Minimalism and the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Part I (Introduction)

The central insight of the Minimalist Programme is that we should seek to pursue a model of grammar where the properties and core operations are pared down to the minimum necessary ingredients that can interface successfully with the non-linguistic aspects of the human mind/brain, while fulfllling the complex symbolic functions of natural language (Chomsky 1995b). Under this view, there is only one system, and the only interfaces are with non-linguistic cognitive systems. Moreover, the core computation that makes language possible (let us call this `syntax´) is highly constrained by virtue of the fact that it must interface with these independent properties of mind/brain, i.e. general cognition and things like long term and working memory. The minimalist conjecture is that these constraints imposed by the interface go very far in determining the specific form of language, and that the part of the system that is independent, and specific to language is actually quite minimal, possibly restricted just to the bare fact of (automatized) generalized recursion, or Merge (Hauser et al. 2002).

Part of what is obscure in discussions of the role of the interface is that the other modules of mind/brain can potentially constrain the syntactic computation at a number of different relevant stages, phylogenetically, ontogenetically and as a continually accessed component of the synchronic system. Arguably, all of these points of influence from general cognition exist, and help to determine the final state of any individual human´s grammar. We can engage in questions of the evolution of language independently of study of the final state of the grammar attained by any individual human. And the final grammar that belongs to a human being will certainly have more in it descriptively speaking, than recursion, even if the minimalist conjecture is correct that it is the only language specific hardwired universal. Putting aside the memorized lexicon for the moment, the actual system that a user of a natural language operates with in real time involves categorization (labels), category relations and linearization algorithms that become part of procedural memory. All of the specifics of these components can be language particular, but all languages seem to need these components, including the rich conceptual lexicon.

So the salient question then is, how much of this necessary detail on top of Merge is emergent, based on the constraints imposed by general cognition and other third factor considerations? The answer can only be arrived at by detailed theoretical analyses of actual natural languages, searching for generalizations which will ultimately allow us to explain some of the details via the properties of other modules of mind/brain, even when the incarnation of those effects within the language system is special to that local instantiation. To thoughtfully pursue a minimalist agenda, therefore, in addition to the description of languages and the building of generative theories, we need to collaborate with or at least keep track of research on the properties of the other systems of mind/brain that are implicated in the instantiation of language. There are many such potentially relevant cognitive building blocks that could have a constraining effect on the emergent system: working memory, conceptual categorization, access to long term memory, associative mechanisms, timing mechanisms, and cross referencing and control in parallel processing across submodules etc. to name just a few that spring to mind.

These are all things about human mind/brain that we now understand a lot better than we did even 20 years ago, and which exist independent of language but which, crucially, are harnessed by it. In fact, one can read the minimalist agenda as an invitation to aggressively pursue such sources as explanations for the details of syntactic description. In other words, the way the human mind works can reliably (and even universally) force a certain kind of syntactic system to emerge, without any of the cognitive precursors being specific to language itself, and without compromising the implementational autonomy of the mature system. The proposal that Merge, or more generally recursion, is specific to language, is actually a departure from a fully minimalist thesis, which would seek all the ingredients elsewhere, and seek the uniqueness of language in the coupling, or automatization or certain human innate cognitive abilities.

In this context, what do we mean by the `syntax-semantics interface’, and is it consistent with a minimalist agenda? In the next few blog entries, I will explore a series of themes related to this question with the ultimate goal of carving out a domain of inquiry which I think is vitally important and interesting, but which has so far, I think, been underexplored and often misunderstood.

The Inside Room: MixTape

My summer vacation. 4 weeks. 11 books. 8 countries (all imagined, one invented).

The most remarkable thing I read this year was the one I started before lockdown began, Györgi  Buzsáki´s  The Brain from Inside Out. In this often highly complex but compulsively readable book, Buzsáki argues for replacing the pervasive conception of the brain as a receptive organ (generating output reactions from sensory input striking it from external reality)  with a radical rethinking of it as a proactive  one:  an obsessive poker and prodder of reality, actively seeking to latch on to and resonate with the outside world. He supports this reconception with evidence from his long experience as a neuroscientist and shows how it utterly reconfigures they way we ask questions about cognition. Specifically, the internal physical properties of the brain and its neural architecture form the framing structure for cognitive experience, it is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with statistically regular patterns from the world.  I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book rocked my world and I have spent the rest of the year so far turning over old and new facts from linguistic processing from this perspective.    Of course, we all as humans have a sense of `the internal world´, our internal lives that construct an internal narrative and emotional landscape through which we face the world of social interactions. It is important to understand that this is not directly what Buzsáki is talking about. His revolutionary thought is about the level of neuronal signalling itself, a microneuronal analogue of an internal language syntax looking for a semantics. The brain is born singing and breathing,  and bounces itself off the world in order to know itself and its place within that world.

The rest of my summer reading was about feeding my inner world at the more macro level, the way the idea is more commonly understood.    In the first weeks of lockdown way up in the far north, I picked up Ron Jacobsen´s Unseen, translated from the Norwegian, a tough and elegaeic novel about a family unit eking out an existence in an unforgiving Norwegian island landscape. In the face of the unrelenting hardness of life, little is actually said, but the inner lives of the protagonists twist and roil under the surface.  The young female growing up in this bleak and choice-less environment grows into her role and accepts it; it felt to me like how it might feel to train your feet to be small through years of binding, or gradually growing into the cliff face you are strapped to over the course of time, but who is to say it is not in its own way a kind of freedom?  The young female of Unseen enacts no permanent rebellions, but the young female protagonist of Educated  by Tara Westover does. Her growing environment in rural Utah is presided over by a genuine psychotic father and completely paranoid and insane world view. She is actively prevented from learning or knowing anything about  the outside world and this autobiographical tale is the story of how she escapes. If you don´t know that you don´t know, how do you  learn to know that, so that you can seek genuine outside knowledge? How do you break out of the cycle when your upbringing has made it impossible to know or trust what is Real?  A quick and compelling read (not great writing, but curiosity propels one through to the end).  The fascination in watching this journey is made more relevant by the dark fear I have that there is a whole swathe of Trump supporters living under similar conditions of constructed reality, and for whom there is probably no redemption story possible. It is hard to escape the loops of disinformation if your whole belief system is predicated on Faith in the Unreliability of Other Voices.

Other Voices!   In the huge hurt and upheaval around 2020s Black Lives Matter movement, I threw myself into Colson Whitehead´s The Underground Railway,  a visceral and moving tale of a woman born a slave in the deep south, and her efforts to flee through the underground railway linking secret station locations across the South, built by slaves for helping other slaves escape. I will not tell you if she escapes because you should read it. In some ways, no, there is still no escape. Black lives in today´s America still bear the scars and systemic effects of this history. The details of this history should be taught unvarnished in schools, but also This, this beautifully written novel will clutch at your heart.

N.K. Jemisin author of The Obelisk Gate  is the first black female writer to win the Hugo Award for Science Fiction fantasy and this is the third book of the trilogy (I read the first two last year).  I don´t normally read much fantasy (I usually lose patience with the writing).  But this is a great, richly constructed reality with lots of prickly and violent and difficult female characters. And in this world, the very earth is unreliable, it seethes and boils with danger to the planet, and there are some of the human race who can tap into and control its heavings.  They are needed for the rest of the human race to survive,  but they also inspire fear and disgust.  So Yes, there´s race politics woven in here too,  if you are willing to look for it, imaginatively transformed within this fantasy world.

