Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prescriptivist Tenses...

I use this 'Stumble' extension for Firefox, which randomly sends you to webpages that others have tagged as interesting. Today it sent me to this page. Let me warn you - it's a prescriptivist rant. [insert your own spiel about how prescriptivism is wrong]. What I found fascinating is the fact that people rant about these things without researching them first. If I were to rant about something, I would research it first, you know, to cover my bases. So here's an excerpt:

#27: UNEXPLAINED CONDITIONALS: I'm baffled by the now almost universal use in the U.S. of the conditional tense where no condition appears to exist to justify it. For example, it is now apparently standard practice to thank people conditionally, as in "I would like to thank Joe Smith for all his help." The use of "would" suggests an unspoken condition, as in "I would like to thank Joe Smith for all his help but I'm not going to" and prompts the response, "What's stopping you?" "I want to thank ....." is no better. Just say "Thank you, Joe Smith, for all your help" and slip him the plain envelope with the cash. November 23, 2005.

Now, I know that people usually talk about a 'conditional mood' as opposed to a 'conditional tense', and I know that I hear the counterfactual conditional being used to convey politeness all of the time. But what I don't know (shamefully), is what 'mood' is. I know Tense, according to Reichenbach, is the relationship between the utterance time UT and the reference time RT. But in order to provide a definition for mood I'll need to do some googling...

(cue wavy lines and 'passing of time' music)

Definition 1:


SYNTAX: cover term for one of the four inflectional categories of verbs (mood, tense, aspect, and modality). The most common categories are associated with the way sentences are used: indicative (statement), imperative (command), optative (wish), etc. Sometimes the distinction between declaratives (I go) and interrogatives (Do I go?) is considered one of mood. "


Definition 2:

"Mood is one of a set of distinctive forms that are used to signal modality" where "modality is a facet of illocutionary force, signaled by grammatical devices (that is, moods), that expresses" either "the illocutionary point or general intent of a speaker, or a speaker’s degree of commitment to the expressed proposition's believability, obligatoriness, desirability, or reality. "

Source: SIL

Definition 3:

"unlike modals, mood markers do not have quantificational force of their own; their main function is to add a presupposition about the type of conversational background that is involved in the modal interpretation of the sentence."

Source: Matthewson et. al 2005:12, on Portner 1997

So, er, while I still don't know exactly what 'mood' is, I think the common theme in the above definitions are that mood is what results when something is morphologically or syntactically used to encode elements of the F-domain, where F consists of the illocutionary force and illocutionary context. (where Speech Act = illocutionary force + illocutionary context + propositional content). Obviously that needs to be ironed out a bit, because I think the vagueness of that definition allows the encoding of information structure like Topic and Focus to also be considered as moods markers..which I'm not sure is what I want.

If anyone wants to tell me what mood actually is, I'd be grateful!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Post-nominal 'of'-phrases

A question for L1 English speakers: Do you agree with the judgments given below?

(113)*The imposition of the government of a fine
(114) The government's imposition of a fine

These are stolen from David Adger's 'Core Syntax', by the way. The generalization is that Agents cannot be realized as post-nominal 'of'-phrases, but for me, in my[1] brand of English, (113) is grammatically well-formed. It's just stylistically disgusting. Is this just me, or do other people get this too?

[1] evidently nonstandard

Friday, April 13, 2007

A (lexical) semantic or syntactic definition?


Buahahah, another reason to avoid preparing for my anthropology exam (and I feared I had exhausted them all...)

If we're talking about evidentials, I feel like I have to point out that evidentials are not restricted to assertions - some languages (although this is typologically rare) allow evidentials to tack onto questions and imperatives, and for this reason I prefer to use Faller 2002's broad definition of an evidential. She defines evidentials are as elements that "encode the grounds for making a speech act," which for the speech acts of the type 'assertion', are typically one's information source (Faller 2002:81). Just to frame things, Faller defines epistemic modality as referring to a judgment of possibility or necessity regarding the truth of a proposition (Faller 2002:81). The main difference she makes between evidentials and epistemic modals, as I read it, is whether or not an element encodes as opposed to implicates the relevant semantic material. (Whether or not this can be conflated with Matthewson et. al 2005's notion of 'fixed' versus 'context-varying' values is a headache I feel I should have figured out but still haven't). Basically, an evidential encodes one's grounds for making a speech act, and may or may not implicate judgments/evaluations regarding the the validity of the speech act. An epistemic modal encodes a judgment/evaluation, and may or may not implicate one's grounds for making the speech act. And, as Aislin mentioned, language can be sticky in that an element might encode both. So, if Aislin's in De Haan's camp, you can say that I'm camping out with Faller. I like her definitions.

