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Review of  Unaccusativity at the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface

Reviewer: † Sebastian Shaumyan
Book Title: Unaccusativity at the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface
Book Author: Malka Rappaport Hovav Beth Levin
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 6.1760

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Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav. Unaccusativity: At the
Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph
Twenty-Six. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England: The MIT Press,
1995. Pp. XIII + 336. ISBN 0-262-12185-9.

Reviewed by Sebastian Shaumyan (Yale University)
[email protected]

The Unaccusative Hypothesis, first formulated by Perlmutter
within the framework of Relational Grammar (RG) and later adopted by
Burzio (1986) within the Government-Binding (GB) framework (Chomsky
1981), has been advanced to explain the puzzling syntactic behavior of
intransitive predicates: it has been observed cross-linguistically
that some intransitive predicates can never be passivized, while other
intransitive predicates can. Under the Unaccusativity Hypothesis, these
two observable classes of intransitive predicates represent two
hypothetical classes of intransitive verbs: the unaccusative verbs
and the unergative verbs, associated with different underlying
syntactic configurations (an initial-stratum entity of RG or a deep
structure entity of GB). In their underlying syntactic configurations,
an unergative verb takes a subject but no object whereas an
unaccusative verb takes an object but no subject. The Unaccusativity
Hypothesis was introduced by Perlmutter in the context of the
Universal Alignment Hypothesis, which suggests that the syntactic
expression of arguments is always determinable on the basis of the
meaning of the verb.

It is interesting to note that the puzzling behavior of
intransitive verbs was not perceived by linguists as a serious problem
before the Unaccusativity Hypothesis was advanced. Only after this it
became clear that the puzzling behavior of intransitive verbs is
one of the most intriguing and fundamental facts of syntactic
typology. The Unaccusativity Hypothesis has given impetus to an active
research to test this hypothesis and its consequences. Actually, the
split intransitivity, as I call this phenomenon, is a challenge for any
linguistic theory. This is why there is already a large body of
research produced by linguists that work not only in RG but in other
linguistic theories as well. Since the Unaccusativity Hypothesis was
introduced, a wide range of phenomena in various languages have been
studied that concern a distinction between unaccusative and unergative
verbs. The book under review is an important contribution towards the
common goal that is being pursued presently by linguists espousing different
theoretical views--the goal of explaining the split

Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav address a fundamental
problem that concerns the Unaccusative Hypothesis and is implied by
the Universal Alignment Hypothesis: Is the syntactic distinction
between the two classes of verbs--unaccusative and
unergative--determined semantically? The tentative positive answer to
this question has been suggested by the Universal Alignment
Hypothesis. But it has been discovered that the relation between the
syntactic behavior of verbs and their meaning is more complicated
than it has been initially supposed. In reality, there exist
phenomena (so-called unaccusative mismatches) that suggest that the
classification of verbs as unaccusative or unergative cannot be
completely determined semantically. In essence, this book is an
attempt to meet the challenges that the mismatches present to the
original Perlmutter's hypothesis that unaccusativity is both
syntactically encoded and semantically predictable.

The authors examine alternative approaches to the
unaccusativity problem--the syntactic approach (represented by C.Rosen)
and the semantic approach (represented by Van Valin). Rosen denies that
the unaccusativity is semantically predictable, while Van Valin claims
that the two classes of verbs can be differentiated on semantic
grounds alone and that therefore there is no need to attribute to these
different classes of verbs different syntactic representations.

To support their central thesis that unaccusativity is both
syntactically encoded and semantically predictable, the authors, in
chapter 2 of the book, provide an extensive study of the unaccusative
diagnostic, the English resultative construction, which is meant to
give evidence for the syntactic encoding of unaccusativity. In
chapters 3 and 4, the authors look closely at the
lexical-semantics--syntax interface as it pertains to unaccusativity
to provide evidence for semantic factors that determine the
unaccusativity. In chapter 4, a set of linking rules is presented
that classify the various semantic classes, examined by the authors,
into unaccusative and unergative.

