Thursday 9 Dec – Michael Diercks

Speaker: Michael Diercks (Pomona College)
Title: Building Bridges: Developmental Minimalist Syntax
Date: Thursday 9 December
Venue: Online (get the Zoom-link through the Mailing List)
Time: 16.15 – 17.30 hrs

Abstract
By many measures, the generative grammar project in its current iteration (the Minimalist Program) has been highly successful as a framework motivating and organizing syntax research on the world’s languages. Nonetheless, contemporary generative grammar remains relatively intellectually isolated, with a relatively minor impact on the cognitive sciences more generally. While there are likely many reasons for this, among the major ones is that there has not been much success linking particular components of the Minimalist syntactic framework to particular cognitive properties outside of the grammaticality judgments it is based on. In particular: why does a Minimalist derivation of a sentence build structures bottom-up when language is neither produced nor perceived in that way? Is a Minimalist derivation nothing more than an extended metaphor?

This talk sketches a framework that has the potential to be a bridge out of our isolation. Building on a long history of similar ideas, Developmental Minimalist Syntax (DMS) proposes that the reason that bottom-up derivations model adult syntax so well is that adult grammars (in part) encode the developmental pathways by a child acquires grammatical knowledge. Specifically, DMS claims that so-called ”Universal Grammar” (UG) is in fact a precise description of cognitive biases about the configuration that we mentally represent grammatical knowledge in when we acquire it. That is to say, Merge does not only build adult grammatical structures; the reason it does so is because it describes the format that occurs when children successfully arrive at a grammatical generalization in acquisition. DMS claims that the Minimalist derivation of a sentence recapitulates the child’s developmental pathways precisely because adult grammatical knowledge retains those earlier stages of knowledge. DMS therefore predicts fairly tight correspondences between timelines of acquisition and sequences of derivational steps in a Minimalist analysis.

Ideas along these lines have persisted in the field for a long time (e.g. Radford 1990, Rizzi 1994). Part of the the novel contribution of DMS is that it suggests that acquisition does not correspond specifically to structural height in adult grammar, but to sequences of the Minimalist derivation. Because structures are canonically built bottom-up, this generally does correspond to structural height. But it also opens the door to instances where acquisition is out of sync with structurally height: what this predicts is that it should correspond to an ”out-of-sync” Minimalist derivation. We suggest that such patterns do in fact occur in adult grammars: they are the counter-cyclic phenomena that the field has long considered a thorn in its side. Look-ahead effects are where something happens in a derivation before it ”should” (according to a strict bottom-up cycle): we suggest this corresponds to ”early” acquisition of a piece of grammar by children. Likewise, Late Merger inserts material into the structure after it ”should:” we suggest this corresponds to a child acquiring a piece of grammar after its surrounding structures.

Acquisition data suggest that this is plausible, though our own novel empirical work is in a fledgling state. The reason we continue to pursue the idea, though, is that it has the potential to connect the large, abstract structures (and complex derivational sequences) of Minimalist analyses with a large data set (child language) that is distinct from the grammaticality judgment data that Minimalist analyses are built on. If this idea were to hold up, it would begin to construct a bridge both for syntacticians to make direct predictions about acquisition, but also for acquisitionists to make direct claims about adult syntax. A lot of work is necessary before we get to that point, though. This talk sketches a framework based on what we know so far.

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Thursday 11 Nov – Halima Husić

Speaker: Halima Husić (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
Title: Individuation and Countability of Event Nominals
Date: Thursday 11 November
Venue: Lipsius 207
Time: 16.15 – 17.30 hrs
Abstract: Derived nominals which carry an eventive meaning have been thoroughly discussed in syntax and semantics with respect to a variety of phenomena including verbal/nominal properties, argument structure, aspectual properties, or polysemy. Considering nominal properties, such as pluralization, the issue shifts to the count/mass distinction and the need to determine whether such event nominals are count or mass. In this regard, several theories have been put forward arguing that aspectual properties or the argument structure drive the countability of such nominals. Thorough corpora studies have shown, however, that the issue is not as clear-cut as assumed. On the contrary, event nominals are subject to great variation. In my thesis I investigated 200 de-predicated nouns in COCA and identified generalizations regarding the distinctive features that drive countability in event nominals and meaning shifts which result in a change of countability as well. In this presentation we will look into different ways of individuating event nominals and how these cases differ from ordinary counting constructions. We will show that the distinction between individuation and countability is essential in understanding how the count/mass distinction is manifested in eventive nominals.

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Friday 5 Nov – Ur Shlonsky

This Friday there will be an extra in-person ComSyn Talk by Ur Shlonsky (University of Geneva):

Speaker: Ur Shlonsky (University of Geneva)
Title: Focus preposing and its role in Bantu inversion, inverted copular sentences and contrastive ellipsis
Date: Friday 5 November, 11:15-12:45 (note different timeslot)
Venue: Lipsius 208 (note different room)
Abstract:
The existence of a dedicated VP-peripheral FocusP in UG remains moot outside cartographic circles. I bring syntactic evidence to bear in its favor and illustrate the role of movement to a low focus position in the computations that underlie Bantu inversion, inverted copular sentences and contrastive ellipsis.

