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Semantic and formal features in language change. Elly van Gelderen DGfS, March 2012. Outline. 1 What are the Minimalist features? 2 How do they work in language change and why? 3 Where do features `come from’? 4 Possible future directions. The importance of features.

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semantic and formal features in language change

Semantic and formal features in language change

Elly van Gelderen

DGfS, March 2012


1 What are the Minimalist features?

2 How do they work in language change and why?

3 Where do features `come from’?

4 Possible future directions.

the importance of features
The importance of features

Chomsky (1965: 87-88): lexicon contains information for the phonological, semantic, and syntactic component.

Sincerity +N, -Count, +Abstract...)

Chomsky (1995: 230ff; 236; 277ff):

semantic (e.g. abstract object),

phonological (e.g. the sounds),

and formal features:

intrinsic or optional.

The intrinsic ones are "listed explicitly in the lexical entry or strictly determined by properties so listed" (Chomsky 1995: 231) and include categorial features, the Case assigning features of the verb, and the person and gender features of the noun.

Optional features are added arbitrarily and are predictable from linguistic Principles (e.g. nouns need Case or some kind of licensing). They include the tense and agreement features of verbs and the number and Case features of nouns.

features of airplane and build adapted from chomsky 1995 231
Features of airplane and build(adapted from Chomsky 1995: 231)


semantic: e.g. [artifact] e.g. [action]

phonological: e.g. [begins with a vowel; e.g. [one syllable]

two syllables]


intrinsic optional intrinsic optional

[nominal] [number] [verbal] [phi]

[3 person] [Case] [assign accusative] [tense]


the much more important distinction 1995 277
The "much more important distinction“ (1995: 277):

Formal features are: interpretable and uninterpretable


Interpr. [nominal] [verbal]

[3 person] [assign [non-human] accusative]

Uninterpr [Case] [phi]

chomsky 2001 10
Chomsky (2001: 10)

Phonological features are accessed at PF, the semantic ones at LF, and the formal ones accessible in the NS, but semantic and formal “intersect”.

This intersection was not there in Chomsky (1965: 142) where semantic features are defined as not involved in the syntax.

The uninterpretable ones are valued and only survive to PF; the interpretable ones are relevant at LF.

around 1998 agree
Around 1998: AGREE

(1) TP





many buffaloes V PP

[i-3] [i-P] are

in the room

formal features aren t uniform
Formal features aren’t uniform

A) Two-way, reciprocal: agreement [u-phi] and [u-Case].

B) just interpretable: Cinque’s features for modals and possibly [i-phi] in Pronominal Argument Languages.

C) One-way, non-reciprocal: [u-neg] and [i-neg]

So, `active’ is debatable as is the direction (see e.g. Baker 2008). Carstens (2012): “delayed valuation”: no (A).

semantic and formal overlap
Semantic and formal overlap:

Chomsky (1995: 230; 381) suggests: "formal features have semantic correlates and reflect semantic properties (accusative Case and transitivity, for example)."

I interpret this: If a language has nouns with semantic phi-features, the learner will be able to hypothesize uninterpretable features on another F (and will be able to bundle them there).

cp and tp
CP and TP

(2) VP



[u-ind] C’



[i-ind] she T’


T ...


why aren t uninterpretable and semantic enough
Why aren’t uninterpretable and semantic enough?

Two reasons: (a) analytic languages may not have uninterpretable features, and (b) in (much) language change, we can see all three at work.

Let’s therefore look at how these features work in change.

loss of semantic features
Loss of semantic features

Full verbs such as Old English will with

[volition, expectation, future] features are reanalyzed as having only the feature [future] in Middle English.

And the negative

OE no/ne > ME (ne) not > -n’t

> ModE –n’t ... nothing, never, etc

semantic interpretable uninterpretable
Semantic > Interpretable > Uninterpretable

(1) Ac nis nan scild trum[ra] wið ðæt ...

But no shield stronger against the ...

`But there is no stronger shield against ...’

