Space, time and asymmetry in Chinese

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Kayne (The antisymmetry of syntax. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994, Studies in Chinese Linguistics 34(1):3–37, 2013) proposes that natural language is asymmetrical in syntactic structure, and that the universal default constituent order is Specifier-Head-Complement. Kayne states that the posited asymmetry is due to the inherently asymmetric nature of syntactic derivation within the Faculty of Language (FL), induced by the asymmetric, directional property of language production and parsing (Kayne, Studies in Chinese Linguistics 34(1):3–37, 2013: 19). In this paper I argue that the asymmetric direction of language production and parsing undoubtedly have influenced the evolution of the FL, but that this need not entail asymmetry either in syntactic derivation or in default constituent order, and that the claim of Specifier-Head-Complement as default constituent order is fundamentally unmotivated. I suggest instead that FLasymmetry is manifest in the well-known asymmetric order of information flow (old precedes new), and that a dissociation between syntactic derivation and information flow is possible because the ordering of old and new information is iconic, while syntactic derivation is symbolic. This, I argue, frees syntactic derivation from the strictures of old-new information flow order. To support this claim, I first describe the phenomenon of spatial asymmetry in Mandarin (e.g., Xu, Asymmetry in the expression of space in Chinese – the Chinese language meets typology. In Xu D. (ed) Space in languages of China: cross- linguistic, synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 175–198, 2008) to demonstrate how the asymmetry of space follows from the iconic, asymmetric order of spatial states as experienced by humans. I then demonstrate, following Tai (Temporal sequence and Chinese word order. In Haiman J (ed) Iconicity in syntax. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 49–72, 1983, Iconicity: motivations in Chinese grammar. In Eid M, Iverson, G (eds) Principles and prediction: the analysis of natural language. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 153–173, 1993), that the expression of temporal order in Mandarin is also asymmetrical, resulting from the iconic, asymmetric, human perception of temporal order. I then argue that the well-known tendency for old information to be ordered before new information is manifestly iconic as well, because old events are always perceived as occurring before new events. I then cite evidence from Mandarin (Partee, A note on Mandarin possessives, demonstratives, and definiteness. In: Ward F, Birner B (eds) Drawing the boundaries of meaning: Neo-Gricean studies in pragmatics and semantics in honor of Laurence R. Horn. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 263–280, 2006; Williams, Predemonstrative modifiers in Mandarin. In: Sze-Wing Tang, Chen-Sheng Luther Liu (eds) On the Formal way to Chinese languages. CSLI Publications, Stanford, pp, 74–101, 2002, LaPolla, Randy, Grammatical Relations in Chinese: Synchronic and Diachronic Considerations. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 1990) to show that in Mandarin complex NPs and topic-comment structures, leftmost, ‘older’, information usually has scope over and determines the given-new status of information to the right, independent of syntactic constituency. I argue that because old-new information order is iconic but syntactic constituent order is symbolic, the syntactic motivation for default Spec-Head- Comp ordering is removed, thereby obviating the need for syntactic derivation order to be linked to the directionality either of time or of parsing and production. The conclusion is that while it is undoubtedly correct to assume that directionality within the FLhas its origins in the asymmetric directionality both of language processing and of time passage, it is much less certain that syntactic derivation and constituent order are universally asymmetrical as a result.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSpace and Quantification in Languages of China
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9783319100401
ISBN (Print)9783319100395
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Antisymmetry
  • Asymmetry
  • Iconicity
  • New/old information
  • Probe-goal
  • Symbolic
  • Symmetry
  • Word order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)

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