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Constructions at Work: Chapter 9 . Cross-linguistic generalization in argument realization. 1.0. Background. Widespread claims that linking rules are universal.

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Constructions at work chapter 9

Constructions at Work: Chapter 9

Cross-linguistic generalization in argument realization

1 0 background
1.0. Background

Widespread claims that linking rules are universal.

Pinker (1989) suggests that “Linking rules seem to be near-universal in their essential aspects and therefore may not be learned at all…Linking rules can be universal and innate in the current theory”.

Naigles and Gleitman (1993) also argue that “there is sufficient cross-linguistic similarity in these linking rules to get the learning procedure started…There is an overwhelming tendency, cross-linguistically, for agents to appear as subjects and themes as direct objects, with other arguments appearing in oblique cases”.

Background continues
Background (continues)

Pinker (1989) offers an explicit proposal for mapping from semantic role to a surface syntactic position:

1. Link the agent to SUBJECT

2. Link the patient to OBJECT

3. Link the theme argument (first argument of BE or GO) to SUBJECT unless SUBJECT is already linked;

to OBJECT otherwise

4. Link the goal to an OBLIQUE (prepositional phrase) argument

5. Link the theme argument in a CAUSE TO HAVE predicate to the second object in a ditransitive construction

2 0 thesis of the chapter
2.0. Thesis of the chapter

Goldberg, however, argues that what are often considered as “universals”, as those shown earlier, are only tendencies, and each tendency is a result of general cognitive, pragmatic, or processing attributes of human cognition.

Therefore, argument structure constructions are learnable; the cross-linguistic generalizations that do exist are notexceptionless; and they can be motivated by non-linguistic generalizations.

Generalizations about linking between form and function provide no evidence for a genetically determined “universal grammar” related to argument structure generalizations.

3 0 actors and undergoers are expressed in prominent syntactic slots
3.0. Actors and Undergoers are expressed in prominent syntactic slots

Question: What are the cross-linguistic generalizations about how arguments are linked to syntactic positions?

Dowty (1991) proposed linking generalizations that are now widely cited as capturing the cross-linguistic universals:

“If there is a subject and an object, and if there is a proto-agent and proto-patient, then the proto-agent role is expressed by the subject, and the proto-patient argument is linked to object position”.

Dowty notes that this generalization holds except when the linking is the opposite in syntactically ergative languages.

(Continues) syntactic slots

Goldberg, however, points out that this generalization is oversimplified and can be problematic in that languages with ergative properties are typically “split ergative”.

This means that Dowty’s generalization does not hold across the board for all constructions in a given language. Moreover, within every language, there are usually particular constructions that violate the generalization such as anti-passives.

Spps proposed by goldberg
SPPS proposed by Goldberg syntactic slots

Therefore, Goldberg proposed a “rephrased” generalization:

The Salient Participants in Prominent Slots Generalization (SPPS):

“Actors and Undergoers are expressed in prominent syntactic slots”.

The SPPS generalization accounts for the fact that an Actor argument without an Undergoer, and an Undergoer without an Actor are also expressed in a prominent syntactic position.

Spps continues
SPPS: (continues) syntactic slots

(1) Actors are salient: a human’s attention is naturally drawn to actors. For example, a scene of a girl chasing a boy could be construed as a “chasing” scene or a “fleeing” scene, but speakers overwhelmingly choose to describe it as “chasing” (Fisher et al 1994). Thus, entities that initiate actions are highly cognitively “accessible”.

(2) Undergoers are salient: humans have a tendency to attend closely to one particular type of end point. Regier and Zheng (2003) note that subjects are better able to discriminate between events that have distinct end points than distinct onsets; subjects also use a wider range of more specific verbs to describe end-point-focused actions (such as putting a key in a lock) than onset-focused actions (such as taking a key out of a lock).

Spps summary
SPPS: summary syntactic slots

Thus, Actors and Undergoers tend to be expressed in prominent positions, because they are highly salient.

And, this follows from general facts about human perception and attention.

Isomorphic mapping hypothesis
Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis syntactic slots

Lidz at el (2003) claims that “noun phrase number lines up as simply as possible with argument number”. What these Universalists claim is called an Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis.

