Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Randall, Janet H. TITLE: Linking SUBTITLE: The Geometry of Argument Structure SERIES TITLE: Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 74 PUBLISHER: Springer YEAR: 2010
Eva Wittenberg, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University
Theories about argument structure have a central goal: To find a key that correctly predicts which semantic participants map onto which syntactic positions, for any given verb. The problem with this undertaking is that there is a large number of semantic participant classes, commonly referred to as ''semantic roles''. In syntax, however, the range of available argument positions these roles compete for is quite limited. Consequently, the subject position can be taken by an Agent (''He jumps''), by an Experiencer (''He enjoys the food''), by a Theme (''It floats''), and so on. The question is: Which semantic participants can go where, and under which circumstances?
Researchers have tackled this puzzle in various ways. One way is to allow for a variety of distributions, regulated by a hierarchy of semantic roles (Jackendoff 1992), resulting in something like ''if there is an Agent, put it into Subject position; if there is not, take an Experiencer'', and so on down the queue. Another way is to severely restrict the number of semantic roles (Dowty 1991). A third approach posits ''hidden levels'' within a syntactic tree that accommodate all possible semantic roles (Hale & Keyser 1993, 2002; Chomsky 1995, Kratzer 1996). The latter theories are often called ''structure-preserving'' (Levin & Rappaport Hovav 2005), since there is a perfect one-to-one mapping: each node in a tree expresses exactly one kind of semantic role. The meaning, the argument goes, can be read off the tree directly, resulting in something like ''the Specifier of little v is an Agent''. In these theories, the key to Argument Structure is put into hidden syntactic layers (see Horvath & Siloni 2002, Culicover & Jackendoff 2005 for discussion).
This new book is addressed to researchers and graduate students who are also looking for the key to Argument Structure. It is grounded in a Government and Binding theory of syntax, but it also incorporates early work in predicate decomposition (Jackendoff 1972). Basically, Randall advocates structure preservation similar to Hale & Keyser (1993, 2002), but with different means. In her approach, there are no hidden levels of syntax. Instead, the syntax of a sentence is a product of a hierarchy within Conceptual Structure. So the key lies within the semantic level of grammar.
What follows is a short outline of the theoretical model. Due to space restrictions, not all verb classes Randall deals with can be elaborated on; but the reader may rest assured that the book, as one reviewer put it, takes on a whole minefield of them.
Randall decomposes Conceptual Structure (CS) by using only the primitives CAUSE, BE, and BECOME, plus a few locative prepositions (and later VIA, for manner-of-motion verbs). In that, she adopts a strict ''localist'' position, stating that every verb can be stated in terms of motion or location (Jackendoff 1983, see Levin & Rappaport Hovav 2005 for discussion). States, in Randall's words, are also ''nothing more than abstract PLACEs'' (p. 30). The CS for ''The sun made the ice cream into a liquid'' would look something like (1):
(1) [CAUSE ([sun], [BECOME ([ice cream], AT [liquid])])]
This structure can be written like a syntactic tree, and the semantic roles in the predicate can be read off of it: the first argument of CAUSE is always an Agent; the first argument of BE or BECOME is always the theme; and so on (p. 31). Note that in most theories, (1) would already violate this generalization because ''sun'' is not volitional or animate. At least one of these notions is usually seen as a requirement for agency (Dowty 1991). Randall, however, does not discuss the precise nature of semantic roles. Also not accounted for are psych verbs like ''fear'' and ''love''; Randall does not address these verbs, but she states that the lack of a convincing analysis of psych verbs is due to the lack of a good CS representation, not due to flaws in the theory.
Still, the general idea is that the CS tree predicts the syntactic tree, because their geometry is the same. Any structure in CS will surface in the syntax; so, the theory is strictly structure-preserving without positing hidden levels in the syntax. Few steps are needed in order for this to work.
First, between CS and syntax (''Deep Structure''), there is an Argument Structure (AS) interface level which filters the CS arguments and determines which elements are visible to syntax, similarly to Wiese's (2004) semantic interface level. The filtering process abides by three rules. First, it strictly follows a modified version of the Theta Criterion (Chomsky 1981): For every predicate, each semantic argument licenses one syntactic argument, which in turn can only satisfy one semantic role. The Theta Criterion is enforced by the Bound Argument Condition, which states that if there is competition between two bound CS arguments, only the higher one is allowed to link to an AS position.
The meanings of individual lexical items in a sentence are combined in a process called ''Argument Fusion'', where the conceptual structures of arguments fuse with the conceptual structures of their heads, until the meaning of the whole hierarchy is complete. It is also through Argument Fusion that selectional restrictions are obeyed, since only CS constituents that are compatible with each other can be fused. Fusion cannot apply more than once to a CS constituent, as stated in the Prohibition Against Double Fusion (PADF) constraint.
This machinery is best illustrated with the example of Resultatives, which are extensively discussed in Chapter 5. Resultatives are the product of two CSs. A base predicate, like ''to water'', is subordinated under a CAUSE predicate as its first argument. The second argument of this new predicate is the result. The CS of a sentence like ''The gardener waters the tulips flat'' then looks like (2):
(2) CAUSE (CAUSE (the gardener, BECOME(water, PLACE(on, the tulips)), BECOME(the tulips, flat))
Argument Fusion links the meaning of each lexical item to its head. The Theta Criterion is satisfied, since for every predicate, there is exactly one semantic role. How is *''The gardener waters the tulips the tulips flat'' prevented? The Bound Argument Condition kicks in, allowing only the higher instance of ''the tulips'' to be expressed (in this case, it is the first instance).
