On the structure of A-bar constructions in Dagbani: Perspectives of «wh»-questions and fragment answers

by Samuel Alhassan Issah (Author)
©2020 Thesis 238 Pages


This book provides an account of the structure of A-bar constructions, focusing on wh-questions and fragment answers in Dagbani, a Mabia (Gur) language spoken in Northern Ghana. It demonstrates that Dagbani wh-phrases occur in two distinct positions, ex-situ and in-situ, except for subject wh-phrases, which only occur in the former position. It provides a theoretical analysis of the distribution of the wh-phrases couched within minimalism (Chomsky 1995). Finally, the book gives an account of the structural correlation between wh-questions and their answers with the focus on the syntactic derivation of fragment answers. The author contends that the derivation of fragment answer involves two processes: A-bar movement together with PF-deletion

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Abstract
  • List of abbreviations
  • Chapter one General introduction
  • 1.0 Introduction
  • 1.1 The language and its speakers
  • 1.2 The objectives of the research
  • 1.3 Sources of data and orthography
  • 1.4 Theoretical insights of the analysis
  • 1.5 Word order and clause structure of Dagbani
  • 1.5.1 The aspect and tense system of Dagbani
  • 1.5.2 On the syntactic status of kà and ń in Dagbani
  • 1.5.3 A theory of focus and pragmatic uses of focus constructions
  • 1.5.4 Predicate focus in Dagbani
  • 1.6 The structure of the dissertation
  • 1.7 Interim summary
  • Chapter two The grammar of the Dagbani interrogative DP
  • 2.0 Introduction
  • 2.1 Wh-phrases as question operators in wh-questions
  • 2.2 Previous studies of Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.2.1 A novel account on the inventory of Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.2.2 On wh-pronouns and wh-determiners in Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.3 The grammatical characterization of Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.3.1 Distinction between human and non-human wh-phrases
  • 2.3.2 Number as a functional category of Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.3.3 Accounting for why -nìmá heads the functional NumP in the interrogative DP
  • 2.3.4 Ambiguities in Dagbani wh-phrases
  • 2.4 Interim summary
  • Chapter three The syntax of Dagbani ex-situ wh-questions
  • 3.0 Introduction
  • 3.1 Review of previous studies on Dagbani wh-questions
  • 3.2 The movement of wh-phrases within matrix/root clauses
  • 3.2.1 Syntactic evidence motivating focus movement of wh-phrases
  • 3.2.2 Pied-piping and feature checking in syntactic movement
  • 3.3 Extraction out of wh-phrases in embedded clauses in ex-situ wh-questions
  • 3.3.1 Extraction of subject wh-phrases out of embedded clauses
  • 3.3.2 Extraction of non-subject wh-phrases from embedded clauses
  • 3.3.3 Accounting for the reflexes of movement in ex-situ wh-questions
  • 3.3.4 Linguistic properties of resumptive pronouns
  • 3.3.5 Novel account on the spell-out of the focus heads in ex-situ wh-questions
  • 3.4 Typology of focus heads inventory in the Mabia languages
  • 3.5 Intermediate summary
  • Chapter four A syntactic analysis of Dagbani wh-in-situ questions
  • 4.0 Introduction
  • 4.1 Review of previous studies on Dagbani in-situ wh-questions
  • 4.2 Counterevidence for analysis of lá as a contrastive focus marker
  • 4.3 Dagbani wh-in-situ questions
  • 4.3.1 The descriptive facts on Dagbani in-situ wh-questions
  • 4.3.2 A minimalist analysis of Dagbani in-situ wh-questions
  • 4.3.3 An account for the ban on in-situ subject wh-phrases
  • 4.4 On the syntax of Dagbani wh-questions: Some typological insights
  • 4.5 Interim summary
  • Chapter five Constraints on wh-movement in Dagbani
  • 5.0 Introduction
  • 5.1 Island effects in Dagbani wh-constructions
  • 5.1.1 The complex NP constraint (CNPC)
  • 5.1.2 The syntactic properties of the Dagbani relative clause
  • 5.1.3 Extraction of wh-phrases from Dagbani relative clauses
  • 5.1.4 Extraction of wh-phrases out of the complex NP
  • 5.2 The coordinate structure constraint
  • 5.3 Interim summary
  • Chapter six On the syntax of answers to wh-questions and the derivation of fragment answers
  • 6.0 Introduction
  • 6.1 On the structural correlation between wh-questions and their answers
  • 6.1.1 Context-induced focus and question/answer correlation in Dagbani
  • 6.1.2 The projection of focus heads in ex-situ question/answer pairs
  • 6.1.3 Congruence of question/answer pairs
  • 6.2 Introduction to fragment answers
  • 6.2.1 An overview of the notion of fragment answers
  • 6.2.2 The syntactic derivation of Dagbani fragment answers
  • 6.3 Arguments in support of movement plus ellipsis account of Dagbani fragments
  • 6.3.1 The sensitivity of fragments to locality constraints
  • 6.3.2 Evidence in favor of analyzing fragment answers as an instance of elliptical process
  • 6.4 Semantic recoverability of fragment answers: the PF theory of fragment answers
  • 6.4.1 Semantic recoverability of fragment answers
  • 6.4.2 The PF theory of fragment answers and the [E];-feature
  • 6.4.3 Dagbani fragment answers and the [E];-feature
  • 6.5 Interim summary
  • Chapter seven Summary and conclusions
  • 7.0 Introduction
  • 7.1 Summary of the findings of the dissertation
  • 7.2 Summary of the contributions/significance of the dissertation
  • 7.3 Open issues for future research
  • Appendix
  • List of tables
  • References
  • Series index


