Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Syntax or Lexicon?

Ok, if we're gonna get this blog started again, I thought a good way to do this would be to ask a question.

So, I've got a question. A rather vague "how do you feel about this approach?" question, that's been a bit of a topic in my syntax class.

I've recently been trying to make my way through"The Normal Course of Events" by Hagit Borer. One of her main themes is that several phenomena traditionally accounted for through lexical specification should actually be accounted for through structural/syntactic means.

For instance, Borer argues that the difference between mass nouns and count nouns, which is traditionally accounted for by stating that each noun in the lexicon is specified as either mass or count[1], is actually structurally represented, so that count nouns have more functional structure than mass nouns.

This is extended to the verbal domain as well. So the difference between unergative and unaccusative verbs, argues Borer, is not a lexical difference, such that "run" is specified as an "unergative" verb, while "arrive" is specified as an "unaccusative" verb, but is actually a structural difference such that unergative verbs have more functional structure than unaccusatives.

And again, the difference between telic and atelic verbs is that telic verbs have more functional structure than atelic verbs.

So what do you think about this approach that consists of taking all of the information out of the lexicon and instead representing it structurally? Like it or don't like it? Good move or bad move? Why or why not?

As for me, going with my gut feeling, I kind of like the idea that everything is structurally represented (so that even a notion like "verb" and "noun" is derived in the syntax). But then I wonder: what does such an approach mean for languages like Yucatec Mayan?

In Yucatec Mayan, there are (at least) two types of intransitive verbs: inherently telic, and inherently atelic intransitives. The inherently telic verbs, when unmarked, are interpreted as (hence the name) telic. They need to be overtly marked by an atelic morpheme to be interpreted as atelic. The inherently atelic verbs, on the other hand, when unmarked, are interpreted as atelic, and they require an overt telic morpheme to be interpreted as telic.

So if Borer is arguing that atelicity is universally represented by less functional structure, what does it mean to have these inherently telic verbs, where an overt morpheme marks atelicity, and telicity is unmarked?

Now, I have yet to fully read Borer (and have the suspicion that her theory actually may be able to account for this [2]) but at first glance this seems problematic, IF I assume that overt morphological marking corresponds to more functional structure.

So yes, two questions: What do you think of having all the information represented structurally, as opposed to being listed in the lexicon, and is the assumption that overt morphological marking corresponds to more functional structure valid?


[1] On a random note...why is "e-mail" a count noun, but "mail" a mass noun?
[2] My paper topic for this syntax class! It's getting somewhat ridiculous: I don't know how to get around using the following phrase "inherently atelic (i.e. possible unergative) intransitives," but really, there ought to be a limit to the number of morphological negations you can use in a single noun phrase...

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Ig Nobel Prize in Linguistics

"A University of Barcelona team for showing that rats are unable to tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and somebody speaking Dutch backwards."


Presumably this means they could tell the difference between Dutch and Japanese spoken forward...

We've got to get going on this blog again!