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The Role of Root Semantics in Determining Argument Alternations

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The central question in the study of verbal meaning are what the basic component’s of a verb’s meaning are and how they compose together into more complex meanings in ways that make predictions about possible and impossible verbs. Event structural theories have been arguably the dominant approach to the study of verb meaning over the last 50 years. On such approaches a verb’s meaning is assumed to decompose into an event template capturing the verb’s broad temporal and causal contours that groups verbs into semantically unified classes, and an idiosyncratic semantic root naming specific actions and states for a given verb within a class. A common assumption is that there is a division of labor in the grammatical properties of templates vs. roots: event templates largely determine the verb’s grammatical properties (e.g. its argument structure and derivational morphology) while the root mainly just figures into its idiosyncratic form. On such approaches argument alternations are generally thought to reflect a single root that occurs in two templates, where the variation in templates is what derives the morphosyntactic details of the argument structure and its semantic effects.

However, it is well known that roots can condition what alternations they occur in, though there is little consensus in prior work on how this is done. In this talk I present joint work with Kyle Jerro and Andrew Koontz-Garboden on applicatives in Kinyarwanda that addresses this question directly. Applicatives are standardly thought to introduce additional event structural material into the event structure of the base verb in a fairly monotonic fashion, always ensuring that the applicativized verb has essentially the same meaning as the non-applicativized variant but with an extra argument bearing an extra role not found in the meaning of the base verb. I show that the applicative responsible for deriving the dative alternation in Kinyarwanda produces a much wider range of argument alternations than expected on that understanding of applicatives, and furthermore that what specific argument structure arises is contingent on the specific root it occurs with, albeit in predictable ways. I argue that these patterns can be explained by assuming that roots themselves already contain a considerable amount of semantic templatic information about the participants in the events they describe. This semantic information interacts significantly with applicativized and non-appicativized event structures, plus independent constraints on Kinyarwanda morphosyntax, to explain the diversity of argument alternation patterns it gives rise to. This analysis in turn supports independent work by Lutz Marten and Kyle Jerro showing that applicatives do more than just monotonically add arguments, while also suggesting that roots can entail templatic information sometimes thought to be solely the domain of event templates, supporting recent work by myself and Andrew Koontz-Garboden. The overall picture is that argument alternations are not largely template driven, but instead reflect a complex interactions of roots and templates, with each playing a significant role in the shape of the ultimate alternation.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society (LingSoc) series.

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