Semester: Sommersemester 2015

3.02.551 S Experimental Syntax


  • Dienstag: 16:00 - 18:00, wöchentlich


The task of a generative syntactician is to determine by which rules sentences are generated and what kind of constraints apply to these rules. In doing so, the goal is to construct a model of grammar. To discover what kind of rules and constraints there are, a syntactician has to find out what is possible and impossible in a language. Many linguists do this by employing the so-called “arm-chair” method, where the linguist him/herself judges which sentences are grammatical and ungrammatical and subsequently bases his or her theory on these judgments. This way of researching has been criticized for various reasons. For one, this method appears to be subjective and disregards the kind of controlled protocols standard in the rest of the empirical cognitive sciences. On the other hand, the linguist, as a native speaker and linguistic expert, could be considered to be the only (or most suitable) candidate to judge what does and does not work in a particular language.
In this seminar, we will critically review the opinions of both camps: those who argue that the linguists him/herself is the ultimate expert and that there is no need for quantitative research (the ‘arm-chair’ linguists), and those who argue that linguistic research should involve carefully controlled experiments (the ‘experimental’ linguists). We will look at specific studies on wh-movement that have used the experimental approach to see what this approach has to offer. Wh-movement has played a central role in generative grammar over the past few decades and is subject to various rules and constraints. It is therefore a construction that lends itself to careful and controlled experimentation. On the practical side, we will devote some sessions to methodological aspects, where students are taught how to collect and process data using accessible software such as Excel. These skills come in very useful when carrying out your own research, i.e. within the context of writing an MA-thesis.
The Prüfungsleistung (9KP) consists of a Referat + Ausarbeitung (ca. 15 pages). Students of the master English Studies additionally complete an empirical project for an extra 3 KP. For WiPäd students and students of the Sprachdynamik master, it is also possible to do this seminar for 6 KP, in which case they only write an Ausarbeitung.

Selected literature (more will be published later):
* Cowart, W. (2012). Doing Experimental Syntax: Bridging the gap between syntactic questions and well-designed questionnaires. In Myers, James (editor). In search of grammar: Experimental and corpus-based studies. Language and Linguistics Monograph Series 48.Taipei, Taiwan: Language and Linguistics.
* Myers, J. (2009). Syntactic judgment experiments. Language & Linguistics Compass, 3 (1), 406-423. Retrieved from:



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