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Soft Constraints Mirror Hard Constraints: Voice and Person in English and Lummi

Joan Bresnan

Shipra Dingare

Chris Manning


The same categorical phenomena which are attributed to hard grammatical constraints in some languages continue to show up as statistical preferences in other languages, motivating a grammatical model that can account for soft constraints.

The effects of a hierarchy of person (1st, 2nd > 3rd) on grammar are categorical in some languages, most famously in languages with inverse systems, but also in languages with person restrictions on passivization. In Lummi (Straits Salish, British Columbia), for example, the person of the subject argument cannot be lower than the person of a nonsubject argument. If this would happen in the active, passivization is obligatory; if it would happen in the passive, the active is obligatory (Jelinek and Demers 1983). These facts follow from the theory of harmonic alignment in OT: constraints favoring the harmonic association of prominent person (1st, 2nd) with prominent syntactic function (subject) are hypothesized to be present as subhierarchies of the grammars of all languages, but to vary in their effects across languages depending on their interactions with other constraints (Aissen 1999). There is a statistical reflection of these hierarchies in English. The same disharmonic person/argument associations which are avoided categorically in languages like Lummi by making passives either impossible or obligatory, are avoided in the SWITCHBOARD corpus of spoken English by either depressing or elevating the frequency of passives relative to actives. The English data can be grammatically analyzed within the stochastic OT framework (Boersma 1998, Boersma and Hayes 2001) in a way which provides a principled and unifying explanation for their relation to the crosslinguistic categorical person effects studied by Aissen (1999).

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