Next, I read Ingrid Persaud´s Love After Love which is set in Trinidad and written by one of my contemporaries (yes, and friend! ) so I was curious to see how she would represent our shared experienced world of  Trinidad in literary form. The challenge she pulls off here is in capturing the music and rhythms of Trinidadian speech, while still making it accessible to a non Trinidadian audience.  One of the central characters is a Difficult Woman too, something that was turning out to be a bit of a theme for me this summer.  But unlike the central male character of the book who came off the pages very vividly (a moving portrayal of a gay man in a profoundly homophobic culture), I was a bit disappointed in my central female here—– it seemed to me she teetered on the verge of self actuation throughout the book but never quite got there.

We watched Mrs America in the evenings while on summer vacation (brilliant!), and I was inspired to read Helen Lewis´ s  Difficult Women. In 11 Fights  next,  which is however more focused on the UK than the US.   This was a great window into a lot of history that I had sometimes heard of but knew very little about. Lewis doesn´t judge, or woke-wash, and these women come alive in all their idiosyncrasy and ornery-ness.  Rereading about the fight for female suffrage in Britain and the shocking misbehaviour of those early women revolutionaries, I am reminded that change in power structures doesn´t come about from asking nicely……

That led me to the next ornery woman on my journey, served up by Olga Tokarczuk , who won the Nobel prize for literature for 2018. I had already read Flights,  which I loved, so  I treated myself to  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The protagonist is definitely a Difficult Woman. I loved being transported into her reality and watching the murder mystery evolve. The men in the hunters club  in a remote Polish village near the Czech border start being killed off mysteriously and our old lady is convinced it is the animals who have turned on them and are subtly orchestrating their demise. The writing here is a joy!

 I moved from here to an older classic, which I had somehow never read: Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter written, astoundingly,  when she was only 23. This had everything—- race, socialism, gender, sexuality and a quirky authorial voice always straining to get at the heart of things. The young female character, Mick, talks at one point about the Inside Room and the Outside Room of her own consciousness in a way that resonated, and took me back full circle to Buzsáki. Towards the end of the novel, Mick takes a job in a store to help her family make ends meet and has to wear a skirt and stockings. Her life becomes so busy that the Outside Room begins to elbow out the Inside Room (where her Beethoven symphony and conversations with Mr Singer reside). I realized too that even for privileged middle aged academics,  sometimes things get so hectic that the Inside Room starts to gather dust.  Fortunately, lockdown and the derailing of routines can I the best case lead to release from small tyrannies.  Still, it has not been so easy to retreat:  The Outside world has been staging its own can´t-look-away spectacle, raging around us in 2020 in the form of pandemia, BLM protests, and Free Speech Wars.   Binge reading with no external purpose for 2 weeks  in July has been my way of getting back into my own Inner Room, that sustaining and reinvigorating place, like the intellectual equivalent of nightly sleeping and dreaming after the requirements of the day.  My pile of books was cobbled together through accidents and serendipities—- I have no idea why McCullers got on the list but boy that book kicked ass. I won´t give away any more of the plot by explaining why.

But oh no, it´s nearly over!  Work was set to begin again, so I took one final plunge,  journeying imaginatively to the far East to read Min Jin  Lee´s  Pachinko,  a tale of Korean immigrants in Japan spanning the 20th century (continuing my themes of racism and otherness and difficult women).  Finally,  Cixin Liu´s  Three Body Problem,  a science fiction tour de force translated from Chinese.  Like N.K. Jemisin, this is all Difficult Woman Gets Pissed Off and Decides to Destroy the World,   but now that plotline is woven together with particle physics, online gaming, philosophical abysses exploring the relationship between data, theory building, prediction and faith in science.  Set this all against a background of the Cultural Revolution and you have enough food for the journey right back into the Outside room of doing science and coping with dystopian reality that is our post truth era.

Sigh. Time to wake up.




Pinker, Free Speech and Academic Integrity

I have taken a break from blog posting recently because I tend to post when there is a conference or workshop or event that provokes excitement and self expression. Lately, with the corona crisis there have been no workshops to attend in person, and there is absolutely no point blogging a conference that is digitally available to all anyway!

I also have to confess that I joined twitter last year (only academic followees) and have been down many rabbit holes because of that which may have used up some of my time (lets be honest. most of my waking spare moments).

I am posting now because the Pinker letter thing has exploded and it turns out sometimes it is best to say your thing calmly, after editing, than to fire off  a series of tweets or respond in a piecemeal way to the facebook posts of others.  I am not a member of the LSA, and I think in many ways, the USA is  a social and even academic microcosm unto itself that requires subtlety and understanding and `on-the-ground’-ness to negotiate properly.  I do not think that my voice is the democratically relevant one in this fight, and my US academic colleagues have the responsibility and the burden here.   Here in Europe,  things are different in ways that vary massively from country to country, but it is also true that because of the influence of the US (for better or for worse) in our sociopolitical world and the world of linguistic academia, we are all in some sense affected and involved. So here is my two cents.

The issue in this particular case  boils down to democratic representation. Remember that?  That was the thing we had in politics before global capital and vested interests gutted our choices and hollowed out the heart of democracy. It was what we had before it became impossible to get simple facts out into the common public discourse, or to deny obvious falsehoods,  because the media are controlled and turned into instruments of tribalism with no accountability.   But still, democratic representation still exists right? On the lower and less policitized levels of nerdy groups and clubs, or even mid level academic societies, where we can decide who our steering committees are, and who we trust to make organizational decisions etc. etc.  Right?

I waver between being  despondent about the state of sociopolitics today and recklessly revolutionarily hopeful.  I think that we have been crushed by the neoliberal status quo for the past 50 years or so, so that often people can no longer  muster the social outrage appropriate to the kinds of inroads in opportunities and equality that have be meted out to us under the flag of global capitalism, to which there are genuine and viable alternatives. The recent debacle of the Trump presidency and its latest corona mismanagement, and the phenomenal and  diverse upsurge of political activism in wake of the George Floyd murder means that progressive ideas (especially among the young) are on the rise. But let there be no mistake about it. This has come despite the consistent and powerful forces of the political and financial elites who have thrown their whole might behind silencing these voices. They talk about cancel culture, they talk about fake news, they talk about conspiracies, and they consistently accuse the left of fascism and intolerance and repressing free speech. But this is their playbook, not ours. And the way public discourse works, it is IMPOSSIBLE to prove even that climate change is real, let alone that the current political system is the one that has silenced and is still silencing dissent.  But ask anyone of colour, anyone who supports Palestinian rights, anyone who believes in socialism, or who believes in disinvesting from fossil fuels completely, or indigenous rights (the list could go on) and look at how hard it is to get that message out. And compare that to the dominant voices in the mainstream media.  I believe in free speech, like the majority progressives. And in accepting the consequences of one’s positions, and in open discourse and disagreement.  Famous heavyweight intellectuals waving the free speech flag to censure non renowned linguists for writing a 4 page letter to a nerdy academic institution frankly dismays me.

The Pinker battle is precisely about who gets to speak for us (as an academic discipline) in the mainstream media. It is about democratic representation. We say as a field in other contexts that we need to be better at communicating and being involved in public discourse.  Language is hugely relevant to our lives as social and political beings, so we are important here.  SP has a loud and dominant voice in the current climate anyway, because of his many books and contacts, but he has also been granted a platform by the leading academic body of the field in the US (the LSA)  to speak for us on issues of general linguistics (one of two names on the General list for media contact!).   So my question is,  suppose the next generation of young linguists (500 of them, or so) who have been engaging in public discourse as part of their beginning careers, suppose they feel that SP does not speak for them ? Suppose they are constantly dismayed, ashamed and feel their intellectual positions undermined by the things he says on twitter, or in the mainstream media?   What do they, as members of an academic institution do?  What do they do?  What is allowed to them in this context?    Mind you, this is not to change the world, or eradicate systemic racism or save the planet or chip away at the smug unassailability of global capitalist logic—-its  just one simple thing:  to figure out a way so that their small corner of academic where they live and work is sound and good, and whose intellectual integrity they can be proud of and get behind.   They write a letter to their executive council saying, hey guys,  a lot of us think this dude does not actually represent our ideals, can we take him off that damn media list now already.