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Thursday 28 Oct – Marjo van Koppen

Speaker: Marjo van Koppen (Utrecht University/UiL-OTS and Meertens Institute)
Title: Negation in the work of De Ruyter and Hooft:
Negation in 17th century Dutch intra-speaker variation
Date: Thursday 28 October
Venue: Lipsius 207
Time: 16.15 – 17.30 hrs

Abstract:
The language of the 17th century is best described as transition with a mixture of fading linguistic properties from the preceding language phase, Middle Dutch, and new ways to construct words and sentences. Within these language dynamics we observe variation within individual language users (intra-author variation). This becomes especially clear in the way 17th century authors use negation: they express negation in the Middle Dutch way (i.e. embracing negation, a combination of the negative clitic en and a negative particle niet) as well as in the modern Dutch way (single negation: niet) (Jespersen 1917; Wouden 2007). Earlier research into negation mainly focused on diachronic changes (Zeijlstra 2004, Kemenade 2000), on describing its variation at the various language stages (Horst 2008) or on the variation between social groups (Nobels 2013; Vosters & Vandenbussche 2012; Nobels & Rutten 2014). In our research project Language Dynamics in the Dutch Golden Age, we take a different viewpoint, and focus on variation within one and the same author in 17th-century Dutch to uncover which linguistic, literary and socio-cultural factors are interacting in this type of variation. In this presentation, we will discuss variation in negation in the ship journals of Michiel de Ruyter as well was in the letters written between 1600 and 1638, by the Dutch author and politician P.C. Hooft. Hooft and De Ruyter used both forms of negation (Paardekooper 2006:126). We show that De Ruyter uses two-part negation to negate a proposition which can be present on different levels of discourse (within the immediate textual discourse, the context of the journal or the context of the time and place De Ruyter lived in). We show that Hooft basically employs the same strategy to use two-part negation, but additionally applies them for literary motives. More precisely, Hooft uses embracing negation often as a style figure, to contrast prepositions at different levels of the discourse and at different levels of abstraction.

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Thursday 14 October – Matthew Tyler

Speaker: Matthew Tyler (University of Cambridge)
Title: Switch-reference and big PRO
Date: Thursday 14 October
Venue: Online talk (join mailing list for link / watch at Lipsius 207)
Time: 16.15 – 17.30 hrs

Abstract:
Switch-reference (SR) refers to the phenomenon where an embedded clause carries special morphology to indicate whether its subject is coreferential with, or disjoint from, the subject of a matrix clause. The correct analysis of SR has been hotly debated in recent decades. A central division has been whether SR morphology is purely realizational, in that it simply computes whether the two subjects are the referentially the same or different, and inserts the appropriate marker (Watanabe 2000, Arregi & Hanink 2021, Clem 2021, a.o.), or whether the same-subject marker has a different syntax and semantics from the different-subject marker (Finer 1985, Baker & Camargo Souza 2020, a.o.).

I this talk, I wade into this debate with some novel data from Choctaw (Muskogean), concerning the interaction of SR morphology and agreement. The generalization is thus: a same-subject SR marker allows subject agreement to be suppressed, either in the embedded clause or in the matrix clause. I argue that we should interpret this generalization in terms of PRO-licensing: the same-subject SR morpheme has the ability to license obligatory-controlled PRO, which does not trigger agreement, while its different-subject counterpart cannot license PRO. Thus, at least in some languages, same-subject and different-subject SR markers make different syntactic-semantic contributions. Finally, I situate my analysis of Choctaw SR markers within the theoretical landscape of switch-reference cross-linguistically.

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Thursday 30 September – James Baker

Speaker: James Baker (Leiden University)
Title: Parametric Comparison in the Clausal Domain
Date: Thursday 30 September
Venue: Lipsius 207
Time: 16.15 – 17.30 hrs (new start time!)

Abstract:
This talk is about the Parametric Comparison Method (PCM), which was initially developed by Giuseppe Longobardi and colleagues: see Guardiano & Longobardi (2017) for just one representative discussion. Specifically, it’s about the application of the PCM to a new domain. In general, the PCM brings together two distinct strands of recent scientific research: (i) computational methods originally developed in the context of evolutionary biology, and (ii) a Minimalist understanding of syntactic parameters. To describe the method in a nutshell, sets of parameter values for different languages form the input to computations which output best-fit family trees for these languages.

Work to date on the PCM has focused on parametric variation within the DP. This talk presents an extension of the same methodology to the clausal domain: vP, TP and to a limited extent CP. At the time of writing, we have data on 87 proposed parameters for 36 languages: 23 from (mostly western) Indo-European and the rest from a variety of other families. The results the PCM generates from this dataset produce family trees which closely correspond to the findings of the traditional comparative method. For example, they identify Romance and Germanic and established subgroupings within them, and many other groupings of this type.

Some deviations from the traditional family trees do occur, but in these cases plausible explanations for the observed results can generally be put forward by appealing to language contact. Going beyond this, it seems that the outputs of the methods may themselves provide a tool for independently identifying possible contact effects. Overall, it’s argued that our findings are strong support for the validity of the PCM as a method of establishing family trees.

