Oct 202019

I just got home from Oslo, where I had many really interesting interactions with several linguists. One of them was a conversation with fellow visitor Jonathan Bobaljik.[1]Who, it should go without saying, should not be held accountable for any of what I write here. We were talking about the relatively well-known observation that for many alleged “syntax-semantics mapping phenomena,” the expected mappings only go through if the syntax independently allows at least two different configurations. As Jonathan helpfully points out, this is an observation that goes back to Grice, if not Jespersen. But just because an observation is “old,” we shouldn’t overlook the consequences it has for contemporary syn-sem theories. And the consequences are very interesting.

Here’s a prime example. (It’s one which I turn to often, though that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one! That said, if you are truly bored with this test case, see the bottom of this post for a partial list of other empirical domains I could have run the same argument on.) The example involves the Heim-Diesing Mapping Hypothesis: the idea that specificity and/or definiteness are determined by structural height relative to one or more structurally-fixed operators. So, for example, when it comes to Object-Shift and specificity (Diesing 1992, 1997), the idea is that you are interpreted as non-specific if you remain within VP (because there is an existential-closure operator at the VP periphery), and specific if you manage to make it out of VP (and thus, out of the scope of the aforementioned operator).

This would be a truly beautiful example of syntax-semantics “mapping” – if it had worked, that is. But as Diesing herself already notes (see also Vikner 1997), it only seems to work for those noun phrases that can move out of the VP, in the first place. So, for example, if you are in a Scandinavian language, and you’re in a clause where the verb cannot undergo head movement, the object is stuck in the VP (viz. Holmberg’s (1986) Generalization). And, magically, the “mapping” part in the Mapping Hypothesis then goes away: you can be interpreted as either specific or non-specific, both while remaining in situ. Diesing’s solution to this was to say that the relevant constraint on movement (the “stuck” part) only holds in overt syntax, and covert movement is exempt from it, so that the object still moves out of the VP at LF (salvaging the “mapping” part). This may seem like a reasonable idea for the verb-movement case (where it has been argued that the relevant movement constraint may itself be related to linearization; see Fox & Pesetsky 2005, i.a.). But the pattern in question is quite a bit more general. In many languages, only the structurally-highest noun phrase in the VP can undergo object shift. When this is the case, a lower noun phrase in the VP (e.g. the other internal argument in a ditransitive) gets to be specific or non-specific all while remaining in situ. Now, the constraint limiting object shift to the highest nominal in the VP is almost certainly structural, not linear. (E.g. it is operative in Tagalog, where it is completely dissociable from the actual linear order of the elements involved; see Rackowski 2002, Rackowski & Richards 2005.) And therefore, there is absolutely no reason to assume that it would hold for overt but not covert movement.

Indeed, we can go to a higher level of generalization, and say the following: for a great many cases of contrasts related to alleged syn-sem “mapping” (see the bottom of this post for a partial list), the mapping breaks down when independent factors conspire to make one of the two structures unavailable. Unless every single one of these independent factors turns out to be PF-related – an exceedingly unlikely eventuality; see above – then the maneuver of exempting “LF movement” from the movement-limiting factors is entirely ad hoc, and amounts to a restatement of the mapping breakdown, not an account of it.

What seems to be going on here is this: when the rest of the grammar happens to make some distinction available (e.g. a given noun phrase can vacate the VP or stay in situ), semantics can pin some meaning contrast on this grammatical distinction (e.g. specific vs. non-specific). But this is not because semantics is “read off” of the syntactic structure, and it is certainly not because of some semantic operator at the VP periphery. The latter types of explanation fail to account for the fairly general fact that when the rest of the grammar makes the same structural distinction unavailable, semantic interpretation seems perfectly fine “reading” both options off of one and the same structure.

