A syntactic universal in a contact language: The story of Singlish already

Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine
(National University of Singapore)

In this talk, I discuss the synchronic syntax/semantics of sentence-final already in Singlish (also: Colloquial Singapore English), a contact language with significant Chinese substrate influence, and implications for the nature of the Final-over-Final Constraint (FOFC) (Biberauer, Holmberg, and Roberts 2014, a.o.) and Spell-Out. I begin by largely adopting and refining Bao’s (2005) proposal that already is the result of a relexification process (Lefebvre 1998) in the development of Singlish, pairing the syntax/semantics of the Chinese sentence-final article le/liao/laa with the English surface form “already.” I then show that the semantic scope of Singlish already shows that it unambiguously attaches high to its host clause, above TP (Cheong 2016), whereas Chinese cognate particles le/liao/laa unambiguously attach clause-medially, between VP and TP (Erlewine 2017). This situation leaves us with a puzzle: Why is Singlish already at the clause edge, unlike its substrate cognate le/liao/laa? (Note that, due to its sentence-final position, word order is uninformative or at least under-informative for the language learner.) I propose that this discrepancy in height is explained by an interaction between the Final-over-Final Constraint, enforced over Spell-Out domains (Erlewine 2017), and verbal inflection suspending Spell-Out at vP in Singlish but not Chinese languages.

Bao, Zhiming. 2005. The aspectual system of Singapore English and the systemic substratist explanation. Journal of Linguistics 41:237–267.
Biberauer, Theresa, Anders Holmberg, and Ian Roberts. 2014. A syntactic universal and its consequences. Linguistic Inquiry 45:169–225.
Cheong, Phoebe. 2016. Sentence-final already and only in Singapore English. BA Honors thesis, National University of Singapore.
Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka. 2017. Low sentence-final particles in Mandarin Chinese and the Final-over-Final Constraint. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 26:37–75.
Lefebvre, Claire. 1998. Creole genesis and the acquisition of grammar: The case of Haitian creole. Cambridge University Press.