(2) ne ne helpeð nawiht eche lif to haben.

nor not helps not eternal life to have

`Nor does it help to have eternal life.’

(3) I can't do nothing for you either, Billy.

(4) No, I never see him these days

(BNC - A9H 350)

french pronoun agreement well known
French Pronoun > Agreement (well known)

(1) Se je meïsme ne li di Old French

If I myself not him tell

`If I don’t tell him myself.’ (Franzén 1939:20, Cligès 993)

(2) a. Je lis et j'écris

I read and I-write

b. *Je lis et écris

I read and write

c. *Je probablement ai vu ça

I probably have seen that

(3) J’ai vu ça.

I-have seen that

(4) tu vas où

2S go where

‘Where are you going?'

(5) Moi, je ....

me, I ...

(6) si un: un Russe i va en France Swiss

if a Russian il goes to France

‘If a Russian goes to France.’

(Fonseca-Greber 2000: 335)

old french modern french
Old French > Modern French

Emphatic Regular Emphatic Regular


je/tu zero moi/toi je/tu


moi/toi me/te moi/toi me/te

the cycle of phi features
The cycle of phi-features

noun > emphatic > pronoun > agreement > 0

[sem] [i-phi] [i-phi]/[u-phi] [u-phi]

demonstrative to copula
Demonstrative to copula

Assume copulas have:

be remain seem

[i-loc] [i-loc] [i-loc]

[i-ASP] [i-M]

Source for [loc]? Verbs and demonstratives

D > copula > zero

[i-loc] > [i-loc] > --

[i-phi] > [u-phi]



Old Chinese shi ‘this’

(1) fu yu gui shi ren Riches and honor this men

zhi suo yu ye

GEN NOM desire BE

‘Riches and honor, this is men’s desire.’

(2) Shi shi lie gui

this is violent ghost

‘This is a violent ghost.’

modern chinese
Modern Chinese

(3) Zhe shi lie gui

this BE violent ghost

‘This is a violent ghost.’

(4)Shi wo de cuo

be 1S POSS fault

‘It’s is me (who is) at fault.’

old egyptian 1 middle 2
Old Egyptian (1) > Middle (2)

(1) a. rmt p-n man MS-PROX `this man.’

b. ntr-w jp-w

god-P MP-DIST `those gods.’

(2) ̩tmj-t pw jmn-t

city-F be west-F

`The West is a city.’

(Loprieno 1995; 2001)

(3) p -w > pw

[i-3MS] [i-distal] [i-loc]

other explanations
Other explanations

The elephant that happy


SU copula VP

The question would be why first (or second) person pronouns are never reanalyzed as copulas since they are frequent topics.

demonstrative to article and complementizer
Demonstrative to article and complementizer

(1) ðis gære for þe king Stephne ...

this year went the King ...

(2) monig oft gecwæð þæt te suð ne norð ... oþer ... selra nære

many often said that that south nor north, other better not-was

`It was often said that no better one could be found North or South.' (Beowulf 858)

features of the english dp
Features of the English DP

(1) a. *That the dog loves their the toys.

b. I saw that.

c. *I saw the.

(2) DP DP

that D’ D NP

[i-loc] D NP the 3S

[i-ps] 3S [u-phi]




article complementizer (copula)

[u-phi] [u-T] [i-loc]

(1) Mi da i tatá Saramaccan

I be your father

‘I am your father.’ (McWhorter 1997)

c it ut
C [iT] > [uT]

Pesetsky & Torrego (2001): that is the spell-out of a T with interpretable tense features; the finite C has tense features that must be checked by either a nominative, by that, or by an auxiliary.

Two phenomena are explained: the optionality of that in English complement clauses (since either the subject DP or that can check [u-T] of C) and the that-trace effect in Modern English.