Now even if you don’t at all get it that SP is this bad,  (but read the articles and quotes over an extended period of time and make your mind up for yourself), at least recognise that a large number of young and passionate linguists whose work and integrity you respect felt moved to sign that letter, even though some of the argumentation might not have been ideal, and even though they were torn about academic freedom issues.  They signed it and they are not hooligans with baseball bats destroying all that is good and sacred. They were trying to have a say.  We should trust them and look carefully at that media list again, and try to figure out ways of having a system in place so that democratic representation is respected.  After all, we want our institutions to reflect the reviews of its members, and they deserve to have an institution that represents them.

The letter writers are not cancel culture vultures seeking to stifle free speech as a part of a progressive agenda gone mad (which is how I am reading some of the reactions). They were just trying to have a say.  (How hard it is to break through the clamour of the already established voices and privileged positions!  The problem with the world today is not that neoliberalism is having a problem getting its message out.)

The future of our field, and indeed of our planet is with our young ones.  We should listen to them, and trust that they do have our values of free speech and academic integrity. They are changing the field towards better support for:  female linguists, early career linguists, linguists of colour, LGBTQ non-binary linguists, indigenous language issues etc. etc, in ways which are driven by them not the old guard or us middle aged fuddy duddies.  Long overdue. We should listen to them if we are the ones who happen to have the power,  not completely onesidedly,  but as part of a respectful open discussion.  I for one believe that if we create an academic community that meets their standards, it will be a good and fine thing.  The LSA should take this letter as an opportunity to make some changes, and put in place some mechanisms for change and updating more generally.


Semantic Ontologies: OASIS 2 Conference Report.

I am hereby filing my official report on the second incarnation of the OASIS meeting, OASIS 2 ( Programme), with its satellite workshop on correlating possibilities (programme) .

I am on the record as being a cheerleader for crossdisciplinary research. One personal and perhaps not that interesting reason for that is that every time I stretch outside my comfort zone I learn something which excites, or titillates and which allows me new insights for my own local research project. But the more urgent reason in the case of semantics and ontology is that I believe there are scientific questions that simply cannot be answered satisfactorily without linguists and neuropsychologists comparing results and joining forces. The scientific question I am referring to of course is the question of creative meaning composition, and how human minds pull off the amazing trick of using symbols to create meaning/meanings in an open-ended way.

Currently it also seems to me, and to the members of the OASIS network, that there is simply not enough crosstalk between theorists of meaning  (semanticists) and the fields of syntax on the one hand and psycholinguistics/neurolinguistics  on the other. We care about different data and we ask different questions about it.  So is this unavoidable, and if not, what can a conference like OASIS do to start to redress the situation?  More on that at the end of this blog entry.

Here are my thoughts about what went down this week  and what I learned, as a way of sharing information for all of you out there who were not able to be there. But bear in mind, that, as usual for this blog, this is a personal and highly opinionated riff on the contents of the conference mediated by my own idiosyncratic interests.

Is Syntax Real?

David Adger (Queen Mary University of London) kicked off the first day with a class/tutorial on What Syntacticians Think  for the non-syntacticians in the room.  Adger is an excellent speaker and is extremely engaging when presenting syntax for the non specialist. Adger’s remit was to convince the crowd that syntax is real, and that once the full range of data is acknowledged, one simply cannot make do with just sequence, memorized chunks, and transitional probabilities.  But here  our  failure as OASIS became immediately obvious—- nearly everyone in the room was already familiar with syntax,  and with Adger’s take on it. (We had utterly failed to reach out beyond our discipline. So poor Adger instead had to talk to a basically sympathetic, already clued-in crowd.)  We tried to draw out some more contentious issues in the question period. Here’s one that provoked an interesting flurry: He was at pains to emphasize that the syntacticians `derivational talk’ refers to issues of logical dependency and is not intended to refer to real time operations. The statements describing the grammar are entirely logically  separable from the heuristics that are employed to decode incoming speech and code our expressive output using that grammar.  Ramchand intervened to remark that that was all very well and good, but then you still owe us a theory of the relationship between the two, otherwise you are in a prediction vacuum. One could argue that EVERY SINGLE piece of data that you might use as your evidence for theory building, is a piece of psycholinguistic behaviour, either of production or comprehension and that since there is no way of accessing competence directly except through performance manifestations in a variety of task sensitive contexts, we cannot proceed without a theory of how processing relates to the grammar, if we are to have any data at all.  Ramchand then goaded the speaker by saying  that many generativists claim that the grammar does not make direct claims about real brains in real time, but then in practice, they lapse,  and use precisely these kinds of considerations in justifying the shape of their theories.   A lively argument ensued.  Which was inconclusive and had to be forcibly broken up by the chair of the session, much to the disappointment of the audience.

A Living  Inter-disciple

The second talk/class was by Naama Friedmann  who is a self-described neuropsychologist of language from Tel Aviv University.  Friedmann had a rapt and captive audience of linguists who told us all the stuff we wanted to hear. For example, her studies on Specific Language Impairment (SLI) in Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic show a very particular profile of impairment for a sizeable percentage of those officially diagnosed with SLI (language impairment with otherwise normal intelligence).  It turns out that they simply cannot handle sentences where the relative linearization of two DPs violates the standard positions expected from thematic role under normal word order conditions. In syntax jargon, they can’t do crossing movement and sentences like (1) and (2) below are simply impossible for them to comprehend and produce (and resumptive pronouns don’t help, and neither does prosody).

(1) Which girl did grandma kiss?

(2) The girl who grandma kissed is smiling.

It can also be shown that it is not working memory that is the problem, since subject relatives with long displacement do not cause the same kind of problem.  The direction of the movement is also not relevant, since this work was also replicated for Israeli Sign Language where one of the movements was rightward.  SLI exists for signers as well, and displacement of this type is the one specific thing that they cannot do.  Wonderfully and heart-warmingly, Friedmann has developed teaching/intervention strategies that actually are successful and allow people with this diagnosis to achieve excellent functionality via explicit instruction. This is in and of itself an interesting fact, as well as being a useful one to know.

What causes SLI? Not surprisingly, it appears to have some genetic sources. But it is also environmentally triggered and can be affected by events early in life that have profound effects on neural developmental. Staggeringly,  due to a very specific  baby formula disaster, a group of hundreds of babies in Israel suffered severe B1/thiamine deficiency in their first year of life and were hospitalized, treated, and subsequently followed throughout their lives. Ninety-seven percent of this cohort subsequently developed SLI.   Thiamine plays a central role in cerebral metabolism and a structural role in membrane structure and synaptic transmission. It turns out that thiamine deficiency in the first year of life leads to this particular kind of syntactic SLI which persists into adulthood, even though thiamine levels were subsequently normalized. The 1styear of life window was also implicated in their study of deaf children of hearing parents. The kids who received hearing aids within the first year of life went on to develop normal syntax, but those for whom the discovery of the hearing problem was delayed, also developed this particular form of syntactic SLI.  So, weirdly, for acquiring one’s first language, there are developmental events happening in the first year of life that are necessary conditions for acquiring the ability to acquire flexible linearization of certain complex syntactic representations. It is really interesting that the ability/deficiency is so specific and relates to complex syntactic processing and yet the seeds of it are necessarily sown early and affected by input as well as nutrition affecting brain development.

Here’s another cool thing.  Suppose you were interested in whether the tendency to give an exhaustive answer to a Wh-question, versus a `mention one’  answer to a Wh-question is a matter of semantics/linguistic form or  of pragmatics, you might set up an experiment to compare the responses of populations with documented deficits in theory of mind with populations that have no such deficit.  The experiment that Friedmann and colleagues did involved both simple Wh-questions and multiple Wh-questions, together with pictures. So imagine a picture of different people holding different fruits (and some holding non-fruits). You are given the following questions and have to provide answers:

(3) Simple: Who is holding a fruit?

