Non-configurational language

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In generative grammar, non-configurational languages are languages characterized by a non-rigid phrase structure, which allows syntactically discontinuous expressions, and a relatively free word order.[1] In configurational languages in contrast, the subject of a sentence is outside the finite verb phrase (VP) (directly under S below) but the object is inside it. Since there is no VP constituent in non-configurational languages, there is no structural difference between subject and object. The distinction (configurational vs. non-configurational) can exist in phrase structure grammars only. In a dependency-based grammar, the distinction is meaningless because dependency-based structures do not acknowledge a finite VP constituent.


The concept of non-configurationality was developed by grammarians working within Noam Chomsky's generative framework. Some of these linguists observed that the Syntactic Universals proposed by Chomsky and which required a rigid phrase structure was challenged by the syntax of some of the world's languages that had a much less rigid syntax than that of the languages on which Chomsky had based his studies.[1] The concept was invented by Ken Hale who described the syntax of Warlpiri as being non-configurational. However the first to publish a description of non-configurationality was Chomsky himself in his 1981 lectures on Government and Binding, in which he referred to an unpublished paper by Hale.[2] Chomsky made it a goal of the Government and Binding framework to accommodate languages such as Japanese and Warlpiri that apparently did not conform to his proposed language universal of Move α. Hale later published his own description of non-configurationality in Warlpiri.[3][4] Katalin Kiss developed the concept of Discourse Configurationality to describe languages where constituent order is primarily determined by pragmatic factors.


The following trees illustrate the distinction:

Illustration of configurational and non-configurational structure.jpg

The presence of the VP constituent in the configurational tree on the left allows one to define the syntactic relations (subject vs. object) in terms of the configuration. The subject is the argument that appears outside of the VP, but the object appears inside it. The flatter structure on the right, where there is no VP, forces/allows one to view aspects of syntax differently. More generally, Hale proposed that non-configurational languages have the following characteristics:

  1. free (or more accurately, pragmatically determined) word order
  2. extensive use of null anaphora (pro-drop phenomena)
  3. syntactically discontinuous expressions

However, it is not clear that those properties all cluster together. Languages that have been described as non-configurational include Mohawk,[5] Warlpiri,[6] Nahuatl[5] and O'odham (Papago).[7]

Controversy amongst phrase structure grammars[edit]

The analysis of non-configurational languages has been controversial among phrase structure grammars.[8] On the one hand, much work on these languages in Principles and Parameters has attempted to show that they are in fact configurational. On the other hand, it has been argued in Lexical Functional Grammar that these attempts are flawed, and that truly non-configurational languages exist.[9] From the perspective of syntactic theory, the existence of non-configurational languages bears on the question of whether grammatical functions like subject and object are independent of structure. If they are not, no language can be truly non-configurational.

Controversy with dependency grammars[edit]

The distinction between configurational and non-configurational languages can exist for phrase structure grammars only. Dependency grammars (DGs), since they lack a finite VP constituent altogether, do not acknowledge the distinction. In other words, all languages are non-configurational for DGs, even English, which all phrase structure grammars take for granted as having a finite VP constituent. The point is illustrated with the following examples:

No structure will have a finite VP constituent. - Finite VP in bold
No structure will have a finite VP constituent. - Non-finite VP in bold

Phrase structure grammars almost unanimously assume that the finite VP in bold in the first sentence is a constituent. DGs, in contrast, do not see finite VPs as constituents. Both phrase structure grammars and DGs do, however, see non-finite VPs as constituents. The dependency structure of the example sentence is as follows:

DG tree, no finite VP

Since the finite VP will have a finite VP constituent does not qualify as a subtree, it is not a constituent. What this means based upon the criterion of configurationality is that this dependency structure (like all dependency structures) is non-configurational. The distinction between configurational and non-configurational has hence disappeared entirely, all languages being non-configurational in the relevant sense. Note, however, that while the finite VP is not a constituent in the tree, the non-finite VP have a finite VP constituent is a constituent (because it qualifies as a subtree).

Dependency grammars point to the results of standard constituency tests as evidence that finite VP does not exist as a constituent[10] While these tests deliver clear evidence for the existence of a non-finite VP constituent in English (and other languages), they do not do the same for finite VP.


  1. ^ a b Golumbia, David (2004). "The interpretation of nonconfigurationality". Language & Communication. 24 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1016/S0271-5309(02)00058-7.
  2. ^ Chomsky, N., 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Foris, Dordrecht.
  3. ^ Hale, K., 1989. On nonconfigurational structures. In: Mara´ cz, L., Muysken, P. (Eds.), Configurationality: The Typology of Asymmetries. Foris, Dordrecht, pp. 293–300
  4. ^ Hale, K , 1983. Warlpiri and the grammar of non-configurational languages. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 1, 5–47
  5. ^ a b Baker, Mark C. (1996). The Polysynthesis Parameter. Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509308-9. OCLC 31045692.
  6. ^ Hale 1984, 1989
  7. ^ Smith, Marcus. 2004. A Pre-group Grammar for a non-configurational language. URL smithma/papers.html, UCLA ms., revised 3/12/2004.
  8. ^ See for instance Hale 1984 and Marácz and Muysken 1989.
  9. ^ Austin and Bresnan 1996
  10. ^ See Osborne et al. 2011:323-324.

See also[edit]


  • Austin, Peter and Joan Bresnan 1996. Non-configurationality in Australian aboriginal languages. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 14, 215–268.
  • Hale, Kenneth 1982. Preliminary remarks on configurationality. In J. Pustejovsky & P. Sells (Eds.), NELS 12, 86–96.
  • Hale, Kenneth 1983. Warlpiri and the grammar of non-configurational languages. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 1, 5-47.
  • Marácz, L.; & Muysken, P. (Eds.) 1989. Configurationality: The typology of asymmetries. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Osborne, Timothy, Michael Putnam, and Thomas Gross 2011. Bare phrase structure, label-less structures, and specifier-less syntax: Is Minimalism becoming a dependency grammar? The Linguistic Review 28, 315-364.

External links[edit]