They also suggest that the Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis is an aspect of “universal grammar”: i.e. part of a set of hard-wired principles that are specific to language and are not the result of empirical experience.

Goldberg s challenge
Goldberg’s challenge syntactic slots

Goldberg challenges by arguing that the Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis is in fact far from being universally valid as a generalization about the surface structure.

For example, even within English, we can find many particular constructions where the Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis is systematically violated.

See Table 9. 1. on page 189, where the number of linguistically expressed participants (complements) differs from the number of central semantic participants (arguments).

Pragmatic generalization
Pragmatic Generalization syntactic slots

Instead, Goldberg suggests a more robust, but a weaker generalization.

Pragmatic generalization: that the referents of linguistically expressed NPs are assumed to be directly relevant to the semantic interpretation conveyed.

This generalization follows from Gricean pragmaticprinciples. Grice argues that human interactions generally, not just those that are specifically linguistic, are governed by a cooperative principle.

The application of gricean requirements
The application of Gricean requirements syntactic slots

This Gricean cooperative principle implies that any information supplied must be relevant to the communication at hand.

In the case of language,

(A) Linguistically expressed participants must be relevant to the message being conveyed.

(B) Sufficient information must be indicated for the intended message.

Pragmatic mapping generalizations
Pragmatic Mapping Generalizations syntactic slots

Based on these Gricean requirements, Goldberg further provides the following generalizations:

Pragmatic Mapping Generalizations:

(A) The referents of linguistically expressed NPs are interpreted to be relevant to the message being conveyed;

(B) Any semantic participants in the event being conveyed that are relevant and non-recoverable from context must be overtly indicated.

Notice that (A) does not specify exactly how the referents of linguistically expressed NPs should be integrated semantically, nor does (B) specify exactly how semantic participants may be indicated. This allows for the possibility that different languages and different constructions obey principles (A) and (B) in different ways.

Discourse conditioned argument omission
Discourse-conditioned argument omission syntactic slots

Pragmatic Mapping Generalizations:

(B) Any semantic participants in the event being conveyed that are relevant and non-recoverable from context must be overtly indicated.

Notice that (B) above makes no predictions about semantic participants that are recoverable or irrelevant.

This is important, because different languages (and indeed, different constructions within languages) do different things in these circumstances.

Many, perhaps the majority of languages in the world, allow recoverable or irrelevant arguments, both subject and object, to be routinely omitted.

These languages include, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Hungarian, Russian, Hindi, and Lao.

Say no more than you must
“Say no more than you must” syntactic slots

There is a clear motivation from conversational pragmatics for leaving such arguments unexpressed.

One of the four Conversational Maxims proposed by

Paul Grice, Maxim of Quantity:

“Say no more than you must”.

That is, when topical arguments are recoverable, there is noneed to utter them.

Goldberg provide a typical dialogue in Russian:

Q: Did you introduce Ivan to Marsha?

A: Da, dedstavil.

‘Yes, ( I ) introduced (him) (to her)’

Japanese examples
Japanese examples: syntactic slots

The following is a typical statement from a lover in Japanese:

Looking in the eyes of his lover:

S: Aishiteiru yo. Aishi-te-iru yo.

‘( I ) love (you)’ love-L-progressive FP

Although English generally requires all arguments to be overtly expressed, Japanese allows the omitting of any recoverable arguments.

Japanese examples continue
Japanese examples continue: syntactic slots

A conversation that took place in a high school classroom in Japan:

The teacher is asking students to turn their homework in;

Student A looks at his friend B and asks a question:

A: Shita. (raising intonation)

‘Did (you) (do) (your homework)?’

B: Shitenai.

‘( I ) didn’t (do) (it)’

What needs to be noted here is that no native speakers of Japanese would feel that something is missing upon hearing these utterances.

Instead, they will be construed as “full-sentences”.

Argument omission continues
Argument omission continues: syntactic slots

Yet each language listed above differs in whether or not recoverable arguments can be omitted, even though omissability is clearly conventional in those languages. For example:

In Hebrew, discourse topics, whether subjects or objects, can be omitted, but other recoverable arguments cannot generally be.