This dissertation provides a description and analysis of the structure of A-bar constructions, focusing on the derivation of wh-questions and fragment answers in Dagbani, a Mabia (Gur) language spoken in Northern Ghana. I show that wh-phrases are crucial syntactic elements in the derivation of wh-questions and further examine the inventory and grammatical characteristics of these wh-phrases. I demonstrate that in the formation of wh-questions, wh-phrases occur in two distinct positions, ex-situ and in-situ, except for subject wh-phrases, which only occur in the former position. I provide a theoretical analysis of the distribution of wh-phrases couched within Minimalism (Chomsky 1995). I assume that Dagbani has two focus feature specifications in its lexicon: a strong and a weak focus feature. Whereas the former triggers overt syntactic movement of the wh-phrase from its base position to the clausal left periphery, the latter licenses covert movement at LF. I further show that while the ex-situ wh-questions mandatorily require the overt morphological presence of the particles and ń which must be c-commanded by the extracted wh-operator, their in-situ counterparts do not have these syntactic items overtly expressed. I account for this absence of phonologically visible focus heads in in-situ wh-questions by referring to the fact that LF movement is a post-syntactic phenomenon, and therefore, although the focus heads are present in the in-situ wh-questions, they are not phonologically visible to the syntax. Consequently, I conclude that and ń are spell-outs of this strong focus feature which establish the needed Spec-Head configuration for feature checking. The fact that both ex-situ and in-situ wh-questions exhibit sensitivity to island effects (Ross 1967), motivates the proposal that they are derived via a movement operation. The syntactic incompatibility between ex-situ wh-questions and fronted focus constituents is interpreted to mean that they compete for the same syntactic position, supporting an analysis according to which wh-fronting is analyzable as an instance of focus movement. Contrary to reports of previous studies that the spell-out of focus heads in ex-situ wh-questions is regulated by the grammatical category of the extracted constituent (cf. Fiedler 2007, Fiedler & Schwarz 2005, Fiedler et al. 2010, Hudu 2012, Issah 2012, Schwarz & Fiedler 2007), I show that there is empirical evidence to suggest that this generalization is not tenable. Building on a proposal made in Issah (2008), I thus, develop a novel account according to which the spell-out of a focus head arises from clausehood. I further offer formal explanations for some asymmetric patterns in the formation of wh-questions including the ban on ←17 | 18→in-situ subject wh-questions in contrast to their non-subject counterparts and the licensing of traces and resumption pronouns in the extraction of matrix and embedded subjects respectively. I conclude that subject in-situ wh-questions are barred because Spec, TP is the unmarked topic position. I propose that the complementarity of traces and resumptive pronouns can be accounted for by employing the fact that (i) there is a strong EPP requirement in Dagbani, the reason for which the Spec, TP position should always be filled with a DP material and that there is a blocking effect of this for local wh-subject extraction due to the Highest Subject Restriction (McCloskey 1990, 2002) or (ii) Dagbani is sensitive to the that-trace effect for which reason the overt complementizer head cannot be c-commanded by a trace (Perlmutter 1968, 1971). I further show that although wh-questions and their answers may share syntactic parallelisms, this is not a requirement for congruency in question/answer pairs. Finally, I give an account of the syntactic derivation of fragment answers, analyzing them as instances of ellipsis, employing the PF theory of ellipsis by Brunetti (2003) and Merchant (2001, 2004, 2008) among others. The sensitivity of fragment answers to island constraints (Ross 1967), the ban on certain categories in fragment answers as well as the connectivity effects, serve as syntactic evidence supporting an analysis according to which the derivation of elliptical answers involves A-bar movement together with PF deletion of the remnant TP. The elided component is argued to be retrievable from a property that licenses its semantic recoverability. I conclude that within the Minimalist assumption (Chomsky 1998), the processing of fragments is more economical than their non-elliptical counterparts.

