On Wh-question Formation in Iron Ossetic: A Case for Areal Influence

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Ossetic is a Northeast Iranian language spoken in the Central Caucasus. It has been long isolated from other Iranian languages, and has had close contacts with Caucasian and Turkic languages. The influence of those on Ossetic is widely recognized. In my talk, I describe the wh-question formation in Iron Ossetic and argue that the existing strategy is an outcome of contacts with the neighboring Kartvelian and Nakh (Northeast Caucasian) languages. Such contacts of Ossetiansare well attested, cf, among others, (Abaev 1949; Bielmeier 1977). Thus it is not unreasonable to expect a certain degree of convergence with these languages in the Ossetic syntax. Ossetic is an underlyingly SOV language, see (1a). In simple clauses, the wh-word is obligatorily fronted into the preverbal position, (1b). It can be separated from the verb only by second position clitics, negative particles, and negative pronouns (2). In composite verbs, the preverb
marks the linear left edge of the zone where the wh-word might show up (3). However, there are no restrictions on where wh-word + verb may appear in the clause, see (4). In multiple wh-questions, all wh-phrases are obligatorily fronted (6a). The only robust superiority constraint is that “who” should precede “what”. However, it seems to have to do with the animacy, rather than with the semantic roles or with the syntactic functions of the phrases, (6a,b). The obligatory wh-fronting in Ossetic contrasts with the strategies of question formation found
in other modern Iranian languages. Those are normally considered to be in situ, see, for example, (Tegey, Robson 1996) for Pashto, (Karimi, Taleghbani 2007) for Persian, and (7) illustrating the situation in Kurmanji Kurdish. However, there exists considerable freedom in placement of wh-words, and the preverbal position is an available option, see Wakhi examples (8). On the other hand, the directly neighboring Kartvelian obligatorily front wh-words into the preverbal position, see (Harris 1984, Tuite 1997) for Georgian and Svan data. In Nakh, although such placement of wh-words is not completely obligatory, it is nevertheless the unmarked and sometimes the only available option, (Nichols 1994a, 1994b), Chechen exl. (9). This makes it plausible to assume that Ossetic has developed the obligatory wh-fronting under the influence of these languages. The availability of the preverbal position for wh-words in Iranian permits to make a conjecture about the grammaticalization path of this construction in Ossetic. Admittedly, Ossetic is a non-prototypical representative of the Caucasian linguistic area. However, the considered case of language interaction shows that looking for ‘Sprachbünde within Sprachbünde’ might prove a worthwhile task allowing to more completely understand the place of periphereal members in a Sprachbund.
Original languageEnglish GB
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 3rd Syntax of the World’s Languages Conference
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


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