W1 Tuesday: Interfaces and Typologies

I missed writing yesterday’s post, and spent some of today out doing some admin (transporting items from home, getting shorn, etc.).

Two main texts I reviewed in detail, the first being Reuland and Meulen’s introductory chapter (pp.1-20) to The Representation of (In)definiteness.

My interest in the book was simply that I’d not seen noun phrases examined at this level before (basically at the level where the syntax and semantics interface, where the close examination could tell us more about the semantics than the historical discussion, valuable and irreplaceable as that is). Potentially, a direction for my research will be to look at at noun gradeability, and understanding an aspect of noun phrases even for something not directly related to gradeability seemed like a useful exercise when I picked up this book some time ago.

The prior reference point I had for the idea of (in)definiteness was Russell’s theory of definite descriptions, that referring expressions he would call ‘definite descriptions’ rather than indefinite ones are only evaluable if they refer to a real entity, i.e. the reason why saying ‘the King of France’ is strange, since there is currently no such King…

In English, at least, the distinction between definite expressions and indefinite ones is captured by the alternation of ‘a’ and ‘the’, for a broad class of nouns. On a more rigorous analysis, however, the main observation is that there are clear situations where either the definite or indefinite is strongly preferred, for instance in a sentence like, ‘There ensued a/the* riot on Massachusetts Ave.’ They refer to such situations as exhibiting a definiteness effect (DE).

Interestingly, even across languages, R&M note that where DEs are observed, some semantic conditions are observed quite consistently. Likewise, some syntactic conditions also seem to be observable, e.g. the correlation between an expletive subject and an indefinite argument elsewhere in the clause.

R&M proceed to discuss three approaches to analyzing definiteness (Milsark 1977; Barwise and Cooper 1981; and finally Heim 1982). Heim’s analysis I found particularly interesting. R&M characterize Heim’s as a ‘dynamic’ approach (in contrast to Milsark’s and B&C’s static ones) in that the interpretation of an NP is analyzed as a process.

The second text from this book I dug into was David Gil’s chapter (pp.254-269), titled ‘Definiteness, Noun Phrase Configurationality, and the Count-Mass Distinction’.

Gil’s interesting result is that there are at least two clearly distinct and definable NP typologies. His thesis is that ‘NP typology is a joint product of the two covarying parameters of configurationality and the count-mass distinction.’ He notes seven typological correlates, each of which either a Type A language has while the Type B language doesn’t, or vice-versa. His examples contrasted mainly English and Japanese.

To illustrate the count-mass example, he observes that in Type A languages usually a large class of nouns e.g. ‘count nouns’ are obligatorily marked for number, whereas in Type B languages there is either no marking (Japanese, Chinese), it is optional, or it has a special interpretation or occurs in specifically constrained contexts (Turkish, Indonesian). He shows how the parameters that determine this also influence other issues like whether (in)definiteness is obligatorily marked.

The other key term in his thesis, ‘configurationality’, refers to whether noun phrases have a hierarchical structure internally. Whereas Japanese does not, English does. Correspondingly, in English it is the determiner system within which NPs are integrated, whereas Japanese cannot truly be said to have determiners. An example that illustrates this difference is how the English phrase ‘Sam’s three books that Cyril read’ can only occur in this configuration as a noun phrase, whereas in Japanese each nominal or admonimal in the phrase can grammatically appear in any order.

Another interesting piece of data Gil introduces is of adnominal distributive numerals in Japanese (sansatsuzutsu meaning potentially ‘three each’ or ‘three at a time’ or ‘in threes’ – all actually subtly different in English). Gil argues that in the phrase sansatsuzutsu no hon the adnominal distributes over the nominal head, but basically Type A languages cannot have adnominal distributive numerals because numerals are determiners and not really adjectival or nominal modifiers.

I’ve not had much experience with language typology either, but I found Gil’s analysis illuminating. It raises the question of how  or whether I might do a similar analysis for Singlish in my project. I’m interested to find out my supervisor’s opinion about this analysis as well.