituents must contain the smaller ones). This renders the implicational hierarchy that holds among Propositions > Situations > Events. As a result, the three classes align according to their degree of independence (for example, (in)dependent time or subject interpretations), transparency (the possibility of cross-clausal operations) and integration (incorporation or restructuring). Languages use different strategies to code the three classes, including gerunds, participles, subjunctives, nominalizations, independent subjects, or different complementizers. Since the implicational hierarchy is an abstract, underlying scale, the distribution of language-specific morphosyntactic coding is constrained by the ICH rather than defining it.

The project puts forward and tests hypotheses for defining the ICH, as well as a model that derives the ranking and implicational relations. The ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive theory of complementation, pursuing research questions such as: Are the factors determining the semantic ranking of the ICH functional, grammatical or both? What specific properties yield the semantic ranking of the ICH? How do the ordering and implicational nature of the ICH arise? What syntactic configurations do the semantic ICH categories correspond to? What is the interaction between syntax and semantics in complementation? How can the ICH be situated in different clause structure models? What is the relation between the matrix predicate and the embedded clause? How is the mapping between the ICH and morphosyntactic properties established? Which morphosyntactic and semantic effects show sensitivity to the ICH cross-linguistically?

The project follows the framework of formal generative typology (Baker 2009, Baker and McCloskey 2007), which allows combining tools from both generative grammar and typology. While we focus on providing a grammatical-structural analysis of complementation, the results are compared to typological and functional approaches, and the answers to the general questions should have relevance for a range of approaches to complementation as well as the general relation between (morpho-)syntactic coding and semantics.

Projektleitung: Mag. Susanne Wurmbrand, PhD
Projektmitarbeiter: Iva Kovač, Magdalena Lohninger, BA MA
Laufzeit: November 2020 – laufend

Sprachkompass suffizientes Handeln


Zwischen August 2018 bis voraussichtlich Juli 2021 wird in Wien und Bern ein anwendungsorientiertes diskurs- und ökolinguistisches Forschungsprojekt durchgeführt, das die Stiftung Mercator Schweiz finanziert. Die Diskurslinguistik hat in den letzten Jahren neue Erkenntnisse über den Zusammenhang von Sprache, Denken und Handeln zutage gefördert. Wie wir unsere Umwelt und andere Menschen wahrnehmen, ist wesentlich – und nicht selten unbewusst – durch die Art und Weise geprägt, wie wir sie sprachlich erfassen und darstellen. Das Projekt Sprachkompass suffizientes Handeln untersucht relevante öffentliche Diskurse zu den Themen Mobilität (Alltagsverkehr und touristisches Reisen) und Ernährung im Hinblick auf ihre erkenntnis- und handlungsleitende WirkungEs erforscht, in welcher Weise die verwendeten sprachlichen Darstellungsformen zu einem suffizienten Umgang mit den natürlichen Ressourcen anleiten oder diesen behindern. Die Ergebnisse werden über verschiedene Kommunikationsformate ausgewählten Zielgruppen und einem breiten Publikum zugänglich gemacht und erlangen so gesellschaftliche Wirkung.

Die Hauptträgerinstitution des Projekts ist das Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) der Universität Bern. In Wien ist das Projekt am Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Wien angesiedelt.

Projektleitung: Dr. Hugo Caviola (Bern, Projektleitung), Ass.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Martin Reisigl (Wien, stellvertretende Projektleitung)
Mag. Andrea Sabine Sedlaczek (Wien, Assistenz), Mike Weibel, MA (Bern, Kommunikationsberatung), Dr. Anne Zimmermann (Bern, Nachhaltigkeitsberatung), Dipl. Ing. Hans Weiss (Bern, Kulturingeneur, v.a. in den Bereichen Landschaftsschutz und Raumplanung), Dipl. Ing. Andreas Kläy (Bern, Nachhaltigkeitsexperte)
Laufzeit: August 2018 – laufend
Das Projekt ist ein Nachfolgeprojekt des Projekts Sprachkompass Landschaft (

The Characters that shaped the Silk Road

A Database and Digital Paleography of Tarim Brahmi

From the 2nd century CE on, Buddhist communities and monasteries developed along the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road in and around the Tarim Basin in today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. These were centers of writing, copying, translating, and transmitting texts similar to the monasteries in medieval Europe.