Building on the results of chapter 4, the authors turn in
chapter 5 to the variable behavior of verbs, which presents a problem
for the semantic determination of unaccusativity. There is a
set of verbs that show characteristics of both unaccusative and
unergative verbs. The authors propose to solve this problem by stating
that in most instances such verbs have two distinct meanings, one
associated with an unaccusative analysis and the other with an
unergative analysis and with the corresponding two distinct kinds of
the syntactic behavior.

In chapter 6, the authors turn to locative inversion. Some
linguists, Bresnan and Kanerva, Hoekstra and Mulder, among others,
claim that locative inversion is a valid unaccusative diagnostic. But
the authors present arguments against this claim.

The book has two appendices: 1) a list of major classes of
intransitive verbs discussed in the book; 2) verbs found in the
locative inversion constructions.

Limitations of space preclude me from a detailed discussion of
the book, rich in facts and ideas. I will only discuss very briefly
some points which, I think, have a great methodological interest and

First, the authors have presented forceful arguments to
substantiate their thesis that unaccusativity is semantically
determined and syntactically encoded. Although this thesis is not new
(it is implied by the Universal Alignment Hypothesis of Perlmutter),
it was extremely difficult to test this thesis in detail by an
analysis of conflicting properties of concrete words. The authors must
be credited with having undertaken very complex
research in the course of which they have unearthed many important
facts leading to new insights. This work has methodological
significance. We must consider a wider hypothesis variously formulated
by many linguists that syntactic relations map semantic relations. A
broad linguistic research testing this general hypothesis is very
important. It seems that this hypothesis has its limits. Not every
syntactic construction is determined semantically from a synchronic
point of view. For example, why the Russian verb which stands for
"thank" governs the accusative case but the German verb with the same
meaning governs the dative case? By studying the history of these
languages we may find the different semantic motivations for these
different syntactic constructions, but today these constructions are
not determined semantically; they are purely conventional. Similarly,
it is highly improbable that every instance of unaccusativity is
determined semantically. Some instances may be purely conventional,
although they were determined semantically in the past. As a general
principle we may state that syntactic constructions are determined
partly by the lexical meaning of words and partly by convention. This,
of course, does not undermine the significance of what the authors
have done. On the contrary, it is very important that building upon the
hypothesis that syntactic encoding is determined semantically the
authors have pushed this hypothesis to the limit. What remains to be
done is to find out whether certain instances of unaccusativity are
motivated by syntactic convention rather than by the meaning of the
intransitive verbs.

A few words about the syntactic approach to the split
intransitivity. Relational Grammar is an important linguistic
theory. This theory has generated a considerable body of research
which demonstrates that to develop a rich, flexible, homogeneous,
fruitful theory of syntax as the system of grammatical relations, we
must strictly distinguish between syntax and the lexicon, we must
not confound syntax as the system of grammatical relations with the
lexicon by smuggling lexical concepts such as thematic role
descriptions into syntactic theory. I can understand the
intransigence of Rosen who in defense of the homogeneous theory of
syntax has overstated her case. An error stated clearly is better
than a half truth. A clear statement, although erroneous, may be
rectified; it leads us to the discovery of the truth. A half truth
generates confusion and leads nowhere. Building upon a clear
distinction between the domains of syntax and the lexicon, we can
turn to the syntax-lexicon interface, which is a separate, a distinct
domain of research. This is what the authors of the book have done.
If the syntactic approach to the split intransitivity means the
denial of the concept of the syntax-lexicon interface or the
importance of its study, then it it is wrong; but if it means only
that analyzing the problem within the framework of syntactic
theory we must build on homogeneous syntactic concepts, then it is
correct and has a fundamental importance.

Let me turn to another point. On page 120 of the book, the
authors, following the studies of Lyons, claim that verbs of existence
are dyadic. The argumentation in support of this claim is convincing.
This is a correct claim. But if we recognize this claim we cannot
consider verbs of existence to be unaccusative verbs because unaccusative
verbs are
monadic by definition. To solve this difficulty, the authors propose
that verbs of existence take two internal arguments rather than one
external and one internal. In chapter 4, they present detailed
arguments in support of their proposal.

Granted that we agree with the authors' proposal
that verbs of existence have two internal arguments, this does not
solve our difficulties, because unaccusative verbs are intransitive
verbs, and intransitive verbs are monadic as recognized by RG. Unless we
arbitrarily stretch the concept of intransitive verbs, we cannot consider
intransitive verbs to be dyadic.