Problems: the lack of C-deletion in Old English and no `that-trace' effects. Van Gelderen (2011) argues that the lack of C-deletion is due to the interpretable features of C in the older period. As they are reanalyzed as uninterpretable, C becomes deletable.

latin from neg to q
Latin: From Neg to Q

(1) tu-ne id veritus es you-Q that fear be

`Did you fear that?’ (Greenough et al. 1931: 205)

Negatives value the [u-Q] of the PolP through their [i-neg]; “if the negative quality somehow weakens, it is reanalyzed as a PolP head whose polarity is not specified.” (van Gelderen 2011: 295).

where do features come from
Where do features come from?

The Minimalist program has shifted the emphasis from UG to third factors and from syntactic parameters to lexical ones, i.e. features. One of the reasons to deemphasize UG is the supposed lack of evolutionary depth.

Third factors, however, are vague and feature theory is not well-developed.

three factors
Three Factors

“(1) genetic endowment, which sets limits on the attainable languages, thereby making language acquisition possible; (2) external data, converted to the experience that selects one or another language within a narrow range; (3) principles not specific to FL [the Faculty of Language]. Some of the third factor principles have the flavor of the constraints that enter into all facets of growth and evolution.... Among these are principles of efficient computation”. (Chomsky 2007: 3)

from early gengr to minimalism
From early GenGr to Minimalism

Universal Grammar UG and Third factors

+ >> +

Input Input

(Scottish English, Western Navajo, etc) = =

I-language I-language


borer chomsky conjecture

"All parameters of variation are attributable to differences in the features of particular items (e.g., the functional heads) in the lexicon." (Baker 2008: 156)

Muysken (2008: 6):

“I find the generative literature on functional categories rather vague.”

Cinque and Rizzi (2008) discuss the question of the number of functional categories. There are 32 in Cinque (1999: 130) and around 40 in Kayne (2005). Cinque and Rizzi, using Heine & Kuteva’s 2002 work on grammaticalization, come up with 400 features that are targets in Heine & Kuteva.

Benincà & Munaro (2010: 6-7) note that syntax has reached the detail of phonological features.

cf phonology
Cf. phonology:

“The main task of feature theory, then, is to find the phonetic features which accurately describe the attested phonologically active classes in the world’s languages” (Samuels 2012: 4).

the first 20 features in heine and kuteva
The first 20 features in Heine and Kuteva

permissive, possibility, agent, comparative, material, partitive, past/near, A-possessive, since (temporal), superlative, complementizer, dative, infinitive, patient, purpose, temporal, until (temporal), only, NP-and, subordinator

some other questions
Some other questions

Muysken (2008: 46): “features which are doubly expressed ... but receive a single interpretation, must be functional.”

Which feature can value which?

[u-phi] is easy, as long as it gets a value such as from i-3, i-P etc.

[u-pol]: i-neg?

[u-T]: i-past?

[u-ind]: i-ind?

how about the order of categories
How about the order of categories?

Chomsky (2001: 12):

“Assume that substantive categories are selected by functional categories. V by a light verb, T by C”.

Cinque Hierarchy?!

challenge acquisition of features and their order
Challenge: acquisition of features and their order

Jackendoff (2002), based on Bickerton (1990), suggests that pre-linguistic primate conceptual structure may already use symbols for basic semantic relations. This may include spatial and causal concepts. “Agent First, Focus Last ... are `fossil principles’ from protolanguage”. Homo erectus (1 million BP) may have had protolanguage. This gives the innate faculty longer to incorporate this.

the acquisition of semantic features
The acquisition of semantic features

Chomsky (1965: 142): “semantic features ... too, are presumably drawn from a universal ‘alphabet’ but little is known about this today and nothing has been said about it here.”

Chomsky (1993: 24) vocabulary acquisition shows poverty of the stimulus.

the status of meaning i e sem features
The status of meaning, i.e. sem features

“Les idées ... ne tirent en aucune sorte leur origine des sens ... Notre ame a la faculté de les former de soi-même.”

