Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Another thing...

So I tried out my analysis below on some members of my reading group last night, while waiting for everyone to arrive, and everyone thought I was jumping the gun with the "quantifying over deictic spheres" instead of "worlds." Which is fine, because what I was really trying to get at, I think, is the idea that BF may lack an existential quantifier. Which would then explain why whenever we try to elicit things like "a man," "some men," "a few men," we get elaborate round-about ways of conveying these. (The few quantifiers over sets that we've found so far all seem to be interpretable as universals, like 'all' (duh) and 'both'...)

So now what I'm asking: Does anyone know someplace else where someone might expect an existential quantifier, in a language like English?

And just because I like to complain, UBC says that this article on (supposed) existential polarity items in Chinese is (supposedly) available full-text online, but the referred site keeps asking me for $32.00! Now I might have to do something ridiculous, like actually, physically, go into the library and find the journal...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Trying to piece together an analysis

Do you know how you can see bits of a picture, and then your mind will fill in the empty places, so that you think you're seeing a complete picture? Or you can see the first and last letter of a word, where the middle letters are all mixed up, and your brain will unmix-it-up for you? I've been hoping that my brain would manage to fill-in and unmix-up a half-baked analysis that's been mouldering in my mind for something like 8 months. Unfortunately, my brain hasn't quite managed to do it yet. So I'm asking for help! Or assurance that I'm not crazy.

Now, this research is what I've been focusing on for the past two years, and it's very dear to me, but I've been reluctant to post on this stuff before. This is because the relevant data really belongs to my language consultant, not me, and I don't think it's right to just splash it all over the internet. But I think I've managed to write it in a way that avoids this problem since I don't actually provide any data.

So here is my full-of-holes-and-faulty-logic working analysis:

Assumption 1: In IE languages like English, semantic truth-values are encoded through Tense, or IP, in the clausal (verbal) domain. (Kearns 2000)

Messy Assumption 2: The semantic equivalent of truth-values in the nominal domain is existence, or referentiality. (Because I am, er, semantically-challenged, I'm not sure what the difference between existence and referentiality is. )

Now, here is a hole. Is this assumption justifiable? I figure that nominal elements don't really have truth-values, but something more like an existential, or referential value. Or looking at it the other way, a noun has (or doesn't have) a referential value, and the clausal/verbal is considered 'true' if event being referred to exists, and is 'false' if the event doesn't exist. Does that make sense? Man, I really wish there were more undergraduate classes in semantics. But anyways, assuming that the above, er, assumption [i], is justified, I'll move on with the holey analysis...

Generalization 1: NPIs are known for having existential narrow-scope - they are non-referential (Progovac 1994, Uribe-Etxebarria 1996)

Assumption 3: Blackfoot lacks the syntactic node Tense, utterances instead being anchored deictically via a Participant (as in Speech Act Participant) node (Ritter & Wiltschko 2005).

Now, here's where my (poor excuse of an) analysis get's really vague and holey. I have a load of questions. If Blackfoot doesn't have the syntactic node Tense, how are semantic truth-values encoded? Or are they even encoded? Because there's this idea that several languages do not ASSERT information, but instead PRESENT information (or so I gathered from my LING 447 evidentials seminar...but have yet to find a citable reference) Does the Participant node encode truth-values, or some other semantic, perhaps speech act participant-related, property being encoded?

BUT anyways, if I jump over that giant hole in my analysis, and assume that there is some kind of Participant-related-semantic feature encoded by Participant node in the clausal/verbal domain, the simplest stab at what the nominal equivalent would just be Participant. Right? Because while it doesn't really make sense for nouns to have a +/- truth-value, they can certainly have a +/- SpeechActParticipant value.

Now putting this all together, one might predict that Blackfoot NPIs wouldn't have an existential property within the scope of negation, but instead have a parallel SpeechActParticipant property within the scope of negation. (Which, of course, I already know is the case, and I'm just pretending is a prediction for presentation's sake...)

So, despite the giant holes, does this analysis make sense? Is it interesting? I hope it's interesting...

And a question from this: How might such a semantic 'SpeechActParticipant' property manifest in other parts of the language? What kind of predictions does this analysis make? How cool would it be if this language didn't quantify over worlds, but instead over deictic spheres? Or something like that...

[i] I know Giannakidou's 1998 notion of semantic (non)veridicality (which is directly related to truth-values) translates (non)veridicality onto the nominal domain (with determiners and quantifiers) in terms of whether the denotation of the NP is nonempty or not...which kind of feels like the same sort of thing I'm trying to say. Except, of course, the semantic terminology is a giant barrier in my understanding. See now, I really could benefit from a 'Semantics Awareness Week'...(Hey, they have those wristbands for just about anything. Why not this?)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Linguistic Ecumenism

Hi. I've been MIA for a bit, and haven't posted yet, so I thought I'd better say hi, and thanks for inviting me to be part of the team and stuff.

Today I'm going to talk about linguistic ecumenism.

In my two years at the fringes of the linguistics academic community, one thing I notice over and over again is that different fields of linguistics don't talk to each other. I believe the reasons for this include the following:

1. Time. Who has time to read a lot of research in her own field, much less the less-relevant fields?

2. Disdain. It is easy to get dogmatic about something you know a fair bit, but not a huge amount, about. My first exposure to linguistics was Chomskian*, and the arguments for it are quite conviincing. The arguments against it are not given. There are plenty of structural linguists, who, with good reason, think sociolinguistics is premature: how can we study language variation when we don't even know what language is? And there are plenty of sociolinguists who, also with good reason, think structural linguistics is oversimplifying to the point of failing to capture anything about language. Etc.

3. Ignorance. Linguists who know nothing of a given subfield of their discipline are likely to fail to see the value of it, or even fail to notice its existence.

Another thing I've noticed is that there are many students, especially at the undergrad level, who are still interested in subfields of linguistics that are not their specialty. I've spoken to many young linguists on this very topic, and while some are somewhat agreeable for the sake of being friendly or polite, and throw in half-joking comments like "well, sure, except for [insert derided subfield/theory here]", many are in full agreement. Enough that I say we start an explicit movement.


A spectre is haunting linguistics -- the spectre of Ecumenism. All the powers of old linguistics have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: prof and chair, Chomsky and Labov, MIT dogmatics and UCLA postmodernists.

Where is the theory in opposition that has not been decried as foolish by its opponents at MIT?

Two things result from this fact:

I. Ecumenism is already acknowledged by all traditional academic powers to be itself a power.

II. It is high time that Ecumenical Linguists should openly, in the face of the whole linguistic world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of ecumenism with a manifesto of the movement itself.

To this end, imaginary Ecumenical Linguists of various institutions have assembled in my head and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in English, IPA and possibly French if we feel like it.

We have laboured under the pretense that separate subfields of linguistcs are in conflict with one another. No more! We must recognise that linguistics is a science, and therefore (1) is virtually always wrong, and (2) must by definition be constantly open to refutation, alternative theories and new data. A good scientist is excited by problematic data and opposing viewpoints. A good scientist struggles against her ego in the service of the search for knowledge. Brothers and sisters, the ego must not win!

We, the new generation of linguists, must rise up against this dogmatic separation! We must fight for the time to keep up on research from outside our tiny specialties! We must fight down the egoistic need to be right, and embrace opposition, debate, and cooperation!


* A math prof once told me that the greatest compliment a mathematician can get is for his name to be used as an ordinary noun: uncapitalised and subject to morphology. Chomsky's halfway there.