Let us distinguish clearly between empirical facts and
hypotheses advanced to explain them. The fact, I call the split
intransitivity, which needs an explanation is this: It has been
observed cross-linguistically that some intransitive predicates can
never be passivized, while other intransitive predicates can. The
Unaccusative Hypothesis has been advanced to explain this fact. How
does this hypothesis do this? By postulating two underlying classes of
intransitive verbs: unergative and unaccusative. In their underlying
syntactic configurations, an unergative verb takes a subject but no
object whereas an unaccusative verb takes an object but no subject. In
accepting the Unaccusative Hypothesis, we face a serious difficulty. The
trouble is that direct object is, as recognized by many linguists, a
syntactically marked term, while subject is a syntactically unmarked
term. This means that in a sentence, object cannot occur without
subject, while subject can occur without object. From all this it
follows that, unless we stretch concepts arbitrarily or misinterpret
empirical facts, we must recognize that objects can be combined only with
transitive verbs, while subjects can occur both with intransitive and
intransitive verbs.

If we agree with the authors that verbs of existence are
dyadic and if we do not stretch the concept of intransitive verbs
arbitrarily, we must recognize that the correct interpretation of
verbs of existence as dyadic provides a strong empirical
argument against the concept of unaccusative verbs rather than in
support of it.

The above difficulties present a serious challenge to the
Unaccusative Hypothesis. In view of difficulties of this kind and, in
the first place, in view of the fundamental conceptual difficulties,
discussed in my book A SEMIOTIC THEORY OF LANGUAGE, it is natural to
look for alternative, more plausible hypotheses. In my book, a
hypothesis, called the Syntactic Neutralization Hypothesis, is
proposed. Under this hypothesis, subject is a syntactically unmarked
term of the opposition SUBJECT:OBJECT, while object is a
syntactically marked term. The syntactic context does not affect the
function of object, but it affects subject. Object remains object
in any syntactic context, but subject changes its function depending
on the syntactic context. Thus, in the context of active
constructions subject is subject proper but in the context of
passive constructions subject has the meaning of object. The
behavior of the members of the syntactic opposition SUBJECT:OBJECT
has counterparts in phonology and the lexicon. Consider the
opposition of consonants VOICELESS:VOICED in Russian where voiceless
consonants are unmarked and voiced consonants are marked members of
this opposition. At the end of a word only a voiceless consonant can
occur, but it can function either as voiceless proper or as a
replacement of a voiced consonant. Similarly, in the lexicon.
Consider the opposition LION:LIONESS, where LION is the unmarked
term of this opposition, and LIONESS is the marked term. As an
unmarked term, LION is ambiguous, it may mean a male or a female,
but LIONESS always means only female. Compare "I see a lion and a
lioness" with "I see a lion". In the second sentence outside of the
opposition with LIONESS, LION is ambiguous, it may refer either to a
male or female.

The Syntactic Neutralization Hypothesis means that the
intransitive verbs can combine only with subjects which as unmarked
terms of the opposition SUBJECT:OBJECT have a generic function, that
is, depending on the context, a subject may function as subject proper
or as object. Hence dual syntactic behavior of intransitive verbs: an
intransitive predicate may be passivized when its subject functions
as object, and it cannot be passivized when its subject does not
function as object. The important thing to note is that the subject of
an intransitive construction remains a subject no matter whether it
functions as subject proper or as object. To explain the split
intransitivity or any linguistic phenomenon for that matter,
theoretical linguistics does not need to resort to obsolete concepts
such as deep structure or its counterparts.

Limitations of space do not allow further discussion of the rich
facts and ideas presented in this book. To conclude, I must say that
the book has a methodological significance, in the first place. The
authors examined both a syntactic and a semantic approach to the
problem of the split intransitivity in the domain of the
syntax-lexicon interface. They presented convincing
arguments against these approaches, showing their inadequacy. The
authors advocate the inseparability of syntactic and semantic
analysis in the study of the syntax-lexicon interface. They
succeeded in demonstrating the validity of this approach. The book
gives a lot and deserves a careful study.

Sebastian Shaumyan
Professor of Linguistics Emeritus
Yale University