German Word Order Set Against English SVO Structure

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of contents

I Introduction
I.1. Typical interrelations between constituents
I.1.1. Dominance
I.1.2. (Strict) c-command and m-command
I.1.3. Government
I.2. Movement transformations
I.2.1. Head-to-head movement
I.2.2. Wh-movement

II Problems in the analysis of the position of the verb in German sentences
II.1. The verb-second constraint
II.2. Sentence formation by movement transformations
II.3. Arguments for leftward verb-movement in main clauses

III Parametric variation between English and German
III.1. The head parameter
III.2. Verb-movement in English and German

IV Conclusion


I. Introduction

In comparison to English, the German language does not seem to have a specific word order. The distinction between grammatical functions like subjects or objects is mainly due to case-inflection and prepositions. For that reason, word order in German sentences can vary to some extent without a fundamental change in meaning.

In our following analysis of German syntax, we are going to consider a possibility of finding the basic German word order. On the basis of the Government and Binding Theory, a widely accepted approach to syntactic analysis, we are going to argue that the structure of a subordinate clause underlies every German sentence. In doing so, we will find that the position of the verb will play a pivotal role.

With the help of a clear characterisation, it becomes easier to understand German syntax and to contrast it with other languages such as English. Although the two languages are closely related in historical terms, German sentence structure differs from English SVO (subject-verb-object) word order, which we will examine in chapter III. But before we can embark on the study of English and German syntax, we need to introduce a considerable amount of terminology and syntactic principles, which will form the necessary set of rules in our subsequent analysis.[1]

I.1. Typical interrelations between constituents

As we will work with the X-bar scheme, it is useful to introduce the terms dominance, c-command and government. They formulate typical interrelations between the constituents.

I.1.1. Dominance

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. the position of A in the tree diagram is higher than that of B

2. starting from A, you follow the branches strictly downwards to get to B

In (1)a. A dominates B, C, D, E, F and G; while B dominates D and E, but does not dominate F and G. Although B is positioned higher, you have to follow the first branch upwards before you can reach F or G by moving downwards.

I.1.2. (Strict) c-command and m-command

B c-commands C if and only if

1. B does not dominate C

2. the node which directly dominates B dominates C

This is also referred to as strict c-command. In (1)a. B c-commands C, F, G and in turn C c-commands B, D, E. D c-commands only E.

B m-commands C if and only if

1. B does not dominate C

2. the maximal projection that dominates B dominates C

I.1.3. Government

The notion of government is a very complex one in our context. Before we can define it we need to introduce the concepts of L-marking, blocking categories and barriers first.

- L-marking: B L-marks C if and only if

1. B is a lexical category ( i.e. a content word like N, V, A and (most) Ps )

2. B c-commands C and C c-commands B

3. B theta-marks C ( i.e. B assigns a thematic role to C )

- blocking category (BC): C is a BC for G if and only if

1. C is not L-marked

2. C dominates G

- barrier: A is a barrier for G if and only if (i) or (ii)

(i) 1. A is a maximal projection

2. A directly dominates C

3. C is a BC for G

(ii) 1. A is a BC for G

2. A is not an IP

Having clarified these terms, we can now turn to the definition of government:

B governs C if and only if

1. B is one of the heads A, D, V, P or I; otherwise B and C are co-indexed

2. B c-commands C

3. there are no barriers between B and C

4. no X intervenes which shares the properties of B in 1, 2 and 3 and which is c-commanded by B

I.2. Movement transformations

In order to explain different constructions of sentences, we need to assume – for every surface structure – the existence of an additional level of structure called deep structure or underlying structure. From the level of deep structure a variety of surface strings can be derived. The derivational process is realised by movement transformations that are generally subsumed under the term move- a (move alpha). The concept move-a simply says: Move something somewhere. Necessary restrictions concerning the positions to which elements can be moved are formulated in the following movement rules.

I.2.1. Head-to-head movement

The deep structure of sentence (2)a. is depicted in the tree diagram (2)b.:

(2)a. Will we meet at eight o’clock?

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The surface structure of sentence (2)a. is realised by moving the auxiliary will from its head position under Infl to the empty (e) head position C of CP:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

By moving will to C, will leaves a trace t under Infl. As a so-called antecedent, will serves to bind its trace, i.e. determines its grammatical features. Radford argues that the properties of will and its trace t are the same, although the trace is empty in the surface string (1997: 220).

This process is in general referred to as head-to-head movement.[2] One characteristic of head movement is the fact that a head is always moved from a lower

to a higher position, which is due to the c-command condition on binding. The moved constituent has to c-command its trace which is only possible if the elements move upwards in the tree diagram. In addition, head movement is local and must satisfy the head movement constraint (HMC): A head is not allowed to bypass an intermediate head position.

Apart from I-to-C movement, we will find that V-to-I movement is also relevant in the analysis of German syntax.

I.2.2. Wh-movement

In contrast to moving a head from one phrase to another, the elements which undergo wh-movement in interrogative sentences are always phrasal constituents:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

They either include a wh-word or we can replace them with a wh-phrase:

(2)g. [ Until when ] will you stay?

Let us examine sentence (2)d. in more detail. At deep structure, what must appear inside the VP as the internal argument of the transitive verb buy and the auxiliary will is originally positioned under Infl. This leads to the representation in (2)h.:


[1] The definitions in chapter I are based on formulations in Haegemann (1991) and in Radford (1997).

[2] In this case we also have an example for inversion. In inversion structures the auxiliary under Infl. is moved to the left of the subject (e.g. in yes-no questions such as in our example (2)a.).

Excerpt out of 24 pages


German Word Order Set Against English SVO Structure
University of Cologne
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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German, Word, Order, Against, English, Structure
Quote paper
Barbara Groß-Langenhoff (Author), 2002, German Word Order Set Against English SVO Structure, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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