In Brazilian Portuguese, omitted objects must be topics and are predominantly inanimate or third-person animate, i.e. first- or second-person objects are not readily omitted.

Since the Pragmatic Mapping Generalizations do not determine whether arguments that are recoverable are necessarily expressed, this kind of variation in conventionalized options can be expected.

These examples indicate that the Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis is indeed far from being universally valid as a generalization about the surface structure.

A case of argument omission in english
A syntactic slots case of argument omission in English

Interestingly enough, all languages allow omitted arguments in certain constructions. Even in English, which rarely allows argument omission compared to most languages of the world, object omission can happen due to a particular confluence of discourse properties. The following examples illustrate this phenomenon:

(a) The chef-in-training chopped and diced all afternoon.

(b) Tigers only kill at night.

(c) Pat gave and gave, but Chris just took and took.

Argument omission in english continues
Argument omission in English continues syntactic slots

Observe another instance where the argument can be unexpressed:

In the Deprofiled Object construction (1), or it can be expressed as in (2):

(1) The tiger killed again.

(2) The tiger killed someone/something again.

Notice that the same scene can be described by either (1) or (2) and yet the number of overtly expressed NPs differs in the two examples.

Argument omission summary
Argument omission: summary syntactic slots

All languages allow omitted arguments in certain constructions.

The existence of such constructions in these languages further indicates that the underlying motivation for the expression of arguments is at root pragmatic.

Thus, the Isomorphic Mapping Hypothesis is violated cross-linguistically and even within the language as well.

Generalizations about reduced forms cross linguistically
Generalizations about reduced forms cross-linguistically

It was discussed in Chapter 3 that highly frequent words and collocations tend to be reduced in online production and, over time, the reduced forms often become conventionalized.

There seem to be two motivations for the reduction.

First, it is more economical to produce shorter utterances if the same informational content can be conveyed.

That is, high frequency is correlated with predictability.

Thus the tendency to reduce highly frequent strings may be motivated in the same way that omission of recoverable arguments, that we have observed, is motivated: by the pragmatic dictum of economy: say no more than is necessary.

Second, highly frequent strings are based in the motor control of the speaker: highly practiced sequences tend to become routinized and thus abbreviated.

Reduced forms example
Reduced forms: example cross-linguistically

For example, there is a strong cross-linguistic tendency for “want” constructions to omit the subject pronoun in same-subject complements.

The following is the English coreferential “equi deletion”:

(1) I want to play.

(2) I want her to play.

This is clearly a cross-linguistic tendency that should be motivated, but not predicted by linguistic theory.

The lower clause subject omission in (1) is motivated because it is statistically predictable. That is, we tend to talk more about a person’s wishes about their own action.

The statistical likelihood of the lower clause subject being coreferential with the main clause subject allows the complement clause to be abbreviated.

Reduced forms summary
Reduced forms: summary cross-linguistically

Thus, the above is more evidence of an independently motivated universal of linguistic expression: highly frequent predictable combinations tend to undergo reduction.

The role of analogy ditransitive
The role of analogy: ditransitive cross-linguistically

Many languages in the world including English have a ditransitive form with the recipient immediately postverbal and without preposition, followed by the theme argument, where this ditransitive form is associated with a meaning of “transfer”.

The recurrence of this pattern in unrelated languages leads us to ask why this is a natural form to use to express meanings related to “transfer”.

Since constructionists argue that constructions are learned pairings of form and function, it is necessary to explain why this generalization exists across unrelated languages in the world.

The role of analogy continues
The role of analogy continues: cross-linguistically

In the semantics of “transfer”, the recipient argument is a prototypical Undergoer, a causee, since it is caused to receive the theme argument.

At the same time, the theme argument is a different type of Undergoer in that it undergoes a change of ownership.

Hegave hera book.

agent recipient theme

Thus, the SPPS generalization (The Salient Participants in Prominent Slots Generalization): actors and Undergoers are expressed in prominent syntactic slots motivates both arguments being expressed in prominent slots.