(4) Multiple: Who is holding what?

It turns out that Theory of Mind impaired people do not  consistently give exhaustive answers to simple Wh-questions as in (3), unlike the controls who tend to do so. This suggests that the choice between giving an exhaustive answer or a mention one answer is pragmatic and involves reasoning about other people’s reasons for asking the question.  But here comes the really interesting part: when it comes to multiple Wh questions, everyone, even the Theory-of-Mind impaired participants, gave exhaustive answers for the multiple Wh-question. So there has to be something about the syntactic/semantic/linguistic form for this type of question that demands exhaustivity.

Great. Sorted.

Events, Event Types and Connecting Verb Names to the World

Sudha Arunachalam (New York University) reported on a series of experiments she has been doing on children’s acquisition of event concepts in the form of event nominals (where there is on the surface a mismatch between the nature of the referent and the canonical syntactic category that realises it).  It turns out that kids’  beliefs about the meaning of event concepts differ from adults in a number of systematic ways.  In an experiment in which George Giraffe wants to learn the word nap,  children were instructed to point to the picture that would help George learn the new word.  It turns out that children are perfectly cool with nouns like nap  or party denoting events, but they also seem to have a more rigid criterial association between the event and the prototypical objects that the event usually involves.  So in the case of nap children seemed to think that a nap was an event that required a bed, or it doesn’t count as a nap (although they were clear that a nap was not in fact a bed).   In general, I think that the  Gavagai problem for verbs is even more severe than it is for nouns. Are there cognitive tendencies for what situational properties are associated with the verb name kids are learning?  It seems like identity conditions for events are harder to spell out than those for objects. Could it be that kids systematically latch on to object participant properties as a way of classifying and categorizing events for the purposes of verb word learning?    Nicola Guardino  (ISTC – CNR) talked in a rich detailed way about how events are distinguished and classifie.   In truth, the world is extremely rich in the sensory detail it presents to us, and the common sense idea of an event in the world involves a host of contextual information in addition to  the core and non core participants invoked by the predicate. The interesting linguistic question here is about  names  of events and what they get associated with, in particular the  in which our attention is focused on certain aspects of the situation and not others for the purposes of categorization and naming.  According to Guarino, there are different levels of involvement of event participants and a separation between focused vs. backgrounded subparts of events,  but importantly there is a further separation between event and the context it is embedded in. Theorizing about  cognitive classification is surely relevant for understanding the process of concept acquisition, and also for understanding b the pattern of verb types and verb alternations that are possible when it comes to naming events in language.   This turns out to be relevant to the problem of how to define minimal situational exemplifiers for a particular proposition that can feed a coherent notion of content. Angelika Kratzer(UMass) participated via skype and launched the defence of her version of situational truth making in the face of Kit Fine’s  version of truthmaker semantics. The debate between the two is relevant to the discussion about event classification and naming.   The disagreement centres on whether it is possible to get a coherent notion of Contentfrom truthmaking, if one assumes that verification of a proposition by a situation is generally taken to be persistent — if any superset of a verifier is also a verifier. In other words, if a situation verifies a proposition then any super-situation of that situation verifies that proposition. This means that if you want to understand the Content  of John swimming one kilometre, you need something better than just the whole world which has this situation as a subpart. Intuitively, you want something more minimal, something that is justthe situation that verifies John’s swimming one kilometre without any extraneous unnecessary bits.  And here is where the disagreement comes in. Kit Fine thinks that if you start with a notion of verification that is inherited upwards then the job of defining minimal verification in this sense is just too hard, and cannot be cashed out in terms of situational mereologies. He thus proposes to make verification exact (so that it doesn’t persist for supersets), and makes the fact of some situation being a truthmaker or falsitymaker for a proposition a primitive. Kratzer disagrees. She argues that her version of situational truthmaking does not require us to throw out forty years of formal semantic research on truth conditions. She just has a strong motivation for making the definition of minimal situation work. A large part of her talk consisted of working through a number of examples where the definition of minimal situation runs into problems and motivates some ways of getting around these problems. Kratzer’s slides and talks on this topic are available for viewing, since this material also formed part of the prestigious Leverhulme lectures that she gave earlier this year (Leverhulme lectures 2019).   I asked Guarino what he thought about the debate because it seemed to me he was thinking precisely about what parts of situations were extraneous to verification and what parts were essential.  Guarino was at first uncertain that he had anything to stake in an argument between a philosopher and a linguistic semanticist, and insisted that to the extent that he was a philosopher he was actually interested in metaphysics rather than in ontologies motivated by natural language. But in the end, he agreed that language mattered and that people talked about things at a particular granularity which was the granularity that he was interested in ultimately. Apparently this is called  descriptive metaphysics.  My question to myself was whether descriptive metaphysics might help Kratzer to define the minimal situation, without the paradoxes that mereologies over situational particulars give rise to. Or maybe descriptive metaphysics is relevant to unpacking Kit Fine’s primitive of exact verification.  Guarino claimed not to have an axe to grind there, but it was fascinating as an example of people talking about the same thing who are clearly also not talking about the same thing.  I was also the only person in the room who thought that Kratzer’s and Guarino’s talks were related (Except maybe for Orin Percus).

Louise McNally (University of Pompeu Fabra) presented her joint work with Scott Grimm on ing-nominals. One standard story in the literature is that while (5), the Poss-ofstructure, denotes a concrete event, (6), the Acc-ing nominal,  denotes a fact or a proposition.

(5) Al’s raking of the leaves/The raking of the leaves. (Events?)

(6) Raking the leaves/Al’s raking the leaves/Al raking the leaves. (Facts?)

The former are good with predicates like took place at x time, while the latter are not. The former do not support negation, while the latter do.  McNally and Grimm however argue that invoking a fact or propositional meaning for the forms in (6) is NOT correct. In fact, what McNally ends up proposing is that the of-ing nominals denote event tokens, while the accusative taking ones denote event types.   Basically, what McNally assumes about the semantics is that the ontology includes a type/token distinction for events, just as for entities. Nominal (of-taking) forms and verbal (acc-taking forms) both  lexically describe event types, but then grow to token interpretations in different ways: ing nouns through number morphology; ing VPs through temporal anchoring from a tensed verb.

The type vs. token distinction turns out to account for the data better than assuming that the forms in (6) denote propositions. Louise McNally is one of the few semanticists who is working on the idea of event types as primitive members of the semantic ontology. It’s really hard to spell out how this idea of ontologically primitive types  works when it comes to (i) compositional operations over types and (ii) the conversion of type level information into token level information. However, I am excited about this work because it is vitally necessary and  there isn’t anyone else really doing it. The problem of messy lexical content (polysemy, essential conceptual content etc.) is mostly ignored by formal semanticists.  And yet we know that memorized concepts are a core ingredient of the creative meaning generation capacity. Ignoring this messy part and how it gets deployed to create propositions that ultimately bear a truthmaking relationship with the world, is  abdicating our responsibilities for answering that Big Question. I think McNally’s work is an example of s the kind of work that the OASIS group is trying to support and create dialogue about.

Having said that, I think that ultimately we in the OASIS network have failed to be the place where the big interdisciplinary conversation is happening. What we just had was a wonderful `linguistics’ conference with lots of stimulation for us linguists from other fields. It is not clear to me that we have created a forum where linguistic expertise is being understood and internalized by psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics in building descriptively and explanatory models of meaning.  It is mostly our fault as a field.  When was the last time  we made choices within our analytic frameworks in order to line up  with the expertise and acquired knowledge from these other areas?   So OASIS 2 was  great (Thank you, Nantes team!),  but  I am not satisfied. I want more. When it comes to semantics there is a lot of hard work to be done and I really think that progress is not going to be made unless we get the big conversations going,  pooling our knowledge across disciplines.  I hear a rumour that the next OASIS meeting will take place in Tromsø, where we will have another shot at changing the world.  My fantasy title for that conference is Compositionality and the Brain  and I am already working on my fantasy football team for that event….

