Grammar of self-referring expressions

External distribution (syntactic binding), internal nominal morphosyntax, and interfaces

The distribution of reflexive pronouns in a language has a rich tradition of being explored in modern linguistic theory from the perspective of morphosyntax, semantics, and the syntax-semantics interface — especially for languages like English. This major branch of my research explores this well-studied domain with data from new perspectives: the syntax-prosody interface and the internal structure of English reflexive -self expressions. The aim of this research is to uncover new patterns that can inform the best way to model reflexive binding in a language like English.

A key conclusion reached throughout this domain of my (ongoing) research is that Binding Theory should not be conceptualized as confined to one linguistic module. Instead, what we call “binding” (the rules/constraints governing the distribution and form of reflexive pronouns) is instead the result of a variety of rules/constraints at different levels of the grammar (i.e., some syntactic components, plus some semantic components, plus some morphological components…): what I have (cheekily) called Distributed Binding Theory.

This has been informed by research that addresses the following questions:

  1. Which -self anaphors are unstressed/stressed/focused in English? (prosody)
  2. How do syntactic operations/representations influence anaphors’ prosody? (syntax-prosody interface)
  3. What is the internal composition of X+SELF anaphors in English? (morphosyntax)
  4. When can the phi-features of a X+SELF expression differ from those of the antecedent? (morphosyntax)
  5. What determines the acceptability of themself vs. themselves, with [sg] antecedents? (experimental sociosyntax)

These research questions are taken up in my own work, as well as collaborative work with Laura Kalin and Kirby Conrod.

In the future, this program aims to build a better understanding of the grammar of phi-matching in English (arguing against models that require Agree between antecedent of binding and anaphor) as well as of the syntactic components of binding (exploring how the internal functional structure of an anaphoric nominal may impact its clausal distribution).

some work in this project

  1. Conrod, Kirby, Ruth Schultz & Byron Ahn. In Press. How many selves for them? In NELS 52: Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society,
  2. Conrod, Kirby & Byron Ahn. 2023, January. Who accepts themself? Sociosyntactic variation in English -self reflexives. Talk presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the LSA. Denver, CO.
  3. Ahn, Byron & Kirby Conrod. 2022, March. Three ways to rate themself. Talk presented at 35th Annual Conference on Human Sentence Processing (formerly the ‘CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing’). University of California, Santa Cruz.
  4. Ahn, Byron. 2019, April. Anaphor Binding and Phi-(Mis)Matches in English. Talk presented at DISCO (Dependency in Syntactic Covariance): Phi-agreement, reference and case. Universiy of Leipzig.
  5. Ahn, Byron. 2019. Features, Identity, and ‘Yourself.’ In Maggie Baird & Jonathan Pesetsky (eds.), NELS 49: Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society, Vol. 1, 15–24.
  6. Ahn, Byron & Laura Kalin. 2018. What’s in a (English) Reflexive? In NELS 48: Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistics Society, Vol. 1, 1–13.
  7. Ahn, Byron. 2017, May. (In Search of) Universals in Reflexive Syntax. Talk presented at Cambridge Comparative Syntax 6.
  8. Ahn, Byron. 2016. Reflexes of Reflexivity: Locality and the Interfaces. Proceedings from the 50th Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.
  9. Ahn, Byron. 2015. Giving Reflexivity a Voice: Twin Reflexives in English. UCLA dissertation.
  10. Ahn, Byron & Dominique Sportiche. 2014. Bind Locally Indeed. In Carson T. Schütze & Linnaea Stockall (eds.), Connectedness: Papers by and for Sarah VanWagenen, Vol. 18, 61–69.
  11. Ahn, Byron. 2014, April. Reflexes of Reflexivity: Locality and the Interfaces. Talk presented at CLS 50, University of Chicago.
  12. Ahn, Byron. 2013, July. Universality and Subject-Oriented Reflexivity. Talk presented at the ICL 19, Geneva, Switzerland.
  13. Ahn, Byron. 2012, January. The Prosody of Binding: Reflexive Voice and Default Sentential Stress. Talk presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the LSA, Portland, OR.
  14. Ahn, Byron. 2012. External Argument Focus and the Syntax of Reflexivity. Coyote Papers: Working Papers in Linguistics, Linguistic Theory at the University of Arizona 20.
  15. Ahn, Byron. 2010, September. Syntactic Configurations of Emphatic Reflexives. Talk presented at the workshop on Peculiar Binding Configurations, University of Stuttgart.
  16. Ahn, Byron. 2010. Not Just Emphatic Reflexives Themselves: Their Prosody, Semantics and Syntax. UCLA dissertation.