This presentation is based on joint work with Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge), as part of the project Extending Parametric Comparison

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ComSyn Autumn/Winter 2021

As covid restrictions are slowly but steadily lifting, we’re delighted to announce that the new ComSyn season will feature a blend of online and in-person talks — the latter with drinks afterwards!

Talks will be on the same day as before, but in a new time slot: Thursdays, 16:15-17:30 Amsterdam/CE(S)T. The in-person talks will be held in Lipsius 207; please join our mailing list for links to the online talks.

The full program is as follows:

30 Sep — James Baker (LUCL) — In person
14 Oct — Matthew Tyler (Cambridge) — Online
28 Oct — Marjo van Koppen (UU) — TBD
11 Nov — Halima Husic (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) — In person [Combined talk with LUSH]
25 Nov — Matthijs Westera (LUCL) — In person
9 Dec — Mike Diercks (Pomona College) — Online

Should the covid situation deteriorate, we will have to be flexible and switch back to online. We will keep you posted about all changes to the program.

Looking forward to seeing you later this semester, and with best wishes,

Maarten & Lis (The ComSyn Organisers)

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Thursday 17 June — Zhaole Yang & Hang Cheng

Speaker: Zhaole Yang & Hang Cheng (Leiden University)
Title: On Mandarin propositional assertion sentences with shì and de
Date: Thursday 17 June
Venue: Skype (contact us to get access to the meeting)
Time: 15.15 – 16.30 hrs

Abstract:

In Mandarin, a number of different constructions surface with a copular like element shi or a sentence final de or both. They are easily confused with cleft constructions which also contain shi and de. The current study concentrates on one type of shi…de construction which has a propositional broad focus interpretation (often translated in English as “It is (indeed) the case/situation that…”). For instance:

(1) Nà-ge  dìfang    wǒ    shì    qù-guo     de.
dem-cl  place      1sg     be     go-exp     sfp
‘It is (indeed) the case that I have been to that place.’

(2) Zài-shì-nèi              shì     bìxū     dài        kǒuzhào      de.
at-room-inside       be      must    wear     mask            sfp
‘It is (indeed) the case that one must wear a mask in indoor spaces.’

(3) Wǒ    shì    chángcháng   qù       nàli      chīfàn         de.
1sg    be     often                go        there    eat.meal     sfp
‘It is (indeed) the case that I often have my meals there.’

(4) Zhāng Sān     shì   zhīdào    zhè-jiàn      shì          de.
Zhang San     be     know     dem-cl         thing      sfp
‘It is (indeed) the case that Zhang San knows this thing.’

In addition to the situation denoted by the predicate, these sentences also involve the speaker’s conviction about the proposition when shi and de appear. This study first defines the key syntactic and semantic properties of such propositional assertion sentences that can be distinguished from other constructions with shi and/or de. On the basis of these, shared features of all types of predicates that can be licensed in the scope of shì…de are examined. The licit predicates must be finite, stative, and declarative. Three selectional restrictions imposed by the propositional assertion sentences are accordingly put forth: [+finite], [+stative], and [-q]. We further argue that [+stative] is associated with de, [-q] is associated with shì, and [+finite] is related to both. In addition, the function of modals (e.g. (2)), aspects (e.g. (1)), and habitual elements (e.g. (3)) in relation to eventuality is discussed. We argue that they can serve as “type shifters”, turning eventives into statives.

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Thursday 3 June – Fabienne Martin

Speaker: Fabienne Martin (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Title: Requiem for a Theme
Date: Thursday 3 June
Venue: Skype (contact us to get access to the meeting)
Time: 15:15-16:30
 
Abstract:
Conjugation classes in Romance and beyond are typically seen as not contributing anything deterministic to the syntax or semantics; they are just a morphological necessity, often encoded by theme vowels. Contrary to this view, we explore the intuition that most French “Group 2” verbs have semantic characteristics, namely that they denote change of state. We provide a first experimental test of this hypothesis and outline a formal analysis. Our conclusion is that “Group 2” contains a productive verbalizing Cause morpheme /i(s)/ which speakers are able to generalize from. French has thus no conjugation classes as such, and only limited use of theme vowels. Rather, it has regular verbs (-er, “Gr. 1”), regular verbs with the /i(s)/ suffix (“Gr. 2”) and a small set of irregulars (“Gr. 3”).
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Thursday May 20 – Martina Wiltschko

Speaker: Martina Wiltschko (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)
Title: The grammar of knowing: A lesson from cross-linguistic patterns for markedness
Date: Thursday 20 May
Venue: Skype (contact us to get access to the meeting)
Time: 15.15 – 16.30 hrs

Abstract:

In this talk, I present evidence from a range of linguistic phenomena that the most unmarked types of clauses are used to assert a speaker’s knowledge about the actual world. This evidence includes propositional attitude verbs, modality, clause-typing, mood, evidentiality, and discourse particles. While it is not the case that knowledge cannot be marked as such, I show that it need not be linguistically marked. This invites the conclusion that knowledge is also the most basic mental representation, thus contributing to a long-standing philosophical debate regarding the nature of knowledge.

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