Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A curious syntactic transformation

Consider the sentence

Rationalism has many followers.

What in principle looks like a rather dull N+V+O statement does not however allow for seeminlgy innocuous variations on the object:

*Rationalism has many people.

The reason why the former is valid while the latter is not is that followers are followers of something, in this particular case rationalism:

Rationalism has many followers [of rationalism].

In fact, we can view our sentence as a mere rewording of:

There are many followers of rationalism,

which leads us to hypothetize the existence of the following syntactic transformation:

There is/are [Det] N of NP → NP has/have [Det] N.

For instance:

There were lots of fans of the BeatlesThe Beatles had lots of fans.
There are no enemies of RomeRome has no enemies.

This transformational rule explains from a purely syntactical perspective why superficially similar sentences like *Rationalism has many people are invalid --they have no "There is..." equivalent.

Interestingly, the rule seems to operate in other languages apart from English (I presume that at least in most modern European languages):

El racionalismo tiene muchos seguidores.
Le rationalisme a beaucoup d'adeptes.
Rationalismus hat viele Anhänger.

This points to some general (maybe universal?) mechanism of reification of the possesion relationship between nouns.

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