Now, my issue is not so much how these semantic definitions hold up to other semantic definitions, but how these semantic definitions correspond with the syntactic tests used to categorize an element as either an evidential or an epistemic modal. Tests for evidentials often involve trying to embed them under some sort of propositional operator (such as my favourite propositional operator, negation), where dedicated evidentials are supposed to scope outside of the propositional content, and epistemic modals are ...well...tricky. Some of them can scope under negation (eg. English 'can') but some of them scope outside of negation (eg. English 'must')...but generally, if something scopes under a propositional operator, it's probably a modal (sufficient, but not necessary). At least this is the impression I get. My issue with this is that it seems to assume i) that a notion like syntactic c-command at LF correlates with semantic scope, and ii) that an element is either under the scope of a propositional operator, or outside of the scope of a propositional operator.

ii) is the one that makes me think the most. As noted above, things can encode more than one kind of semantic material (like English tense/aspect being conflated in the Perfect, etc.). So say you have a morpheme /MORPHEME/ that encodes both a semantic feature A and also another semantic feature B. What stops A from escaping the scope of a propositional operator while B stays within the aforementioned propositional operator's scope? Am I just a crazy person, or does this make sense to other people too?

On a side note...I'd also like to welcome Meaghan Fowlie to the blog!

And another side note: I am a dork, so when I saw this footnote:

**ie, by me, in my arrogant undergrad seminar papers. But by actual, non-proto linguists, as well

It made me think that Aislin was reconstructed from comparative research on extant linguists, and should really be denoted as *Aislin. (Man, linguists get a lot of mileage out of that asterix...remember phrase structure rules where a star AFTERWARDS means recursive???)

And since three is a good number, another side note: I totally want a linguistics t-shirt, but am torn between the several options of what to put on the t-shirt...whether to do an "I *heart* Saussurre", or something that could be taken entirely the wrong way by non-linguists like "I raise my diphthongs before voiceless obstruents"...

Fun with derivational morphology!

Do you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia?

"It's a word we in the media like to trot out today: paraskevidekatriaphobia [pronounced pair-uh-skee-vee-dek-uh-tree-uh-FOH-bee-uh] -- the excessive, and sometimes morbid fear of Friday the 13th.

"We like it, first, because it's such an impressive-sounding word -- it takes some doing to make all those syllables trip elegantly off the tongue".

Interesting tidbit: "The word 'paraskevidekatriaphobia' was devised by Dr. Donald Dossey who told his patients that 'when you learn to pronounce it, you're cured!'"

A welcome and a few words on evidentiality

I'd like to welcome Meaghan Fowlie to the Language Nerds Team*. She's assured me that she'll write something as soon as she works herself out from under the end-of-term paper deluge. Anyway, let's hear it for institutional diversity!

Meagan (not to be confused with Meaghan, above,) has recently been complaining that no one else has been posting, and that she feels lonely and awkward. Like, one might imagine, a girl who went to a junior high school dance with a bunch of friends, and is now sitting miserably on a bench beside the DJ's table because everyone's ditched her to go kiss boys on the soccer field, and she hates this song, and she didn't want to come, anyway. Not that that's ever happened or anything.

So I thought I'd drop a few words about evidentiality, a remarkably contentious subject that we've been studying in a seminar this past semester, and then we can argue about it. The definition of evidentiality is somewhat contested, but most people agree that it's concerned with linguistically encoding information source. For example, in her 2004 monograph on the subject, Aikhenvald divided evidentiality into visual (ie, evidence from sight) and non-visual (from another sense) direct evidence and inferred, assumed and reported indirect evidence. Now, Aikhenvald's typology has been criticized** for including only dedicated evidential morphemes*** and, apparently, basing her semantic typology on the system of Tariana, a language she's studied extensively. But, y'know, typology is hard work, especially when dealing with a somewhat ill-defined semantic notion, so props to Aikhenvald.

But the really controversial issue is what relationship evidentiality has to epistemic modality, which essentially, conveys the speaker's degree of certainty in the proposition presented.**** The controversy is understandable: these two notions are often closely linked, as in Western Germanic languages or St'at'imcets. Furthermore, some have asserted that modal judgements are implicit in evidence type, as some types of evidence (generally direct) are more valuable than others.***** But there are counterexamples: for example, in Kashaya Pomo, all evidentially marked statements are taken as certain, and in Plains Cree direct quotes (which is certainly a type of reportative) are considered very valuable evidence.

Now, a bold statement to kickstart debate: I'm with de Haan -- "Epistemic modality evaluates evidence and on the basis of this evaluation assigns a confidence measure to the speaker's utterance. ... An evidential asserts that there is evidence for the speaker's utterance but refuses to interpret the evidence in any way." (1999; italics present in the original.) I will, however, concede that a given morpheme can have both modal and evidential force. What do you think?

*Who's in favour of tee shirts? "TEAM LANGUAGE NERDS": I think the world is ready.
**ie, by me, in my arrogant undergrad seminar papers. But by actual, non-proto linguists, as well.
***Although, apparently, some people think that other strategies for conveying evidential force don't count or something. Oh, what a tangled web...
****See: SIL's somewhat facile treatment, Matthewson's article on St'at'imcets modality and de Haan's evidentiality homepage, if you're interested in reading some divergent viewpoints.
*****Check out Palmer and Frajzyngier's****** 1987 Truth and the compositionality principle: A reply to Palmer and 1985 Truth and the indicative sentence, both in Studies in Language, for examples of these kinds of arguments.
******Holy goodness, but that dude publishes a lot.