Colloquium: Semantic variation and the grammar of property concepts

May 3, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Itamar Francez, University of Chicago

Dixon (1982) famously identified seven classes of property concepts (PCs), concepts consistently lexicalized as adjectives in languages with this lexical category. PC lexemes, i.e. lexemes encoding PCs, such as adjectives in English, form the basis for what we term PC constructions—constructions expressing PC predication (1) and PC comparison (2).

  1. Mary is strong.
  2. Mary is stronger than you.

This talk discusses the effects of variation in the meaning of PC-lexemes on the grammar of PC constructions. I demonstrate that, in a range of unrelated (and relatively less-studied) languages in which PC lexemes are nominal rather than adjectival, PC constructions systematically surface with possessive morphology/syntax. This pattern, termed "possessive strategies of predication", is argued to reflect a semantics of "property possession", driven by the lexical semantics of the participating PC lexemes. I present a simple, model theoretic theory of properties and property possession, and demonstrate its use in constructing a compositional analysis of PC constructions in Ulwa, an endangered Misumalpan language of Nicaragua. I then use this theory to derive the morphosyntactic variation found across three languages in the morphosyntactic relation between the three main components of PC constructions: the PC lexeme (the lexical item encoding the PC), the positive predicate (the expression expressing the main "semantic predicate" in a predicative PC), and the comparative predicate (the expression expressing the "semantic predicate" in a comparative PC). I argue that the crosslinguistic picture supports a transparent relation between semantic and morphosyntactic derivation, i.e. one in which overt morphosyntactic derivation reflects semantic operations, and semantic operations are overtly encoded, as well as the view that morphosyntactic variation is largely rooted in facts about lexicalization.