This may seem like a fairly subtle distinction to be drawing, but I think it’s actually quite important, if what we’re interested in is not just a description of the facts, but an understanding of the causal forces at work. On one view – the Mapping-Hypothesis-style view – the different meanings each arise because of the respective syntactic structures: high object → specific, low object → non-specific, where the arrows don’t just represent correspondences, they represent causation. On the other view, the causation is not so direct: when syntax happens to make a given distinction available (i.e., when it allows at least two variants of the structure), semantics can pin a contrast in meaning to this grammatical distinction. But there is no sense in which each of the different structures is “driving” each of the different meanings, since this would fail to account for how both meanings can arise from just one of these structures, too. Importantly, the facts quite strongly favor the latter view: meaning contrasts are parasitic on syntactic distinctions, not caused by them.

This is bad news on at least one front: one of the charms of, e.g., the Mapping Hypothesis, was that it provided an explanation of why this grammatical distinction (VP-external noun phrases vs. VP-internal ones) got mapped onto this meaning contrast (specific vs. non-specific). The view that seems empirically correct, however, takes a hammer to this explanation. So it would seem that other semantic contrasts could in principle be pinned on the distinction between VP-internal noun phrases and VP-external ones, not just specificity. Wait a minute, that’s actually true! In other languages, it is animacy/non-animacy (rather than specificity/non-specificity) that is pinned on the same grammatical distinction – and good luck deriving this from some kind of “inanimacy closure” operator at the VP periphery. At the same time, it’s also true that not any semantic contrast can be pinned on any grammatical distinction. For one thing, there probably aren’t “flipped” languages where VP-internal noun phrases are interpreted as specific and VP-external ones as non-specific. Furthermore, while an animacy contrast can replace a specificity one in correlating with object shift, the set of things that can do so is far from unbounded. (There might be as few as three options: specificity, definiteness, and animacy. Maybe also pronominality.) So there’s still a major gap in our understanding.

Okay, let’s wrap this up: if you think that grammatical distinctions map onto semantic contrasts because of very strictly compositional semantic interpretation, neutralization patterns are bad news for you. These patterns exist – and to repeat: they’re not actually restricted to Object-Shift/specificity, that’s just my favorite example; do have a look at the list below – and they suggest that causation between syntax and semantics doesn’t flow all that directly. To put it as it is phrased in this post’s title: meaning contrasts are not generated by syntax, they are parasitic on it.

Appendix: some other empirical domains that show the same pattern

  • viewpoint aspect: when outside conditions block the appearance of perfective, the imperfective can be interpreted perfectively (courtesy of Sabine Iatridou)
  • the Definiteness Effect:
    • only holds of those DPs that could have moved to canonical subject positions – where, crucially, this could have is modulated by purely morphosyntactic factors – and not of those DPs that couldn’t have (me, building on the work of Halldór Ármann Sigurðsson)
    • conversely, when the definite article is required for DP-internal reasons, no Definiteness Effect arises (courtesy of Sabine Iatridou)
  • when a relative clause allows both a resumptive pronoun and a gap, the two result in different scope (in particular, the resumptive triggers obligatory reconstruction); but when a resumptive is the only grammatically-allowed option, it is compatible with both a reconstructed reading and non-reconstructed one (cf. Sichel 2014)
  • when a quantificational DP (say, every NP) can occupy two different overt positions, above and below another scope-bearing element, each position tends to be associated with a distinct scopal reading – as is the case, for example, with scrambling in German or Japanese – but when it cannot (as in English), the single available structure[2]We’re used to thinking of this one as a difference “only at PF,” i.e., that the English ambiguity involves Quantifier Raising. I have to say, looking at it against the backdrop of these … Continue reading can have multiple readings (cf. Bobaljik & Wurmbrand 2012)
1. Who, it should go without saying, should not be held accountable for any of what I write here.
2. We’re used to thinking of this one as a difference “only at PF,” i.e., that the English ambiguity involves Quantifier Raising. I have to say, looking at it against the backdrop of these other patterns, I’m now starting to wonder to what extent that is a necessary assumption: it seems to fit quite nicely into the rest of this picture even without assuming QR.
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