There are two possible problems with this solution. One could choose a different but equally plausible event representation, like ''The gardener causes the tulips to go flat by watering them'', illustrated in (3):
(3) CAUSE(the gardener, BECOME(the tulips, AT(flat))), VIA(CAUSE(gardener, BECOME (water, ON (the tulips))
The argument fusion mechanism could not apply anymore, since ''by watering the tulips'' would be an adjunct sister of the outermost CAUSE.
Also, there is a conceivable CS structure like (4) (discussed in chapter 6.1):
(4) CAUSE(CAUSE(the gardener, BECOME(water, PLACE(on, the tulips)), BECOME(her sneakers, soggy)).
The structure would translate into ''*The gardener watered the tulips her sneakers soggy''. Since there are only three syntactic argument slots in each sentence available, the parser would not link ''the sneakers'' in AS; but there does not seem to be a mechanism that prevents ''The gardener waters the tulips soggy'', which is not what is intended in CS. This problem is addressed in Chapter 5.4. The suggested solution is that the result adjective is itself a result clause, whose theme can only fuse with the theme of the superordinate result clause. However, the logic (or perhaps only the exposition) of this argument is somewhat opaque.
Let us review the problem of Argument Structure theories and evaluate this book. Can Randall accomplish the task of predicting the mapping from semantics to syntax for any kind of verb better than other theories? Mostly.
Searching for the key to Argument Structure in the semantics of a verb promises far more success than positing invisible layers in the syntax for which there is no evidence on independent grounds. However, by adhering to many traditions of Generative Grammar without revising them, Randall robs her theory of many possibilities. One of them is the Theta Criterion, which is treated as an axiom, and not as merely a default case. This leads to positing invisible levels or elements in CS trees, which is just like positing invisible levels in the syntax: Not justifiable on independent grounds.
Another syntactic heirloom is the external/internal argument distinction, which Randall translates into CS. This complicates matters unnecessarily. A description in terms of semantic qualities would have sufficed (many phenomena that are ascribed to unaccusativity could be easily solved in terms of agency, telicity, or animacy). One cannot help but have the impression that in order to satisfy the syntactic rules, many grammaticality judgments are based on the theoretician's introspection, and are not entirely convincing: most native English speakers tend to find ''the watering of tulips flat'', ''the rolling of boulders smooth'', or ''The twisting of ropes taut'' equally bad or even worse than the presumably ungrammatical *''the running of shoes threadbare''. Other grammaticality judgments are proven questionable by quick Google searches (most of the examples marked as ungrammatical on p. 76 yield more than half a million hits; *''beachgoer'' even has an entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary). Since these data are a cornerstone of the unaccusative verbs' analysis, it might have been better to obtain quantifiable speakers' judgments instead of relying on introspection.
Despite this criticism: Randall's theory succeeds in being strictly structure-preserving, which has been a desideratum in many approaches for years. She also succeeds in keeping the inventory of semantic primitives small. And most importantly, she offers profound analyses and insights into an incredible variety of verb classes, which researchers from all theoretical backgrounds will enjoy.
Chomsky, N. (1995) The Minimalist Program, MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1981/1993). Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Mouton de Gruyter.
Culicover, P. & R. Jackendoff (2005) Simpler Syntax, Oxford.
Dowty, D. (1991) Thematic Proto-Roles and Argument Selection, Language 67, 547-619.
Hale, K. & J. Keyser (1993) On argument structure and the lexical expression of syntactic relations. In: Hale, Kenneth & Jay Keyser (eds.) The view from building 20. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Hale, K. & J. Keyser (2002) Prolegomenon to a theory of argument structure. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Horvath, J. & T. Siloni (2002) Against the Little-v Hypothesis, Rivista di Grammatica Generativa 2002, 27, 107-122.
Jackendoff, R. (1992) Mme. Tussaud Meets the Binding Theory, Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 10, 1-31.
Jackendoff, R. (1983) Semantics and Cognition. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Jackendoff, R. (1972) Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Kratzer, A. (1996) ''Severing the External Argument from its Verb'', in Johan Rooryck and Laurie Zaring (eds.) Phrase Structure and the Lexicon, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 109-137.
Levin, B. & M. Rappaport Hovav (2005) Argument Realization, Research Surveys in Linguistics 3, Cambridge University Press.
Wiese, H. (2004) Semantics as a gateway to language, in: Härtl, Holden, & Tappe, Heike (eds.), Mediating between Concepts and Grammar. New York: de Gruyter, 197-222.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Eva Wittenberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Cognitive Studies at
Tufts University, and at the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at
Harvard University. Her research interests include the syntax-semantics
interface, specifically Argument Structure questions, and psycholinguistic
methods. She is currently preparing a dissertation on Argument Structure
mismatches under the supervision of Heike Wiese at Potsdam University, Germany.