Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on May 16, 2007

A piece of terminology that shows up in a lot of syntax literature is head movement. It’s actually a pretty straightforward term, assuming you know what head means and what movement means. Head refers to the word in a phrase that determines what kind of phrase it is: the noun in a noun phrase, the verb in a verb phrase, the preposition in a prepositional phrase, etc. Movement refers to the process by which, for example, what appears at the beginning of a sentence like What do you want? instead of after the want, in the normal direct-object position for English. In some syntactic theories, the idea is that the what actually does start out there, but that at some point before the speaker actually utters the question, the what gets moved to its position at the front. Of course, there’s still the question of whether head movement refers to movement OF a head or TO a head, but I don’t want to talk about that. The main thing is, syntacticians talk about this abstract kind of movement of parts of a phrase.

I was interested to learn at that conference last week that linguists in other subfields talk about head movement, too. One of the speakers (Chizuko Sengoku by name) was talking about backchanneling, a term that was new to me, but which I learned refers to the yeahs, uh-huhs, and other signals that hearers use to show they’re still paying attention to a speaker. Soon after she began talking about backchanneling, Sengoku started mentioning head movement. At first, I couldn’t quite figure out how head movement figured into the whole presentation, but pretty soon it became clear: In this context, head movement refers to…

… the nodding or shaking of one’s head to indicate agreement.

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