Monday, 14 September 2015

Allosemy---- No thanks.

On Allosemy

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?  

Wednesday, 9 September 2015



It’s been a while since New York, but I whisked away for vacation time immediately afterwards, from which I am only slowly recovering.  Many of you will already know that I am also on sabbatical this term, hanging out in Edinburgh, loosely affiliated with the University,  but trying to lay low.  This has in turn made August  a month of moving and organizational hecticness.  But productivity is slowly picking up.

ROOTS  IV took place in New York, June 29th- July 2nd,  the 4th meeting of its kind, organized brilliantly by Itamar Kastnar, Alec Marantz and the department at NYU and co-sponsored by NYU Abu Dhabi.  Check out the website for the panel discussion here, including a YouTube video of all the panel presentations, including yours truly here.   

Avid blog followers will recall that I expressed my fears in advance of this meeting that I might end up at the wrong party, i.e. that the workshop would largely be some kind of theory-internal Distributed Morphology discussion.  Alec debunked that notion forcefully and convincingly in his opening address. And indeed, one can see from the invited participants to this event, that we were not  all specifically classic DM-ers,  but came from a broad group made up of what Alec called `fellow-travellers’.  By this I think he meant those who broadly shared enough starting assumptions to actually get a meaningful and stimulating conversation going about details.  As a fellow-traveller, I offer some thoughts in this blog inspired and stimulated by being at this workshop and being part of the ROOTS IV event.   In the end, the conference split quite firmly into the morphologists (that group of fellow travellers) and the lexical semanticists who didn’t actually seem to be in the same conversation (but more about this in the next post).

It seems to me that at this conference, Distributed Morphology officially acknowledged in a common and public forum that root suppletion exists. Heidi Harley’s poster child case from root suppletion in Hiaki has stood up to scrutiny and we have to just suck it up.  
The DM-ers at the conference seemed to all reluctantly agree, including Alec  (Skepticism and vocal disagreement  from Hagit Borer notwithstanding). 

Since it is a little outside my world view, I took some time to reflect on the special status of roots within DM and what work it does in the theory.  In DM, recall, Roots are the only  listed thing there at the start of the syntactic derivation.   Unlike vocabulary items, they are not  late-inserted.   They also have no syntactic features on them inherently, and they usually come in at the lowest part of the tree  (more recent approaches also allow roots to be `adjoined’  to various syntactic heads, but we put this aside for now).  Roots are the creatures that anchor the whole derivation, within the theory of  Distributed Morphology, and which are the basis for the enclosing identity within which competition for insertion can be calculated.  They are also the identity that underlies allomorphy and allosemy in particular contexts.  What the fact of root suppletion does to this system is that, previously,  an abstract phonological representation could be thought to be a stand-in for the identity represented by a particular root.  But if there is root suppletion then that is no longer always the case, and the thing that is the same across all spell-outs of ROOTs in a context has to be much more abstract than that (Heidi makes this point in the article I linked to above. In that work, she argues for a system of abstract indices to track the identities we need).   I guess this is also the reason that the paradigm people believe in paradigms. Paradigms are probably a notational variant of the abstract indices idea (a sub-list  defined by features inside a single address).

To see how this affects the whole system, consider the nice *ABA generalization that Jonathan Bobaljik has famously proposed and discussed in his book on comparatives.  (Norbert discussed this work warmly in his blog earlier this summer here ). 

*ABA  is a constraint that makes references to a particular kind of situation where syntactic features are in a particular inclusion relation, ordered in a particular hierarchy.  In this situation, if   you have a vocabulary item that can spell out a lower position but a suppletive one that spells out an intermediate position, then you cannot revert to the first item to spell out the highest node.  Thus the claim is about the correlation between possible polysemies and syntactic structures—polysemy must respect the contiguity  of the inclusion relations in syntactic structure, as a constraint on the operation of the Elsewhere Principle.   A very interesting proposal, if true.  Now, what we need to understand about this pattern is that the statement of it also relies on correctly distinguishing cases of true suppletion from other kinds of phonological variants in the vocabulary items.  We all understand and accept cases of phonologically conditioned allomorphy, where the phonological rules present and active in the language create variations on the ROOT’s abstract representation due to phonological context.  But  there are also cases of phonological readjustment rules that exist in DM, which are sensitive to morphosyntactic context (not phonology), and which are not the same as any actual  phonological rule in the language, ( or even possible rule sometimes).   These abstract readjustment rules do not count as suppletion--- crucially do not `count’  as creating a B out of an A.  Essentially, you still have an A if you `phonologically readjust’.   There are many of us who do not like ad hoc phonological readjustment rules, just to preserve the fiction of phonological ROOT identity.   But according to Bobalijk (pc), readjustment rules were crucially taken into account in reaching the *ABA generalization in the first place.  (Thanks to Peter Svenonius for pointing this out to me).   Putting this together with the previous point, consider now the fact that  root identity is no longer underwritten always by  an abstract phonological representation, but by something MUCH more abstract, like an index.  Now  we need to make sure that  we have an architecture of the kind that constructs  ROOT identity across suppletive environments, while still maintaining an internal distinction between `related’  variants and suppletive variants of the same thing for the purpose of stating the deep Bobaljik generalization.   So what gives? Are suppletive variants `the same’?  Or are they `different’ , i.e. Bs as opposed to As in Bobaljik’s generalization? 

I for one would like to give up ad hoc phonological readjustment rules in favour of straight-up variant insertion, making these kinds of variations indistinguishable from  cases of suppletion (which we can no longer run away from theoretically, if Heidi is right). But then I am in danger of losing  *ABA.  Or rather, I would have to make *ABA a bit of telling historical detritus, a morphological patterning that shows us something real, but  indirectly and not synchronically.   I would also expect in that case to see  some evidence of   pure  *ABA where one only needs to compare two distinct forms without the help of phonological readjustment rules.  I don’t control the examples from the book well enough to know how much reliance there is on those in Bobalijk’s book to make the generalization. 

But in any case, there is a real tension here I think.   If there really is a generalization concerning the mapping between insertion and syntactic structure that relies on suppletive forms being different  in an important sense, then how does that reconcile with ROOTs having an identity across suppletive variants?

Morphologists: Help?

This has gone on too long.  In my next post on ROOTS IV, I will muse on semantics and the existence of Allosemy (or not).