Syntax - The Science of Sentences

syntax

The science of sentences and the relationships between words. Syntax is broadly understood as the study of word order and how words are put together into larger units.


Overview

Most core questions in the scientific domain of linguistics are in these three areas alone (Kumar, 00:00:54 - 00:01:30):

  • Structure
  • Acquisition
  • Change

Syntax focuses on the structure of language and the observation of how words are ordered.

Let's take the sentence Max likes Pokémon. Looking at each word's categorical features, the subject of the sentence is Max, the verb is like, and the object is Pokémon. There is a grammatical relationship between the constituents. However, these grammatical relationships are only important within sentences. For example, Max (a noun) by itself isn't a subject, but when placed in our example sentence it is. You can also note the fact that in English the word sequence is subject, verb, and then object (SVO).

Word sequence

For all the languages that exist on Planet Earth there is a commonality; sentences have some sequence of word order. We can classify this into how subjects, objects, and verbs interact (edge case: ergative languages can have ambiguous subjects and have agents instead). Another cool note is some languages can even have null subjects. Let's check out all the combinations using Python:

# Get all syntax sequence permutations and print from itertools import permutations perm = permutations(['S', 'O', 'V']) for i in list(perm): print(i)
('s', 'o', 'v')
('s', 'v', 'o')
('o', 's', 'v')
('o', 'v', 's')
('v', 's', 'o')
('v', 'o', 's')

Examples:

  • Modern English (SVO): Pat hit Alex
  • Basque (SOV/AOV): Pat-ek Alex egurtu
  • Welsh (VSO): Fe darodd Pat Alex

Not all languages fall into the bucket of sticking to a specific word pattern. For example, languages like Russian, Korean, Hungarian, and many others have existing grammar rules that allow one to change sentence structure. In reality some languages can have a semi-fluid or fluid word order. These sentence structure changes are highly flexible and reflect the pragmatics of the utterance.

Morphemes can also help distinguish a word's relationship in a sentence. For example, in Latin the sentence hospes leporem videt and hospitem lepus videt have the same word order but opposite meanings. The first sentence translates to the host sees the rabbit and the second translates to the rabbit sees the host.

I'd like to also touch upon the difference between grammar and syntax. You might be thinking, what is the difference between grammar and syntax? Well, grammar is a rather wide field which includes syntax. In theoretical linguistics grammar includes syntax, morphology, phonology, phonetics, and semantics (the entire system of spoken language). Without grammar there is no syntax.

Syntactic models

When researching syntactic models, I realized there are many fields that are progressing on this subject. These models help provide a means to approach how syntactic units and constituents are arranged and represented. The main syntactic models are the following:

Conclusion

We have dove into the overall understanding of what syntax is as a focus of study. Each syntactic model has an ocean of research behind it to try and understand how syntactic units are categorized in sentences. Every language is different whether it be spoken or signed, but all of them allow for grammatically correct word orders to convey meaning.

Works Cited