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According to Koopman (1983), there is an explanation for why Chinese, despite being a head-final language, has SVO and prepositional features. She suggested that Chinese assigns Case to the right but theta-roles to the left. Thus complements of PPs and VPs are left of their heads at D-structure, but move to the right at S-structure for Case assignment.

As a native Cantonese speaker, I find the analysis reasonable. Yet there are many cases in Classical Chinese where SOV and postpositional structures are found, including these:

1) Certain interrogative pronouns: Famous examples include 沛公安在 (Peigong {what place} at), meaning where is Peigong (or Peigong at what place in regular Chinese syntax), in the Records of the Grand Historian; 吾誰與歸 (I whom with return), meaning With whom would I return (or I with whom return in regular Chinese syntax), in the celebrated 岳陽樓記 by Fan Zhongyan. (The copula is not used in the first example.)

2) Negative sentences with pronouns in object position: For example, there is 莫之能禦 (nothing him can stop), meaning nothing can stop him in Mencius and 莫我肯顧 (nothing me {be willing to} {look after}) in the Classic of Songs. As a side note, 之 and 我 are both accusative in Classical Chinese. (This differs from Modern Standard Mandarin, where even pronouns lack case marking.)

3) Certain fixed constructions: 何 (interrogative word) + Object + 之 (meaningless particle) + 有 (exist), 惟 (only) + Object + 是 (meaningless particle) + Verb

4) Sometimes, the phenomenon appears randomly in a way I can't explain, e.g. 禮以行之 (propriety with perform it), meaning perform it with propriety (or with propriety perform it in regular Chinese syntax).

(The elements in {} represent, in the word-to-word translations, concepts that take more than one word in English but only one in Classical Chinese.)

There's also a related phenomenon: PPs are often placed after the verb in Classical Chinese.

My question is, has there been any literature that explains these phenomena under the GB framework? If Koopman's analysis is correct, how do these guys pass the Case Filter? If not, can I be pointed to literature regarding similar phenomena in other languages?

I'm thinking Romance object clitics might be a similar case, but as you can see here, it mostly happens to interrogatives and negative declaratives in Classical Chinese. *吾之見矣。 (*I him see {declarative modal particle}), for example, is ungrammatical (at least I think so), while Je le vois is not.

  • Classical Chinese and modern spoken Chinese are separated by thousands of years of history. Your description of Classical Chinese grammar suggests that Koopman's explanation does not apply to all historical varieties of Chinese. – 無色受想行識 Jul 3 '15 at 1:01
  • I'd say that her explanation still applies in most cases, since statistically, Classical Chinese is still predominantly SVO and prepositional. The cases I stated are merely exceptions, and perhaps these can be accounted for under the GB framework. I think it may have something to do with pronominals, since 1) and 2) both involved them. – WavesWashSands Jul 3 '15 at 17:53
  • Ahh, I've found one here. – WavesWashSands Jul 27 '15 at 2:23

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