Serving two masters
Form–function friction in syntactic amalgams
This paper examines two cases of so-called syntactic amalgams. In syntactic amalgams a particular string that is shared by two constructions is exploited to combine them, in such a way that one of the constructions functions as a modifier of the other. Typical examples are after God knows how many years (< after many years + God knows how many years) and a big enough house (< a big house + big enough). In formal theories, these kinds of constructions have been insightfully described as ‘grafts’. However, the exact process through which these amalgams arise remains unexplored. When studied closely, these processes reveal form–function friction not fully accounted for by the graft metaphor.Syntactic amalgams typically serve a subjective function and have been recruited for this purpose. However, because they consist of a syntagm that is still internally parsable, they tend to resist full reanalysis. More precisely, their original syntax continues to constrain their use. As such, amalgams get caught between their original syntax, which remains transparent, and their new function, which suggests a new syntactic status.This appears clearly from contrastive studies of amalgams in Dutch and English that are functionally similar but whose use is constrained in different ways due to structural differences between the two languages. Our first case study deals with the Dutch and English amalgam wie weet / who knows. A contrastive analysis of the development of the respective items shows both the conservative effect of the origin of change and the attraction exerted by the target of change. The second case we discuss in detail involves so-called transparent free relatives. A contrastive analysis shows the role of the overall grammar of a language in licensing change, in this case with Dutch word order posing more difficulties to the new focusing function of transparent free relatives.In general, both case studies show the formation of syntactic amalgams to be sensitive to system pressures both in the course of their development and in the eventual outcome of change.