The role of analogy continues1
The role of analogy continues: cross-linguistically

Further, the fact that recipient arguments tend to come before the theme argument in a ditransitive construction can be explained as follows:

the recipient argument has certain subject-like properties vis-à-vis the theme argument, and subjects appear before objects in all the languages that have ditransitive constructions. Semantically, the recipient is animate, as are the great majority of subjects.

It also tends to be already given or topicalin the discourse and is typically expressed pronominally, as are subjects.

The role of analogy summary
The role of analogy: summary cross-linguistically

Thus, the syntactic expression of the recipient argument of ditransitives is based on simultaneous analogies with cause-objects and possessor-subjects.

It is natural to express the meaning of “transfer” with a ditransitive form, because of simultaneous parallels between recipient and patient-objects on the one hand, and possessor-subjects on the other.

Word order generalizations
Word-Order Generalizations cross-linguistically

The “head-directionality parameter” is often cited as an example of a purely syntactic generalization which requires an appeal to universal grammar.

The Head directionality parameter is a proposed parameter that provides a choice between:

  • Heads are found at the beginning of their phrases (head-initial languages);

  • Heads are found at the end of their phrases (head-final languages).

Word order generalization continues
Word-Order Generalization continues: cross-linguistically

The head directionality parameter can be applied to most cases, which is shown below:


English: at home (preposition)

Japanese: ie de

home at (postposition)

Relative Clauses:

English: The man who stole the car

Japanese: Kuruma-o nusunda otoko

car-ACC stole man

Word order generalization continues1
Word-Order Generalization continues: cross-linguistically

However, exceptions to this Head directionality parameter can also be found:

Persian is a language in which adpositions come before their objects while verbs come after the objects. And, the language has stably remained in this state for hundreds of years.

This fact castsa doubt on the idea that a “head directionality” is really hard-wired into our genome. Children learn each of the particular verbs, prepositions, and nouns involved. As they do so, the order of arguments is apparent in the input.

Word order generalization continues2
Word-Order Generalization continues: cross-linguistically

Goldberg suggests that the close relationship between verbs and adpositions is likely a consequence of the fact that adpositions typically evolve from verbs diachronically.

In addition, the statistical likelihood of processing difficulty can lead to the conventionalized preferred ordering of constituents (Hawkins 1990, 1994).

Word order sign languages
Word-Order: Sign Languages cross-linguistically

Also, Goldberg indicates that the tendency for sign languages to display SOV order comes from the fact that the same tendency exists in a non-linguisticdomain, that of gesture.

Hearing adults who know no sign language also use OV order when gesturing without words (Meadow et al 2000).

Word order generalizations summary
Word Order Generalizations: summary cross-linguistically

Thus, languages tend to have stable head orders due to diachronic processes and processingpreferences.

Languages tend to develop fixed word order or case marking in order to avoid ambiguity.

The fact that sign languages appear to prefer OV order and directional agreement appears to have its roots in non-linguistic gestures.

Iconicity cross-linguistically

Even with iconicity, which has been much attacked in the literature, one can make some robust generalizations.

Generally, a tight semantic bond between items tends to be represented by a correspondingly tightsyntactic bond.

Iconicity continues
Iconicity continues: cross-linguistically

For example, grammatical operators such as plural markers, determiners, case markers, classifiers are expressed near their operands in the linear string.

This can mean that morphology and semantics are aligned.

Iconicity continues1
Iconicity continues: cross-linguistically

Goldberg also discusses the strong preference in Persian and other languages for treating various kinds of complex predicates as single, syntactically integrated predicates.

It is suggested that this is motivated iconically by the complex predicates’ status as a semantically integrated predicate.

Conclusion cross-linguistically

We have seen that generalizations typically capture tendencies, not hard and fast constraints.

Certain semantic/pragmatic functions are so relevant and useful that they can be found in language after language.

Therefore, it is advantageous to explain universal tendencies by appeal to independently motivated pragmatic, semantic, and processing, historical, iconic, and analogical facts, ultimately buttressed by experimental data. This will shed light on issues related to why languages are the way they are, since these would not be expected to be perfectly exceptionless.