Chapter one General introduction

1.0 Introduction

The goal of this dissertation is to provide a syntactic account of A-bar constructions in Dagbani, focusing on the structure of wh-questions and their answers. In this chapter, I present some background information on the genetic affiliation and basic clause structure of Dagbani, the objectives of the study, the theoretical frameworks within which the analyses are couched, a theory of focus, given the fact that the idea of focus is relevant to later discussions in the dissertation, the sources of the data used, orthography used in the presentation of the Dagbani data used in this current research, and the structure of the dissertation. This chapter shall proceed as follows. In section 1.1, I present a brief overview of the language and its speakers focusing on the genetic affiliation, the population of speakers and their geographical location. Section 1.2 outlines the objectives that underline the present study, while section 1.3 briefly comments on the sources of the data used in the current study as well as the orthography used in presenting the Dagbani data. Though I show that the writing system is based on the current approved orthography for Dagbani, I also point out the fact that where there are apparent unscientific spelling rules that would pose a threat to syntactic analysis, or are empirically unmotivated, I defy such rules. Section 1.4 is devoted to a discussion of the theoretical frameworks within which the analyses are cast. I show that the analyses are couched within the syntactic views of Chomsky (1995) Minimalist syntax as well as the ellipsis as PF-deletion Theory of Merchant (2001, 2004, 2008), while section 1.5 outlines the basic word order and clause structure of Dagbani. Some basic grammatical properties of Dagbani, including tense, aspect, mood and negation, are discussed in this section. In addition to these, I also discuss a theory of focus and offer an overview of term and predicate foci of Dagbani in this section. In section 1.6, I outline the structure of the dissertation, while section 1.7 offers a summary to the chapter.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 238 pp., 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Samuel Alhassan Issah (Author)

Samuel Alhassan Issah is a senior lecturer at the College of Languages Education, University of Education, Winneba/Ghana. He holds a PhD in linguistics awarded by the Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, and a Master of Philosophy in Theoretical Linguistics awarded by the University of Tromsoe, Norway. His research interests include information structure (focus realizations) of Dagbani and related languages, structure of Dagbani and related languages, the syntax of elliptical phenomena, and the syntax of anaphoric expressions.


Title: On the structure of A-bar constructions in Dagbani: Perspectives of «wh»-questions and fragment answers
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