Define Semantics

Features Workshop Blogpost3: Svenonius vs. Preminger

My Red Line for this last blog post related to the Features Workshop is Semantics, and not `trail of blood’, like you might be thinking.  The last day saw two final talks, one by our host/organizer Peter Svenonius (PS)  UiT The Arctic University of Norway and the other by Omer Preminger (OP) Maryland. PS gave his talk first, entitled `Case is the Solution to a Locality Problem’, while OP’s talk was called `What are Phi Features Supposed to Do and Where?’.

Granted, from the titles  it doesn’t particularly seem as if either of these talks were about semantics, but I think it the pair up is interesting precisely because it highlights the different relationships  morphosyntacticians can have to semantics, and the very different assumptions about what the word even means.  But let’s be clear from the outset: both PS and OP are formalist syntacticians who believe that the grammatical computation is special and has formal properties that cannot be reduced to meaning or functionalist considerations. They also both care scrupulously about architecture and the principle of keeping the modules from communicating with each other in unattested ways.  In this case, I think that real common ground here is rather extensive, but the rhetorical stance towards semantics stands out at least superficially as being a a point of difference. The kinds of questions they ask, and the nature of the solutions they seek is also quite different.

OP in Brief: You cannot look to the interfaces to help you understand how syntax works, since there are persistent mismatches between syntax and morphophonological properties on the one side, and syntax and semantics on the other. The second half of the talk was an argument about privativity and features. OP wants to say that we can model important things about what the syntactic atoms are by using privative features, rather than binary ones. Important for him is that under this way of looking at things the fact that 3rdperson sg is actually the absence of any feature for person, predicts how it behaves when it comes to Agree.  In particular, there is no omnivorous 3rdperson sg. agreement in natural language.

(Btw, TG wasn’t convinced that one could show in a principled way that privative systems can do anything different than the corresponding binary systems. But there is a complex interaction with what sorts of agreement mechanisms you invoke).

PS in Brief:  Case is a big mystery and we have no consensus on how to model the apparent licensing functions of case, and the patterns of morphological tagging that show up in nominal licensing systems.  PS chooses to model case using the tool of Agree and the checking of uninterpretable Kase features. Case is interesting precisely because in a technical sense it is not `interpretable’— it bears only an indirect relationship to the atomic units of meaning. In OP’s terms, it shows mismatches with any semantic class that one might try to define by purely semantic criteria.    PS too is interested in this `irrational’ phenomenon because it shows evidence of something syntax needs to do for its own theory-internal reasons.  It is the syntactic phenomenon par excellence.   However, in attempting to answer the WHY question for Case, PS makes a proposal that indirectly rests on the understanding of the semantic properties of the clausal hierarchy.  What PS  proposes (capitalizing on the fact that marked case emerges in the presence of two nominals)  is that it is necessary to distinguish nominals from each other in the T-domain otherwise the link back to the thematic domain is made indeterminate.  PS builds on a view from Ramchand and Svenonius 2014 concerning the properties of the two lowest zones of the clause, characterized by the nature of the abstract semantic information that is articulated there.  He argues that having structural case is correlated with the diagnostic properties of the second phase of the clause (referentiality), and that lack of case is correlated with that nominal carrying only `low’, and thematic-relational information.  So even though Case is still not directly correlated with a particular interpretation, the analysis is more semantically motivated than the standard ones which just posit a universal Case Filter.

OP is on record as deploring publicly what happens when syntacticians allow semantics to infect what they do, corrupting their analyses and undermining progress. (Actually, I am at a bit of a loss about what OP is complaining about here, since from my perspective most of the high prestige work on syntactic theory is being done in a complete semantic vaccuum, just as he would advocate. I happen to think much of that work is highly theory internal  and sterile and will be obsolete as soon as the toolbox changes.) The talk in this workshop was a variation on the Semantics is Evil theme since the first part of the talk was an exercise in showing that there are easily found mismatches between the two domains, i.e. no actual transparency between the units of the syntactic representation and the primes of the semantic representation.  .  (Now OP did not say that there was no relationship, but that there are frequent enough mismatches so that the one domain cannot be explained by the other.)

So do OP and PS disagree about the role of semantics in syntax?  They both would say that they believe in the Autonomy of Syntax, but they each seem to have a different working relationship, and different rhetoric towards  facts about what hieararchical structures can and must mean.

In fact, I think that  the straw man that OP set up in the first half of his talk is not entertained or propped up by anyone.  First of all, what is the semantic representation  that we are checking for transparency with the syntactic representation?   Are we talking about the  notational primes of a montagovian or neo-davidsonian semantic formula?  If so, then I do not think that any working formal semanticist out there would make those claims about their own formulas—- they do not think their analytical core units necessarily correspond to the core units that syntax traffics in. There is perhaps a systematic algorithm that gets you from one representation to the other, but there is no transparent  mapping between the primes.   Formal semantic representations are  highly articulated descriptions of truth conditions,  and compositionality can be guaranteed  without the match up of atomic primitives. In most cases, it doesn’t seem to me that formal semanticists are very precious about their notational atoms, as long as the right truth conditions are delivered.

A different question would be to  ask whether the mapping between the narrow syntactic representation to the meaning-building parts of mind/brain is transparent,  or even systematic. Now here, there are two ways of construing the question once of which makes the answer (trivially) YES and the other of which makes the answer interestingly NO.

The YES answer comes about if we want to know whether the `pieces’ of a lexicalized syntactic hierarchical structure correspond in a systematic way to the meanings ultimately being built. Here the answer has to be yes because otherwise we have no way of reliably guaranteeing mutual understanding in the face of unbounded creativity.

On the other hand, If we wonder whether those meaning chunks and operations are sitting in cognition-world out there independent of language, I think that the answer must be no.  Language as a symbolic system co-evolves with the cognitive system more generally during the maturation of every individual.  It is not a stretch to assume that the  pieces that are stored, learned and redeployed, and the mechanisms for semantically combining them are indeed created by and forced on us by the symbolic system itself, albeit against the background of our general cognitive proclivities, perceptions,  and learning biases.    Thus, the semantics I am interested in,  that is systematically tied to the syntax is not really independent of it.  semantics with a small s is backformed from the complexity of the symbolic system that generates it. This is inevitably different from semiotic systems which simply provide labels for independently available concepts.  Many syntacticians are fond of talking about the recursivity of the syntactic system as being a core central property of what makes language unique, but I would argue that is not enough. Language requires in addition the proceduralization of recursive symbolization and semanticity  that is tracked through  recursion and unboundedness.  As James Higginbotham, my late teacher and colleague used to say, when it comes to the syntax-semantics interface, it is like solving an equation in three unknowns.

The problem is that most people don’t use the term Semantics this way. They use it to mean the description of extensional truth conditions, and this, I believe, has even less direct connection with the internal pieces of the sentence than most people assume (See Pietroski 2018 on this point, and also my review of him).  At best, truth conditions are in a holistic correspondence to whole sentential chunks, and that too afterpragmatic inferencing and reference tracking at the discourse level has applied.  So I think OP and I are probably talking past each other here. But the fact remains that some of the questions he is most interested in are the ones where one can ignore the semantic influences on the answer, and this distinguishes him I think from PS.

