Merge — how we build phrases and sentences—

Merge — how we build phrases and sentences—

1, the difference between our language and other species’ languages

     Many species have their own ways of communication. Off course, we humans have language. But other species also communicate with each other. For example, flogs make noises in ponds near my house. (Are they ‘singing’? ) Probably, they want to mate. So in a way, they convey their intention to others. Can we say that they have language? The answer to this question is partly yes. They communicate with each other. But human language and their language are different in a fundamental way.

    Flogs can sing louder when their intentions to mate are greater. Flogs’ language has only such variation. But we humans can make original phrases and sentences. We can create sentences which we have never heard before. And the hearers understand such sentences. In this way flogs’ language and our language are different.

    A question arises here. Why can we build original phrases and sentences? Other species do not seem to have this ability to create new phrases. Probably, only human beings have this ability. According to Chomsky (2006) humans have spent 1 million years to develop language ability. Chomsky says that human language ability is Merge. We can Merge. So we have languages unique to us. What is Merge?

2, Merge –the way to make phrases and sentences

     Suppose we want to say ‘this book’. How do we build this phrase? You Merge determiner-this and Noun book. You get Determiner Phrase [ this book ]. Then you Merge Verve- buy and DP [ this book]. You get VP[ buy this book ]. Then you merge Tense auxiliary verve- will and this VP[ buy this book ]. You get T-bar [ will buy this book ]. This T-bar [ will buy this book ] is somehow incomplete. You need subject. In this case, we attach Pronoun-I as subject of this phrase. We get TP [ I will buy this book ]. In this way, we can make phrases and sentences. Other species such as birds and flogs do not have this ability to Merge.

3, c-command

     When we build TP[ he will kill himself], something interesting happens. We Merge Verve-kill and reflexive pronoun-himself. We get VP [ kill himself ]. This VP [ kill himself ] will be Merged with Tense auxiliary verve- will. We get T-bar [ will kill himself ]. When we try to Merge Pronoun- she and this T-bar[ will kill himself], somehow we cannot Merge these two constituent. But why?

     So far we believed we could Merge whatever constituents we liked. But it seems not be right. When we Merge two constituents, these two constituents need to match each other. In this case, the pronoun- she does not match T-bar [ will kill himself]. Reflexive pronoun- himself seems to not match pronoun- she. So, the whole sentence is ungrammatical. When we change pronoun- she to pronoun- he, the sentence is grammatical. In this respect, pronoun- he seems to check T-bar [ will kill himself]. Pronoun- he has to match T-bar itself and constituents in this T-bar. For example, pronoun- he has to match T-bar itself, VP[ kill himself], V-kill and reflexive pronoun-himself. In other words, pronoun- he is responsible for the constituent it Merge with and constituents which are in the constituent pronoun-he Merges with.

     This relation pronoun he holds with other constituents is called c-command. Constituent command is abbreviated to c-command. The definition of c-command is as follows.

If constituent A and B are sisters, A c-command B and constituents within B.

This c-commanding relation hold between every constituents. V-kill c-commands reflexive pronoun- himself. We cannot replace this reflexive pronoun-himself with whatever words we like. For example, we cannot use V- do in the place reflexive pronouns are used. We cannot say *[ kill do]. So, V-kill chooses constituents with which it Merges. Auxiliary verve-will also chooses which constituent it Merges with. For example, we cannot Merge auxiliary verve- will with NP[ this book]. *will this book. Every word chooses what they Merge with.

      Pronoun- she seems to be compatible with T-bar[ will kill himself]. Pronoun- will itself is compatible with this pronoun- she, but pronoun-she seems to check a lot more than that. The constituents in T-bar, namely ‘will kill himself’, ‘kill himself’ ‘will’, ‘kill’, and ‘himself’ need to be compatible with this pronoun-she. We do not want to ignore this relation between pronoun she and reflexive pronoun- himself. So, for we linguists, c-command is important relation between constituents.


Chomsky, N (1957) Syntactic Structures, Leiden; Mouton and Co.

Chomsky, N (1965/ 2015) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax – 50th Anniversary Edition with new preface by author, Cambridge; MIT Press. Originally published in 1965.

Chomsky, N (1972) Studies on semantics in Generative Grammar, Hague; Mouton.

Chomsky, N (1975) Reflections on language, New York; Pantheon Books.

Chomsky, N (1981) Lectures on Government and Binding – The Pisa Lecture, Hague; Mouton de Gruyter. (formerly published by Foris Publications)

Chomsky, N (1982) Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and Binding, Cambridge; MIT Press.

Chomsky, N (1986 a) Knowledge of Language – Its Nature, Origin, and Use, New York; Praeger.

Chomsky, N (1986 b) Barriers, Cambridge; MIT Press.

Chomsky, N (1988) Language and Problems of Knowledge – The Managua Lectures, Cambridge; MIT Press.

Chomsky, N (1995) The Minimalist Program, Cambridge; MIT Press.

Chomsky, N (2000) New Horizon in the Study of Language and Mind, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (2006) Language and Mind third edition, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Radford, A. (2016) Analyzing English Sentences second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, I. (2007) Diachronic Syntax, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

作成者: hiroaki

高校3年の時、模試で英語の成績が全国平均を下回っていた。そのせいか、英語の先生に「寺岡君、英語頑張っている感じなのに(笑)」と言われたこともある。 しかし、なんやかんや多読を6000万語くらい積んだら、ほとんどどんな英語文献にも対処できるようになった。(努力ってすごい) ゆえに、英語文献が読めないという人は全員努力不足ということなので、そういう人たちには、とことん冷たい。(努力を怠ると、それが正直に結果に出る) 今は、Fate Grand Order にはまってしまっていて、FGO 関連の記事が多い。