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Wenyan Syntax as Context-Free Formal Grammar


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An essential feature of the syntax of premodern written Chinese (Wenyan 文言) is its lack of morphology, resulting in overwhelming simplicity. Here I describe Wenyan using a context-free grammar, removing semantics to reduce the rules of syntax to just three and the parts of speech to two (plus some particles). All eight combinations of two elements and three rules are well attested and meaningful, and many more complex analyses can be reduced to them. I also illustrate this analysis by comparing Wenyan to a functional programming language.
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This contribution investigates the syntactic conceptions of, and the diagramming system introduced by, the American grammarian Stephen Watkins Clark (1810-1901), who introduced the first comprehensive syntactic diagramming system. The structure of the English sentence is illustrated by agglutinated 'bubbles' expressing the relations between words by the means of their relative position. The sentence consists of two or three horizontally aligned bubbles containing words that are called principal elements. These principal elements can be complemented with adjunct elements, that appear in bubbles attached below them. For grammatical words the conventions differ depending on whether the grammatical word is a preposition or a conjunction. Coordination is never named as such, but there is an orthogonal abstract relation that connects elements performing the same role in a "compound" construction. The system allows recursivity in two different ways: by wrapping bubbles into other bubbles, thus following a mereological logic (i.e., part-whole relations) close to IC analysis or by hierarchically aggregating bubbles that resemble dependency trees. Clark's conceptions thus prefigure modern graphical formalizations.