The old Indo-European languages Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka were the major languages of the monasteries in the Tarim Basin. The most important writing system these languages were written in was a special Central Asian variety of the Indian Brahmi script. The earliest material written in this Tarim Brahmi is among the oldest attested Buddhist texts. Most of the material written in Tarim Brahmi is scattered over different editions and not digitally searchable.

It is the goal of the project to make all texts written in Tarim Brahmi available to paleographic investigation in an online database.

The project centers on the question of who wrote what, when, where, and how. These classical issues of paleography so far can only be applied to a small portion of the material or have only been addressed rudimentarily.

The project aims at answering these questions by means of a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. The database will combine linguistic, philological, and paleographic data. It will directly link the texts with their digital images. This will make it possible to search for specific characters, ligatures, and words in the entire corpus. Additionally, the quantifiable features of all characters, ligatures, and words will be extracted and compared using software tools. This will, for the first time, make it possible to identify scribes, scribal schools, as well as regional and diachronic variants of Tarim Brahmi.

Almost all texts of the languages written in Tarim Brahmi are in a fragmentary state. Therefore, one of the most important results of the project will be that the countless smaller fragments will be able to be joined together based on objective paleographic criteria. The new texts, contexts, and word forms will lead to new linguistic and philological insights for Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka.

Since the paleography will also shed light on the dating and localization of texts it will provide new perspectives on regional, social, and diachronic layers of the languages and texts. This will in turn elucidate the relationship between languages and texts, which will provide insights into the origin and evolution of literacy along the Silk Road and have important consequences for the understanding of the transmission of Buddhism in Central Asia and, from there, to China.

Projektleitung: Hannes A. Fellner
Bernhard Koller, Martin Braun
Kollaboration: Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities (ACDH), Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (ÖAW)
Finanzierung: FWF, START Programm
Laufzeit: Februar 2018 – laufend

Unalternative Constraints Cross-Linguistically


The project "Unalternative Constraints Cross-Linguistically" uses methods from logical semantics and pragmatics to develop a cross-linguistically valid framework for the modelling of focussing, the linguistic signalling of emphasis through stress, melody, morphology or word order.

Even though our cross-linguistic knowledge of grammatical focussing devices has significantly expanded in recent decades, very little of this knowledge has informed the development of the formal apparatus. The project aims to fill this gap, by exploring a new technique of relating grammatical focussing to interpretation, so-called Unalternative Semantics (UAS).

The project applies this formalism to known puzzles in the theory of focus (among them overfocussing, discontinuous foci, the thetic-categorical distinction, contrast vs. anaphoric deaccenting), to previously unformalized focus related phenomena in the standard European languages (additional intermediate phrase boundaries, double focussing, focus/givenness movement a.o.), and, centrally, distinct focus realization strategies in non-European languages such as focus position, ‘un-focus positions’, morphological and syntactic focus markers and others. It aims to develop a formalism that is more adequate, more versatile and ultimately more predictive than existing versions of focus semantic, one which allows the incorporation of currently only informally (if at all) described cross-linguistic phenomena into a coherent formal framework.

Methodologically, the project combines the systematic collection and elicitation of primary linguistic data, written and recorded, with cutting edge formalizing and theorizing, using the familiar tools (and methods) of logical semantics and formal pragmatics.

Projektleitung: Daniel Büring
Projektteam: Muriel Assmann und Izabela Jordanoska
Finanzierung: FWF
Laufzeit: Dezember 2016 – Oktober 2019