One aspect that makes Spanish a widely studied Romance language is the inversion found in its wh-questions. The pre-verbal subject is impossible in wh-questions for the language in question, although it allows either pre- or post-verbal subjects. The approach does not represent a syntactic phenomenon, at least not according to contemporary thinking. The concept makes Spanish highly sensitive to well-known working memory, accounting for the basic constructions that provide properties for syntax analysis.
Basics of Wh-movement in Spanish
The properties of working memory explain various characteristics of wh-movement in Spanish and open different avenues through which the reduction of wh-questions proceed to its bare essential: minimalism. The process entails raising V to T, coupled with the elevation of the subject to SPEC of T. Finally, when the wh-movement possibly rises to SPEC of C, the syntax does not need to address any constraints regarding the interaction of the preverbal subject and wh-phrase since the independently required constraints on working memory handle them.
Findings from well-known processing literature indicate that filler-gap structures strain the capacity of the working memory. For instance, the wh-questions impact working memory because the filler, which is the wh-phrase, is held before the gap assignment (Freidin 56). Radically, initial processing continuously reduces the activation level, making the process of assigning fillers to gaps a daunting task. The stress on the working memory fails to account for instances of unacceptability. Spanish has a typically obligatory que while English has an optional complementizer that, coupled with some verbs in embedded complement clauses as shown in example 1 below.
(1) a. María dijo que ella es de Colombia. Cf. *Maria dijo ella es de Colombia.
b. Maria said (that) she is from Colombia.
This conclusion stands when the factors that change the position of fillers in working memory affects the acceptability of various statements. Besides, the basic properties of filler-gap processing highlight that the longer the subject DP, the more it intervenes between the gap and filler. In this case, the sub-categorizing head represents the gap and the filler, coupled with the wh-phrase (Goodall 104). Necessarily, since a referential or D-linked DP has a high processing load, a D-linked DP intervenes between a gap and a filler. It reduces the resources available for putting the filler in working memory, resulting in the rapid reduction of the available resources for holding the filler. The concept accounts for contrast in instances where a less D-linked subject facilitates wh-extraction more readily than a subject. Importantly, as the intervening subject becomes more D-linked and longer, acceptability decreases considerably.
Indeed, the more D-linked an element is, the heavier the processing load. For example, the processing demands of a D-linked intervening DP increase the difficulty of holding the filler in working memory before gap assignment. In a broader sense, the D-linked wh-phrase acquires a high activation level in working memory, meaning that it takes longer to attain a critically low activation level that makes the gap assignment difficult. An illustration of this effect occurs when the relative clause facilitates the long wait for the gap as opposed to the wh-word. A similar paradigm manifests where a D-linked wh-phrase endures the gap assignment resulting from an intervening subject. Contrarily, some sentences are less acceptable in Spanish, particularly in cases where the postverbal position of the subjects translates to zero delays in locating the subcategorizing gap and head. The prevailing constraints predict a three-way contrast that thrives in cases in which gap assignment is challenging. The phenomenon gives the behavior of subjects in relative clauses sense.
The information demonstrates various capacity constraints on working memory that form some basic properties of wh-questions in Spanish. The paradigm in the language is synonymous with English patterns since the subject appears in a post-auxiliary position. In retrospect, an intervening subject does not exist in Spanish wh-questions based on the constraints of the working memory. Extracting an object from an adjunct island is regarded as grammatically incorrect in Spanish, as shown in the example (2) below.
(2) a. ¿*A quién habló José con María después de ver?
b. *Who did Joe speak with Mary after seeing?
This aspect relies on the fact that Spanish wh-questions disallow intervening subjects since the working memory constraints support the variance in acceptability depending on the length and D-linking of variation (Rice 183). Secondly, the language unburdens the working memory by alleviating the intervening subject through a D-linked filler. Third, the processing structure of the filler-gap structure is essentially the same in an embedded clause and a matrix. This concept explains why no matrix or embedded contrast exists in Spanish. Fourth, assigning argument fillers to a gap makes the subcategorizing head, which is the verb, adjacent to the filler. On the contrary, adjunct fillers do not experience the influence of an intervening subject. Lastly, the fact that Spanish sentences are susceptible to satiation explains why they are excluding for processing reasons.
Spanish, unlike English, has either a postverbal or preverbal subject position. The discourse roles of these two positions differ, with preverbal positions having more discourse roles that result in significantly heavy processing burden. The phenomenon elevates the processing load of the intervening subject, increasing the difficulty of holding the filler in working memory before the gap assignment. In English, the intervening subject lacks a unique discourse role, reducing its processing load significantly. In essence, simple properties of working memory account for the characteristics of wh-movement in Spanish. It opens the possibility of reducing the syntax of Spanish wh-questions to its bare essentials: V to T. The concept makes it unnecessary for the syntax to address the constraints on the interaction of the preverbal subject as well as the wh-phrase.
Freidin, Robert. Syntax: Basic Concepts and Applications. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Goodall, Grant. “On the syntax and processing of wh-questions in Spanish.” Proceedings of the 23rd West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 2004.
Rice, Mabel. Toward A Genetics of Language. Psychology Press, 2013.