I think OP is using his rhetoric to justify looking at his favourite pieces of the puzzle.  It’s nice to have favourite pet projects (Confession: I like Verbs)   for example like being most interested in the parts of the system which are about system internal formal relations (OP?).  But it is almost impossible to isolate what those are without understanding the nature of how the narrow computation feeds other cognitive systems. It is not possible to introspect about what syntax is.  It is a category of thing which by hypothesis is sui generis, and we figure out its scope in part by peeling away the things that it is not.  In other words,  if you want to distinguish syntax from not-syntax  then its a good idea to be able to recognize not-syntax.  To take an example from OP’s own talk on Wednesday, he makes the argument that anaphoric binding is not coextensive with abstract agreement, and should not be handled with the same abstract mechanism Agree.  One of the planks of the argument consists in showing that more generally,  the phenomenon of  coreference does not require phi feature agreement, and that superficial agreement for phi features occurs even when there is demonstrably no syntactic relationship possible.  So this is an example of how  one had to pay attention to meaning to make an argument about what lies in the syntactic system proper, and what should be excluded from it.

On a very basic level, there is a methodological claim that one simply cannot run constituency tests such as movement, or ask about whether reference is guaranteed by phi-feature agreement without using people’s judgements about meaning as your core data.  But its not just methodological, its also the explanandum: I do not think that understanding language is tantamount to being able to delimit the class of grammatical utterances (as I think OP has claimed elsewhere). Part of the task is also to preserve semanticity and account for the reliability of the constraints on ultimate meaning that speakers feel grammatical utterances have.

Three Completely Different Things to Do with Features

The next talk at Arctic Features was by Daniel Harbour (DH) on Maximal use of [+/- minimal].  DH is a typological morphosemanticist, who is on a quest for highly abstract universal features.  In DH´s previous work on person systems, he argues for the necessity of a feature [+/- minimal] which basically has the interpretation of divisibility of reference (cf. Krifka 1989).  This feature is argued to interact with the system of person features to give rise to complicated pronominal systems involve duals and inclusive vs. exclusive participant plurals.  DH endorses the intuition of Bach (1981) inter alia  that divisibility is potentially a property that crosses category boundaries, at the very least straddling the nominal and verbal domains.  A predicate description P conforms to divisibility of reference if for every x that is a P, one can find a material subpart of x, y say, that also satisfies the description P. This is true of the nominal predicate water, but is plausibly also true of the verbal predicate sleep or be-tired (anything stative or activity-like down to a certain granularity according to Taylor 1977).   Maybe, in fact, conjectures DH, [+/- minimal] underpins the definition of imperfectivity in verbal aspectual marking more generally.   This leads DH to set up the following hypothesis about the space of morphological systems: if a language demonstrably uses [+/- minimal] in its pronominal system (because we can detect a morphologically marked distinction between 2 and 3+, for example), then it is statistically more likely to use [+/- minimal] in its verbal inflectional system and overtly mark imperfectivity.  So here comes the typology and after a flurry of checking and counting (60 relevant languages),  the report is that there seems to be a fairly robust correlation between funky pronominal systems in the DH sense and overt imperfectivity marking  (89 percent of which seem to mark imperfectivity, which is higher than average).  But even if we think this is true, this raises a number of questions, which the room was awash with when DH was done with his talk. TG wanted to know why  a language would reuse a feature in this way? What is it about the system that might drive you to reuse it?  If it is a compelling cognitive distinction, it might be the basis of morphological distinctions across a wide swathe of domains because it is a cognitively general organizational principle, not because the system is literally and mechanically reusing an atom of the featural system from one place to another.  Also, why look for a correlation between pronominal systems and imperfectivity marking, instead of, say, a correlation between marking of mass vs. count, for example?  Do we expect features to be universal across languages, and is this because of cognitive or even linguistic necessity? or do we expect the inventory of features to vary from language to language since famously `nobody ever conceived of a universal morphology’  said somebody,  some time. DH is conceiving of universal aspects of morphology that transcend not just languages, but also categories within a particular language.   At some point somebody in the audience raised the spectre of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,  but DH slapped that back. Not entirely convincingly, in my opinion.

In the next talk, Michelle Sheehan  MS (Anglia Ruskin University)  tackled the issue of successive cyclic movement, in particular trying to find evidence for an A-movement incarnation for successive cyclicity.  The spoiler here is that no, there is plausibly no such thing.  MS takes as her starting point the ungrammaticality of long passive under certain causative and perception predicates in many languages.

(1) *Kim was made leave (by someone).

The above phenomenon has been noticed and accounted for in various different ways, with no consensus on which module of grammar is to blame. MS will propose that the ungrammaticality of (1) actually follows from phase theory under certain unremarkable assumptions, if we claim that there are no feature triggers for successive cyclicity that interact with the A system.  MS assumes two clause-related phases, roughly corresponding to the C domain versus the v domain (van Urk and Richards).  Specifically however, the lowest phase is dynamic, and is a little bit bigger at its biggest than is classically assumed—- ProgP is the largest v related phase in English (Harwood, Boskovic, Sailor).   The patterns fall out if the complement of makeis a phase.  MS assumes version 2  of the Phase Impenetrability Condition PIC2, whereby we get a window of opportunity for establishing A relations in the T zone aftera phase is assembled but beforeit is spelled out.

Why is the sentence with the to-infinitive possible?

(2) Someone was seen to run in the corridor.

(2) is good because the to-phrase is a TP and there is an EPP feature that would drag the DP argument to the edge in any case, allowing it to escape the phase. Passives of causatives/perception verbs  will only be blocked where the complement they take is a phase that lacks T. If they get big  enough then there is potentially a  phase edge that the DP might end up in for independent reasons, if they are too small it’s not even a phase.  So, if MS is right and the best way to account for this nest of data is to say that A movement is never successive cyclic, then we raise the question of how we model this difference between A movement on the one hand and A-bar movement on the other.  MS suggests that this might furnish an indirect argument that successive cyclic movement must be feature driven, since it’s hard to see how you could model the difference otherwise.

So MS gave it her best shot, and showed us her best argument for a grammatical phenomenon requiring abstract features, but TG says no, you can definitely model this with constraints. But would it look so elegant?

The final talk of the day was Susana Béjar  (SB)  (U of Toronto) on `How to be a Picky Probe’.  SB: “In addition to serving as diacritics for defining natural classes of syntactic objects, features serve as diacritics for modeling syntactic dependencies (local and non local). This is all a probe is:  a syntactic diacritic that signals a trigger for dependency formation, as well as identifying a target and a dependent in the relation. SB has spent much of her research life looking at phi feature probes and trying to see how these kinds of dependencies work in a variety of natural languages, essentially seeking to describe faithfully while searching for higher level generalizations. With respect to phi, one thing SB has discovered in her travels is that hierarchically low probes tend to be picky with respect to participant features, while the probes on the higher T heads are always much less picky.

In today’s talk the focus was on a tricky subcase of interactions where no pattern or generalization seems to be detectable. 😦  This horrible domain is subcase of defective non interveners: things that should be in the path of the probe,  not valuing the probe, but also not producing an intervention.

Probes are by definition picky and their pickiness is tantamount to a visibility condition on objects in the search space, with important analytic consequences for locality, so its important to see what patterns exist.

SB shows two case studies that should make us worried. One from Georgian agreement. She shows that for the purposes of the AGR probe for one  of the agreement slots, the 3rdperson dative intervenes. However, for the purposes of the other probe the dative does not intervene.  The second case study comes from agreement on the verb with the subject in Persian, which works one way with a low probe on a simple main verb, but another way with a high probe on a modal auxiliary. We are forced to say that these probes have different sensitivities. To summarize:


LOW AGR sensitive to the person of DAT;  can’t see past it.

High AGR insensitive to person of DAT;  can see past it

Persian Modals

Low AGR is sensitive to the phi of intensional subject; can see past it.

High AGR is insensitive to person defectivity;  can’t see past it.

