Why all John’s friends are Dutch, not German

all john's friendsBlog post based on an article in Journal of Germanic Linguistics, written by Robert Cirillo

A genitive construction involving the universal quantifier all, such as All John’s friends, is very natural and commonplace in English. The same can be said of the equivalent construction in Dutch, which would be Al Jans vrienden.

Until now, it has totally escaped the attention of linguists that the same construction is not possible in German, despite the close genetic and geographical relationship that German has with Dutch and English. The German phrase All(e) Johanns Freunde is simply not possible. The correct word order is Alle Freunde Johanns.

The purpose of this article is to offer an explanation for this discrepancy between German and its sister languages. It is argued that there are three principal factors that combine to cause German to behave differently from Dutch and German.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the Saxon genitive in the three languages. In German, it is a true case. It is different from the standard (non-Saxon) genitive, but it is nonetheless a true genitive case that is assigned in Spec, NP just like the standard genitive.

In Dutch and English the Saxon genitive is not a case but a determiner-like element that originates as the head of a Possessive Phrase in the same way as a possessive adjective such as my or his or our.  Furthermore, unlike German, Dutch and English do not allow the assignment of genitive case in Spec, NP (without preposition insertion), which under some circumstances may necessitate the movement of a possessor to a higher position for case assignment.

The second factor that plays a role in causing the difference between German and the other West Germanic languages is the fact that in all the Germanic languages if a DP is definite either D or Spec, DP must be overtly occupied.  If one of these positions is overtly occupied, and if genitive case has already been assigned in Spec, NP, the movement of a genitive phrase to D or Spec, DP is unmotivated and causes ungrammaticality.

The third factor is that the -e ending on the universal quantifier alle behaves like a D-element in German and Dutch. It is very possibly the phonetic realization of the definiteness feature on D.

This article shows how these three factors come together to create the discrepancy between German and Dutch/English in how a universal quantifier can combine with a genitive.

View and download Why all John’s Friends are Dutch, Not German: On the Determiner-Like Characteristics of the Inflection on the Universal Quantifier in West Germanic, by Robert Cirillo, for free during the month of August.

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