It seems like I am always complaining about the status of semantics in the theory of grammar. I complain when its ignored, and then I complain when its done in a way I don´t like, I complain and complain. Today is not going to be any different.
At the ROOTS IV conference, we had a number of lexical semantics talks, which clearly engaged with meaning and generalizations about root meaning. Then we had the morphology talks. But I´m not convinced those two groups of people were actually talking to each other. Now, the thing about Distributed Morphology is that it doesn’t believe in a generative lexicon, so all of the meaning generalizations that are in the lexicon for the lexical semanticists have to be recouped (if at all) in the functional structure, for DM and its fellow travellers, me included. This is not a deep problem if we are focusing on the job figuring out what the meaning generalizations actually are in the first place, which seems independent of arguing about the architecture. But there is also a danger that the generalizations that the lexical semanticists are concerned about are perceived as orthogonal to the system of sentence construction that morphosyntactians are looking at. Within DM, the separation of the system into ROOT and functional structure already creates a sharp division whereby meaty conceptual content and grammatically relevant meanings are separated derivationally. This in turn can lead to a tendency to ignore lexical conceptual semantics if you are interested in functional morphemes, and to suspect that the generalizations of the lexical semanticists are simply not relevant to your life (i.e. that they are not part of the `generative system´). To the extent that there are generalizations and patterns that need to be accounted for, we need to look to the system of functional heads proposed to sit above the verbal root in the little vP. But more challengingly, we need to relate them via selectional frames to the sorts of ROOTS they combine with in a non ad hoc manner. If, in addition, we require a constrained theory of polysemy, the problem becomes even more complex. I think we are nowhere close to being able to solve these problems. Perhaps because of this, I think that standard morphological and syntactic theories currently do not yet engage properly with the patterns in verb meaning, by which I mean both constraints on possible meanings, and the existence of constrained polysemies. I contend that the architecture that strictly separates the conceptual content of the root from the functional structure in a derivational system must resort to crude templatic descriptive stipulations with which to handle selection. This architecture also obscures the generalizations surrounding polysemy.
One of the interesting talks in the conference that was one of the few that attempted to integrated worries about meaning into a system with DM-like assumptions, was the contribution by Neil Myler. Neil was interested in tackling the fact that the verb have in English is found in a wide variety of different constructions, and he was interested in giving a unified explanation of that basic phenomenon. To that extent, I thought Neil´s contribution was excellent, and I agreed with the motivation, but I found myself uncomfortable with some of the particular tools he used to put his story for have together. The issue in question involves the deployment of Allosemy.
Let me first complain about the word Allosemy. It´s pronounced aLOSSemi, right? That´s how we are supposed to pronounce it. Of course, doing so basically destroys all recognition of the morphemes that go into making it , and renders the word itself semantically opaque even though it is perfectly compositional.
I hate it when stress shift does that.
Curiously, the problem with the pronunciation is similar to the problem I have with its existence in the theory, namely that it actually obscures the semantics of what is going on, if we are not careful with it.
Let´s have a look at how Allosemy is deployed in a series of recent works by Jim Wood, Alec Marantz and Neil Myler (We could maybe call them The NYU Constructivists for short). I am supposed to be a fellow traveller with this work, but then why do I feel like I want to reject most of what they are saying ?? Consider the recent paper by Jim Wood and Alec Marantz, which you can read here .
So to summarize briefly, the idea seems to be that instead of endowing functional heads with a semantics that has to remain constant across all its instantiations, we give a particular functional head like little v N possible semantic meanings, and then say that it is allosemic. In other words it is N-ways ambiguous depending on the context. This allows syntax to be pure and autonomous. As a side effect this means that meaning can be potentially built up in different ways, and the same structure can have different meanings. The cost?
COST 1: In addition to all the other listed frames for selection and allomorphy, we now have to list for every item a subcategorization frame that determines the allosemic variants of the functional items in the context of insertion. (Well, if you like construction grammar……)
COST 2: Since the mapping between syntactic structure and meaning can no longer be relied upon, there is no chance of semantic and syntactic bootstrapping for the poor infant trying to learn their language. I personally do not see how acquisition gets off the ground without bootstrapping of this kind.
COST 3: (This is the killer). Generalizations about hierarchy and meaning correspondences like the (I think exceptionless) one that syntactic embedding never inverts causational structure is completely mysterious and cannot fall out naturally from such a system (see this paper of mine for discussion).
PAYOFF: Syntax gets to be autonomous again.
But wait. We want this exactly, Why? Because Chomsky showed us the generative semanticists were wrong back in the sixties?
And anyway, isn’t syntax supposed to be quite small and minimal now, with a lot of the richness and structure coming from the constraints at the interface with other aspects of cognition? Doesn’t this lead us to expect that abstract syntactic structures are interpreted in universally reliable ways?
Allosemy says that the only generalities are syntactic ones. Like `I have an EPP feature’ or` I introduce an argument’. It denies that there are any generalities at the level of abstract semantics. I would argue rather that the challenge is to give these heads a general enough and underspecified semantics so that the normal compositional interaction with the rest of the structure these things compose with will give rise to the different polysemies seen on the surface. Allosemy is not the same as compositionally potent underspecification. The strategy of the Woods and Marantz paper is to go for a brute force semantic ambiguity which is controlled by listing selectional combinations. It is perfectly clear that this architecture can describe anything it wants to. And while one might be able to do it in a careful and sensible way so as to pave the way for explanation later on, it is also perfectly clear that this particular analytic tool allows you to describe loads of things that don’t actually exist! So, isn’t this going backwards, retreating from explanatory adequacy?
Of course, the rhetoric of the Woods and Marantz paper sounds lovely and high-minded. The head that introduces arguments (i* ) is abstract and underspecified. The kind of thing a syntactician can love. (There is also another version of i* which is modulated by the fact that a ROOT is adjoined to it, and this version is the one that introduces adjuncts and is influenced by the semantics of the ROOT that adjoins to it). However, core i* is nothing nothing new, in fact it is a blast from the past (not in a bad way, in fact). It is just a notational variant of the original classical idea of specifier, where it was the locus for the subject of predication (as in the the classic and insightful paper by Tim Stowell from 1982, Subjects across Categories here). And the i* with stuff adjoined to it is what happens when you have an argument introduced by a preposition. So i* is only needed now because we got rid of specifiers and the generality of what it means to be a specifier.
So. Allosemy. Can we just not do this?