Aug 202018
 

A large portion of my interests lately has centered around the proposition that syntactic theory has been overprivileging semantic argumentation. I’ve talked a lot, and in various forums, about why I think this is bad for syntax. Here, I’d like to say a bit about why I think this is bad for semantics.

Let us stipulate that a central goal of any semantic theory is to be compositional. The slogan here is often something along the lines of, “How the meaning of a complex expression is related to the meanings of its parts.” But I think this particular formulation actually obscures a crucial point. For anyone who is not a flat-Earthist about syntax (à la “Sentences are just flat sequences of words!”), a compositional semantics is not about relating the meaning of a complex expression (directly) to the meanings of its atoms. Instead, it’s about relating the meaning of every constituent to the meanings of its immediate daughters.

It follows from this that a compositional semantic theory is only as good as the syntactic theory it is hooked up to. A syntax developed completely in the service of semantics – i.e., using argumentation from meaning as its principle guiding light – risks rendering the entire project of compositional semantics circular. If you have a syntactic structure crafted to capture (mainly) generalizations about meaning, then achieving compositionality in the semantic analysis is really no achievement at all.

Let’s clarify: computing the meaning of an utterance from the meanings of its atoms in one way or another is already no small feat. But such a computation can lay claim to being a compositional model of natural language semantics only to the extent that it composes those atoms in the same manner as the syntax (of natural language) does. Therefore, once we base our theory of the latter – how the atoms compose syntactically – on meaning, we compromise the goal of truly building a compositional natural language semantics.

Fortunately, there is a fairly straightforward way to break out of this circle: base your syntactic theory (primarily) on string-acceptability, not on semantic interpretation. If your semantics is hooked up to a syntactic theory of this kind, then compositionality becomes a meaningful achievement.

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Itai BassiOmerEthan PooleGillian RamchandPeter Svenonius Recent comment authors
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Gillian Ramchand
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Gillian Ramchand

I am completely on the other side in this vendetta against semantics, and I have been meaning to reply to you for a long time in fact. Here´s a quick first go, just to see the fur fly. First of all, in other contexts I often do find myself arguing against formal semanticists and siding with the syntacticians in giving a primacy to the nature of (specific to linguistic systems) syntactic representations, and what evidence… Read more »

Avery andrews
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Avery andrews

Well maybe but I recall Ken Hale remarking that in Warlpiri you can find an interpretation for almost any string. So looking for the best explanation of the form-meaning mapping still look best to me. Concepts such as part of speech and phrase type etc are also traditionally based to a large extent on substitution arguments, which I find do not make much sense if you don’t take semantic composition into account.

Gillian Ramchand
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Gillian Ramchand

I fear that Omer might call ME a flat earther because I believe very strongly that although (i) I am completely convinced that there are host of patterns and generalizations that we know now about syntax that we did not know before the chomskian turn, and did not even have the wherewithal to ask, I am also convinced (ii) that the precise formal implementation, symbolic devices and modular divisions we are employing now ( in… Read more »

Callum Hackett
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Callum Hackett

I’m very sympathetic towards a greater severance of syntax and semantics, though I come at it from a different angle and don’t believe that string acceptability will work as an alternative metric for grammatical theory, not least because I think that interpretability is a crucial, albeit violable, component of acceptability. I won’t get into further alternatives, but let me say a few things about the circularity. I actually think it ought to be uncontroversial to… Read more »

Peter Svenonius
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Peter Svenonius

This discussion is very interesting, but it seems a bit strange to me to rely so heavily on the CNPC, as you do in the back and forth with Alex Drummond. First of all, the CNPC is a description, not an analysis. Maybe if you replace the CNPC description with an analysis, it would become clearer whether movement and agreement should be expected to behave differently across relative clauses. Second, Norwegian and Swedish speakers blithely… Read more »

Ethan Poole
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Ethan Poole

Just a small point in relation to the last paragraph of Omer’s original post: The “upwards” Agree (i.e. feature unification) that Kratzer 2009 uses is straight out of Pesetsky & Torrego, which is not mentioned in the previous comments as far as I can see. Perhaps people have taken Kratzer 2009 as a convincing argument for upwards Agree, but Kratzer didn’t come up with the idea. She took it straight out of the syntactic literature,… Read more »

Itai Bassi
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Itai Bassi

(moved to the top level, hope that’s okay with you; O.P.) Hi, and thanks for an interesting thread! just a few (long) comments on my pet topic, the minimal pronoun debate (without entering the broader issue that this post concerns): 1) Kratzer and Locality: I’m not a big advocate of the minimal pronoun approach in general (see below), but I think it’s unfair to accuse Kratzer 2006/9 of not caring about locality issues in her… Read more »