Plenary Speakers 2007

Kai von Fintel | Jonathan D. Bobaljik | Claire Lefebvre | Katherine Demuth | Thomas D. Cravens

Kai von Fintel
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Thursday, March 8, 5:00-6:15 pm – Bunn Intercultural Center (ICC) Auditorium

‘If’: The biggest little word

The concept of conditionality is in many ways central to human thought and action. It is no wonder then that debates about the meaning of conditional sentences have raged for millenia: “Even the crows on the roofs caw about the nature of conditionals,” said Callimachus, Librarian of Alexandria, in 300 BC. And we still haven’t figured out what that little word “if” really means.

In this talk, I will present two strands of thinking about conditionals that have been dominant in the past 30 years or so in natural language semantics and philosophy of language respectively. Semanticists by and large have adopted the idea due to David Lewis and Angelika Kratzer that the “if” in conditionals has no meaning by itself but simply marks that the antecedent restricts an explicit or implicit operator over cases/situations/possibilities. Philosophers, in astonishing numbers, have come to believe that conditionals have no truth-conditional meaning at all but rather express a high conditional probability (the way that “ouch” expresses pain).

I will show how to respond within the Lewis/Kratzer analysis to the main arguments from the no-truth-conditions proponents. But there will remain some recalcitrant facts that are mysterious under either analysis. I will show how a variant of the Lewis/Kratzer analysis, due to Nuel Belnap among others, can be used to explain those facts.

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Jonathan D. Bobaljik
University of Connecticut

Friday, March 9, 9:00-10:00 am – Bunn Intercultural Center (ICC) Auditorium

Comparative suppletion: ‘Least’ has more

In this paper, I introduce and discuss two cross-linguistic generalizations regarding root suppletion in the comparative degree of adjectives (good-better, bad-worse). These generalizations, I contend, have a variety of consequences for morphology, semantics and perhaps syntax, particularly in the areas of lexical decomposition (at whatever level this obtains) and the formal treatment of suppletion vs. irregularity.

The data is drawn from a comprehensive study (in progress) of suppletion in adjectival comparatives within and beyond Indo-European. Although comparative suppletion is rare (though attested) outside of Indo-European, and although the data sample is small within any one language, the generalizations over the total data set are surprisingly robust.

The Comparative-Superlative Generalization:

If the comparative degree of an adjective is built on a suppletive root, then the superlative will also be suppletive. The superlative may use the same root as the comparative, or may be further suppletive, but will not use the basic adjectival root. Thus the schema in (1), where A, B, C refer to phonologically unrelated roots.

A – A – A completely regular: short, short-er, short-est
A – B – B suppletive: bad, worse, worst
A – B – C doubly suppletive: Latin ‘good’: bonus – melior – optimus
A – B – A *unattested* * bad – worse – baddest

I argue that this generalization favours analyses in which the superlative is not merely related to the comparative (e.g., both involve degree operators), but is rather derived from the comparative: thus a ‘little’ word like ‘least’ must have the complex structure [[[LITTLE]-MORE]-EST].

The Comparative-Change-of-State Generalization:

If the comparative degree of an adjective is built on a suppletive root, then a derived change-of-state verb (inchoative or causative) will also be suppletive. The verb may use the same root as the comparative (bad – worse – worsen; bonus – melior – meliorare), or may be further suppletive, but will not use the basic adjectival root.

By parity of reasoning to the first section, I must conclude (contra Dowty and others) that change-of-state verbs are (always) derived from the comparative, and never from the simple adjective. I will defend this view against a variety of possible objections and apparent counter-examples.

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Claire Lefebvre
Université du Québec à Montréal

Friday, March 9, 6:30-7:30 pm – Bunn Intercultural Center (ICC) Auditorium

Saramaccan taa , a small word with several functions

Saramaccan is a creole spoken in Surinam and in French Guyana. Its lexifier or superstrate languages are English (50%) and Portuguese (35%). Its substrate languages are mainly Gbe and Twi, which are Kwa languages, and Kikongo, which is Bantu. Taa is a small Saramaccan word that can be looked at from several dimensions. First I look at its functions. It is shown that it has several functions : it may be used as a verb, a complementiser, a quotative marker, and as a marker conveying similarity or manner. Taa is thus a multifunctional lexical item. Second, I look at the source of its properties. It is shown that while the phonological representation of taa is derived from an English label, its other properties parallel in a remarkable way those of the semantically closest substrate languages lexical entries. Third, I discuss current accounts of the genesis of the properties of taa showing that grammaticalisation cannot be the process that has led to the properties of this small word. I provide an account of its properties within the framework of creole genesis that I developed over the years. Finally I discuss the relevance of the data for competing approaches to multifunctionality.

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Katherine Demuth
Brown University

Saturday, March 9, 9:00-10:00 am – Bunn Intercultural Center (ICC) Auditorium

Phonology-syntax interactions in acquisition

Researchers have long recognized that children’s production of grammatical morphology is variable, being acquired gradually over time. Current theories of morpho-syntactic development suggest that this variability is due to incomplete syntactic or semantic representations. In contrast, some of our recent research suggests that children’s production of certain grammatical morphemes is systematic and predictable given constraints on developing phonological/prosodic representations. We call this the Prosodic Licensing Hypothesis. First, we show that this hypothesis correctly accounts for the acquisition of determiners in three prosodically very different languages (Sesotho, French, English), where determiners are more likely to be produced as part of a disyllabic foot. Second, we show that Prosodic Licensing can also account for some of the variability in the acquisition of English inflectional (tense) morphology, where 3rd-person singular – s is more likely to be produced in phonotactically simple rather than complex syllables. Both results suggest that young language learners may have greater morph-syntactic knowledge than typically assumed. The implications for a developmental model of language production are discussed.

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Thomas D. Cravens
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Saturday, March 9, 6:30-7:30 pm – Bunn Intercultural Center (ICC) Auditorium

Little words: Where they come from and where they go

It is a banal truism that any living language is by definition in a constant state of flux, and that at any abstracted point in time, speakers are dealing with what was, what is, and what is becoming. The wide range of phenomena orbiting within the universe of grammaticalization studies can offer revealing views of how speakers deal with that flux. McMahon (1994:161) observes quite rightly that “[g]rammaticalisation is the cross-componential change par excellence, involving as it does developments in the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics […]”, and the locus of studies of grammaticalization is, or all but inevitably ends up being, “little words”. Tracing and understanding the interactions and constraints of multiple components in the origin of little words (from bigger words) and their further development from little words to morphology to what Lass once called junk provides a window par excellence on what leads the way and what follows in change, and on speakers’ strategies for resolving the consequences. With examples drawn mostly from the Romance area of Europe, this talk examines evolutionary processes of little words – whence and whither – with an eye to identifying orderly principles of linguistic and conceptual organization at work in their evolution.

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