So it’s very disturbing, and it also makes one begin to suspect that there is something that is being missed here.  So maybe features and probing are just not the right way to be thinking about these particular kinds of syntactic dependencies.

Building vs. Renovation (Features Workshop Blogpost 1)

Day 1 of the features workshop started with Thomas Graf from Stonybrook (henceforth TG), who came out with guns blazing (Features: More Trouble than They’re Worth?).  And sure, if we are going to have a whole workshop about features, we should understand what that means.  So TG has shown that the formal relationship between features and constraints is one of Interdefinability.  Specifically, features can always be replaced by definable constraints within a monadic second order (MSO) logic, and that every MSO definable set of constraints can be encoded via features (Graf 2011, 2013, 2017, Kobele 2011).

So if systems articulated in terms of features and those expressed in terms of constraints are essentially notational variants, doesn´t that mean that we don´t need to worry about making a choice between them?  After all, they turn out to be `two different sides of the same coin´, mathematically speaking.  But as TG puts it, the problem is that the coin is too big.  It turns out that there are all sorts of crazy constraints that one can define in MSO, things that we absolutely do not want natural language to be able to do like for example the kinds of constraints we want but all of their symmetric opposites in addition, and random boolean combinations of them. Such systems can be made to count, they have no locality built in, and they freely allow mixing of constraints from different domains which really should not be talking to each other.

But this is just what we expect as linguists, right? The formalism itself does not do the analytical work for us—- thatis the job of the analyst. We need to construct the theory explicitly ourselves and constrain it based on what we see languages doing out there the wild.

But here´s the rub. It turns out that Feature Abuse is frighteningly easy to commit, and much harder to detect than one might imagine.  Features are hard to regulate because they produce global behaviour through many small interactions encoded in a distributed fashion over thousands of roots. This makes it hard to relate the high level properties of the system quasystem to specific aspects of the feature calculus.  But it is much easier to do and more mathematically well understood to claw back the power of constraints within MSO. For example, we can limit constraints to specific complexity classes, and we can formulate hypotheses and inject restrictions based on things like c-command, or locality in a controlled fashion.

One of the cool and important things about interdefinability is that it is the opposite of boring. Its not like translating Norwegian into English but more like translating Human into Martian. When you transform your landscape in Feature Land into Constraint Land, lakes turn into rain and volcanoes emerge from the mist, and vice versa.  For some reason, the human brain does not easily cognitively perceive systems that are in fact mathematically equivalent as the same. This says to me that the two different implementations, although computationally equivalent, may in fact have different consequences and predictions in any ultimate move towards a more algorithmic understanding of how these systems inhabit the brain.  For TG the warnings against features are methodological: working with constraints leads to better control and ability to test global properties of the system, and there´s no downside since they are always equivalent to the feature systems that most syntacticians prefer working with. So Features should be dumped in favour of Constraints.

But my reading of TG´s subsequent work, and indeed the second half of his talk, also makes a slightly less methodologically dry point.  The fact is that once you embrace interdefinability and work hard in different domains to reconceive systems described one way in terms of the other, you find that it is both hard, and interesting. It is eye-opening to see how an issue or problem or generalization reshapes and topologically modifies itself during that process. Some things that previously seemed to be patterns dissolve frustratingly, but other generalizations become easier to see. TG has been training his Transmogrification Device on various linguistic phenomena, looking at islands, at selection, and at *ABA patterns in attempts to give new feature free analyses. (As Prof. McGonagall points out, the transmogrification spell is more difficult to pull off as you increase  the complexity of the thing you are transmogrifying. Living things are particularly hard, and probably also linguistic analyses).

In the discussion session after TG´s talk,  Peter Svenonius (PS) asked isn´t a feature just a way of picking out a natural class of things to which a constraint or rule applies? So really the difference in notation is pretty benign.  TG says absolutely—- that´s exactly what underpins interdefinability,  but that once you explicitly reify the feature as part of the grammatical language, the properties of the system start to explode mathematically. Omer Preminger (OM) pointed out a case where a generalization emerged precisely by looking at things in terms of features, and TG said that of course such phenomena would be interesting points in favour of Feature theory, but that he would have to reserve judgement until he had a chance to see whether he could recast the system in terms of constraints to see if he could make the generalization emerge that way as well.

So will the talks in this workshop succeed in transcending the particularity of the feature language they are using to tell us something more general about the global systems they are describing? Will we be able to come up with a Theory of Feature Theory that will allow us to detect and avoid Feature Abuse?  Will we showcase analyses that will convince TG that there is something important and useful in looking at things from a feature theory perspective?

Or maybe such striving is premature, as one of my colleagues maintains, and we should just use whatever toolbox is at hand to build detailed and solid descriptions of the huge range of grammatical phenomena we are currently still woefully ignorant about.

Since this got longer than I had expected, summaries of Harbour, Sheehan and Bejar will appear in blogpost 2.


There Will be Blood

On Monday 27th and Tuesday 28thof May, a number of very clever linguists who have thought long and hard about grammatical theory will be descending on the tiny town of Tromsø, at UiT the Arctic University of Norway to try to make progress on one of the most central and parochial issues in the implementation of generative grammars—- namely, what is the right theory of features. 

The cast of characters includes Michelle Sheehan (Anglia Ruskin), Omer Preminger (Maryland), Susanna Bejar (U of Toronto), Daniel Harbour (Queen Mary)  and Thomas Graf (Stonybrook) as visitors and myself, Peter Svenonius, Craig Sailor, Antonio Fabregas and the rest of the Tromsø CASTLFish milieu as the hosts.

You will find a programme for the workshop here:

As Peter Svenonius says in his introduction to the topic of the workshop:

“Features are an indispensible part of any grammatical system, but there is little consensus on some of their essential properties.”

So why is there so little consensus, and do we expect that a workshop like this can come to some conclusions that will move the theory forward?  More importantly, will having a better theory of features within the implementation of grammars in this tradition, help us make progress on the big questions of language and grammar? Or is this just a housekeeping exercise for the members of a particular tribe?

Now, I´ve never been a Features girl, and I am not giving a talk at the workshop, although I have great respect for all the linguists we will be hosting next week and I will be there giving it my rapt attention. So I thought I would start this blogpost by trying to articulate for myself why I have never been very engaged with the theory of features debate thus far.  (Disclaimer: The following is a grumble-list based on my own particular interests, and also in many cases not relevant to the very best work on features, but to the mainstream. )

1.The royal family of feature theory is Phi features, in particular as they appear in agreement configurations. Agreement is the classic place where morphology is semantically inert. If you are me, you aren´t excited by semantic impotency.

2. Even when we get to move away from Phi feature agreement, too much work on features seems to spend too much time worrying about how features interact within a grammatical system, and much less on what they are. Is there more than one kind of Agree? Is probing upwards or downwards? I find it hard to think about these questions, or even contemplate case studies with any urgency in the absence of an overarching argument concerning what sorts of things are given featural manifestation.

3. Syntactic work on features and feature checking quite often involves lots of intricate low level detail and decisions between subtly different kinds of implementation. When I look at the details, I can nearly always think of another way of doing it that doesn´t conform to the axiomatic commitments of the authors. I have no faith that there is any contentful or prediction-making distinction between these notationally different but essentially equivalent choices of toolbox. Even though syntacticians take the atoms of their theories very seriously (see Thomas Graf´s blog post on this topic here ), they are still somehow committed to the idea that these theories are computational, rather than algorithmic in Marr´s sense and will explicitly disavow any predictions in terms of what real minds do. This seems like a contradiction to me, or at least a self deception.  If we take the computational level stance at its word, it becomes even less compelling to quibble over implementational hair splitting.

