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Why uninterpretable features?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Theresa Biberauer.

Why uninterpretable features?

Ever since the introduction of the Minimalist Program the notion of uninterpretable features has occupied a central position in syntactic theory. But what exactly is an uninterpretable feature? Why do we need them? And how can their existence be motivated?

In the first part of this talk I argue that the existence of uninterpretable features can be demonstrated by exploring doubling phenomena, i.e. phenomena where one semantic operator is manifested more than once in the morpho-syntax. I discuss two cases, Negative Concord (1) and Modal Concord (2) where this is the case.

(1) Gianni non ha telefonato a nessuno [Italian]

Gianni not has called nobody
'Gianni didn't call anybody'

(2) All students must obligatorily register themselves

‘It is obligatory that all students register themselves’

In my talk I present a unified analysis of both concord phenomena that takes Concord to be the spell-out of relation between a single interpretable feature and one or more uninterpretable features.

In the second part I will discuss the motivation of uninterpretable features. If natural language, in some sense, is a (semi-)perfect system, why would it exhibit uninterpretable material on such a large scale? In this part of the talk I argue that the Strongest Minimalist Thesis (SMT), which takes natural language to be an optimal solution to interface conditions, allows for multiple, equally complex, options. I demonstrate that by exhibiting uninterpretable features languages, languages can mark the presence of covert semantic operators by simply adding a marker onto another lexical item. This enables natural language to convey meaning in a (phonologically) much more economical way.

Finally, I argue that this underlying mechanism is the source of syntactic operations such as Move and Agree. Moreover I show that this analysis results in a view on parameters that takes them to be a by-product of the SMT .

This talk is part of the SyntaxLab series.

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