`Ideas do not in any fashion have their origin in the senses ... Our mind has the faculty to form those on its own.’ (Arnauld & Nicole 1662 [1965]: 45)

how to address the pos
How to address the PoS
  • Pinker (1984: 57): categorization < semantic properties and Lebeaux (1988: 44): grammatical categories are centered in cognitive ones. Where do semantic and cognitive categories come from? UG?
  • Geach (1957: 22-23): “Abstractionists rarely attempt an abstractionist account of logical concepts, like those of some, or, and not” ... “In the sensible world you will find no specimens of alternativeness and negativeness from which you could form by abstraction the concept of or or of not”.
acquisition sem i f u f
Acquisition: sem > [i-F]/[u-F]

(1) like a cookie (Abe, 3.7.5)

(2) no the monster crashed the planes down like this like that (Abe, 3.7.5)

(3) I wan(t) (t)a show you something # I mean like this thin ? (Abe, 3.7.5)

(4) I feel like having a pet do you? (Abe, 4.8.20)

(5) watch it walks like a person walks.

(Abe, 4.9.19)

(6) Daddy # do you teach like you do [//] like how they do in your school? (Abe, 4.10.1)

do we need uninterpretable
Do we need uninterpretable?

-Two negative cycles:

A) Using an indefinite, e.g. nothing/never/a bit in English, French, Arabic

B) Using a new verb, e.g. Chinese

-Languages without overt agreement

are there features for external merge
Are there features for External Merge?
  • V [u-Theme] (or u-c/u-m)?
  • Although the V seems the probe, it cannot have uninterpretable features! Can we do away with theta-roles? Not for theme!

Recent shift towards third factors and parametric features: we need to be careful how many mechanisms we allow.

All change is in the lexicon: sem>i-F>u-F

What does the Poverty of the Stimulus argument mean for vocabulary acquisition?


Adger, David & Peter Svenonius 2010. Features in Minimalist Syntax. ms

Benincà, Paola & Nicola Munaro 2010. Introduction. In Benincà, Paola & Nicola Munaro (eds), Mapping the Left Periphery, 3-15. OUP.

Chomsky, Noam 1993. Language and Thought.

Chomsky, Noam 1995. The Minimalist Program. MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam 2001. Derivation by Phase.

Chomsky, Noam 2007. Approaching UG from below, in Uli Sauerland et al. (eds), Interfaces + Recursion = Language, 1-29. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Cinque, Guglielmo 1999. Adverbs and Functional Heads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cinque, Guglielmo & Luigi Rizzi 2008. The cartography of syntactic structures V. Moscati, ed. CISCL Working Papers on Language and Cognition, 2, 43-59.

Geach, Peter. 1957 Mental Acts.
  • Gelderen, Elly van 2011. The Linguistic Cycle. OUP
  • Heine, Bernd & Tania Kuteva 2002. World Lexicon of Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jackendoff, Ray 2002. Foundations of language. Oxford.
  • Lebeaux, David 1988. Language acquisition and the form of the grammar. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
  • Muysken, Pieter 2008. Functional Categories. CUP
  • Panagiodis, E. Phoevos 2008. Diachronic stability and feature interpretability. In Theresa Biberauer (ed.) The Limits of Syntactic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pesetsky, David & Esther Torrego 2007. The Syntax of Valuation and the Interpretability of Features. In Simin Karimi et al. Phrasal and Clausal Architecture, 262-294. Amsterdam: John Benjamins..
  • Pinker, Steven 1984. Language Learnability and Language Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Samuels, Bridget 2012. The Emergence of Phonological Forms. ms
  • Shlonsky, Ur 2010. The Cartographic Enterprise in Syntax. Language and Linguistics Compass 4/6: 417-429.
even more complex
Even more complex

Pesetsky & Torrego (2006) argue that valuation and interpretability are independent. Unvalued features act as probes and these can be either interpretable or uninterpretable. The tense features in T are interpretable but unvalued whereas the tense features on the verb are uninterpretable but valued.

unidirectional or not
Unidirectional or not?


For instance, Panagiodis (2008: 447) states that diachronic processes may introduce or eliminate uninterpretable features and rearrange them into new combinations.

Change suggests:

Most changes are unidirectional.