So this is why the current lineup of speakers promises to be so interesting.  Harbour and Sheehan are definitely worried about morphosemantics, and not just phi-feature agreement. Bejar and Preminger have worked on very similar kind of data and have different implementations  and theoretical commitments— can we press the issue and diagnose the extent to which these differences actually matter for something we should care about?   Graf is there as the mathematician keeping us honest with respect to what is formally equivalent and with what consequences, challenging us from outside the tribe. The whole team consists of individuals who are distinct in their items of faith, informed,  and opinionated enough to get a discussion going that will address the big picture architectural and methodological questions. The combinations are potent and provocative enough to deconstruct the whole damn system. It´s like the opposite of The Avengers coming together to save the world.  Since the world is feature theory as it is currently practised, I am quite happy to embrace a potential future apocalypse.

On the other hand, it might just be productive, world changing consensus building. and what will emerge will be foundational for the feature theories to come. 🙂

Stay tuned.


OASIS Conference Part II

The OASIS network was set up to foster connections between those thinking about the primitives of meaning composition across disciplines. From my own perspective, it means linguistic semantics reaching outwards to learn from scientists thinking about meaning from  psychology and neuroscience, from computer science and lexicography, and from philosophy.  It also involves trying to think about the problem in new and innovative ways and finding ways to close the commensurability gap between our formal semantic computational theories of meaning and the algorithmic and implementational realities of mind and brain.  In this second report from the kickoff network conference, I concentrate on panels and talks that were not given from the primary perspective of either formal syntax or semantics (there were great talks of that flavour  too at OASIS, but a psychology blogger should talk about them).

There were two invited talks from Alastair Knott  (University of Otago, New Zealand) and Friederike Moltmann  (CNRS) who spoke from the lands of neuroscience/psychology and philosophy respectively.  What are these strange lands, and do they speak a language we can understand? Knott is an expert on embodied cognition and the deconstructing of the logic of action, as in what it takes for a person to reach out and grab a cup.  His idea was that the deictic routines necessary for executing a simple motor event such as `grabbing a cup´ are of the same granularity, time wise and  with respect to the primitives involved, as the symbolic elements themselves required to represent an event of `grabbing a cup´ in  linguistic terms.

So here was an explicit attempt to close the commensurability gap (cf.  Embick and Poeppel (2015))  by essentially denying it—– the basic building blocks of the one can be directly identified with the building blocks of the other.  The position of these embodied cognition guys is that you get to move up a grain size from neuronal firings to motor plans, and in doing so you get to a level where the two types of language actually do translate each other.   It was a fascinating talk, and a brave attempt, but I simply wasn´t buying it.   Still, exactly the kind of thing that I come to OASIS conferences to hear. Check out his book here (

Moltmann was a completely different kettle of fish. She comes from a heretical position both from the point of view of philosophical metaphysics and  from the point of view of standard formal semantics.  Classical formal semantics invites us to take truth values and objects in the world as the basic ontological types— even subsorts within the type e category need to be justified in terms of extensional identity conditions and independently justifiable real world distinctions.  Philosophical metaphysical ontology is similarly concerned with discovering what actually exists  in the world.  Moltmann outlined what she argued was an emerging field of natural language ontology, whereby what we should be engaged in is a kind of descriptive metaphysics. In other other words, in the particular case of language, we as scientists of meaning should be interested in discovering the ontological primitives that are required for a successful description of the natural language system of meaning construction, i.e. natural language ontology ( What we should seek to discover are  the ingredients that are necessary and implicitly relied on in natural language systems, rather than those required for cognition in general, or those that underpin some objective external reality (see also the work of the philosopher Kit Fine).  In laying out this programme, Moltmann I believe is exactly correct, although of course many of the actual details remain to be worked out.  Her talk represented an attempt to clarify the terms, define the object of inquiry, and set the agenda for the whole enterprise in philosophical terms. In doing so, I think she, and Fine, myself and a growing number of like minded people are still definitively in the minority even though I believe this is the only way forward to genuine communication with psychology.

The panel on the acquisition of counterfactuality was an example of work where OASIS as a network is actively experimenting with bringing psychologists, psycholinguists and theoretical linguists together to help sharpen the questions and issues relevant to all.  Counterfactual reasoning, and language expressing counterfactual reasoning statements have long been fascinating for formal semanticists raising a number of interesting crosslinguistic  issues concerning the elements required to encode such ideas, and questions concerning the interaction of structural semantics and pragmatic reasoning.  The panel started with a clear and pointed theoretical overview from Fabienne Martin (Humboldt, Berlin), and was followed by more experimental talks from Sarah Beck (University of Birmingham) and Nina Kazanina (University of Bristol).

Beck points out that very small children engage in pretending games, pretending to be cats or princesses or dinosaurs. They are fully aware that they are not in fact dinosaurs, but does this entail that they are actually engaging in some form of counterfactual thinking?  Are there simpler versions of counterfactual thinking in which there could be a basic easy version and then a scaled-up adult version?

In Theory of Mind tasks, children start to give correct answers between ages 3 and 4. But recent work suggests that they behave correctly much earlier, as long as the understanding of what someone else might be thinking is not mediated by an explicitly verbal task.

Is this evidence that what is hard is language?  Or that the kids have a baby version that is not as complex as the one that is required by language?  Or maybe even that language allows kids to scale up their instinctive cognitive awareness of the reality of other minds to an automated sophisticated reasoning process using that information?  How could we know , and how would we test that?

Interestingly, in tests conducted by Beck and her team 3-4 year olds found it significantly more difficult to perform at adult levels when the question was `What if he had gone the other way,  where would he be now?´, as opposed to `What if next time he goes the other way, where would he be?´ Quite generally, kids found future hypotheticals easier than past counterfactual reasoning raising the possibility that what they find difficult is reasoning with an alternative to something they know for sure is a fact, as a opposed to just reasoning about two different live options.  Beck speculates, following Hoerl and McCormack, that children only get good at tracking events in a mature temporal updating system at about age 5. Maybe it is this ability that is necessary for the more complicated counterfactual reasoning question.

So, what´s the problem? Is it temporal tracking? Is it contradicting a past known event? OR, is it the linguistic complexity of the counterfactual reading that is getting in the way?

Nina Kazanina from the University of Bristol had been pushing hard on this very question.  If you compare the two conditionals in (a) and (b), it is clear that there is something quite linguistically unusual about (b) from the point of view of English.

  • If Amy eats an apple, she will get a medal.
  • If Amy had eaten an apple, she would have won the medal.

Kazanina set up an experiment with children involving puppets and different things to eat, and medals being awarded and tested them in various conditions. She first tested children on whether they had good control of the if — then  construction in English, and only those who performed close to ceiling on that pre-test were further tested on the counterfactual conditionals.  The scenario is the following: one animal eats the watermelon and gets a medal; the other animal eats the ice cream and gets a cross. A puppet then makes a statement like  `If he had eaten a watermelon, he would have got a medal´  and the kid has to say which animal the puppet is referring to.

The finding is that kids  get it right at age 4 but not at age 3. Further, this failure does not  correlate with performance on the false belief (theory of mind ) task administered at the same time.  Kazanina concludes that the problem is with the linguistic construction and not with the ability to entertain the possibility of false situations.

But is the problem with (b) a kind of hidden `not´ in the inferential process which is not transparently indicated in the linguistic form, as Kazanina claims (since (b)   entails that Amy did not eat the apple and in fact did not win the medal)?

Or is the problem with time tracking as Hoerl and McCormack suggest?

Or is the problem with the interpretation of the past tense in if-clauses, which is not interpreted like normal past tense in English but more like `remote world´  ? Come to think of it, that IS pretty weird.

Really interesting questions. Really interesting panel. I hope they will keep me posted.

Looking forward to the next OASIS conference in Nantes next year, and thanks to Bridget Copley and Isabelle Roy for organising this one.