THOUGHTS AFTER ROOTS IV, NYU
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).
MAJOR NEWS FLASH (FOR ME, ANYWAY)!
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?
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).