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Seminar 3 (25th September, 10AM): John Beavers (University of Texas, Austin)

A Theory of the Roots of Verbal Meaning: Some Concepts and Consequences

The third seminar held at the Department of Linguistics, SNU in Fall 2020 is “A Theory of the Roots of Verbal Meaning: Some Concepts and Consequences” by John Beavers.

The speaker currently works at University of Texas at Austin, USA. He acquired his PhD in Linguistics from Stanford University in 2006.


The strong correlation of a word's meaning to its grammatical properties has fostered decades of research on what constitutes a possible verb meaning and what the principles are connecting those meanings to grammar. Event structural theories of verb meaning have been a dominant paradigm in deriving predictions about these questions. On these approaches a verb's meaning is said to consist of an event structure built up from (a) a skeletal template composed of primitive, cognitively salient universal event types that is shared across verbs within a grammatical class that define the broad temporal and causal contours of the events they describe, and (b) an idiosyncratic root that fills in specific real world details that distinguish individual verbs within a class. A key assumption in event structural theories is that the template and not the root determines the verb's grammatical properties, meaning that if a constrained theory of event templates should help derive a predictive theory of possible verbs both semantically and grammatically. But as far back as Dowty (1979) it has been noted that if a theory of templates is not coupled with a theory of roots the enterprise could be undermined, if it turned out that roots could have any meaning at all.

In "The Roots of Verbal Meaning" we explore what conditions, if any, exist on root meanings, focusing on two specific hypotheses. The Bifurcation Thesis for Roots (Embick 2009) has it that the meaning introduced by templates can never be introduced by roots. This predicts that if a verb has as a part a particular templatic meaning it must also exhibit the grammatical reflexes of the relevant templatic operator operator. Manner/Result Complementarity (Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2010) posits that a given root may contribute just one type of idiosyncratic meaning at a time — a manner of action or a result state but not both. Explicit combinatoric processes such as resultative constructions are required to produce expressions with both types of idiosyncratic meanings simultaneously. We argue against both hypotheses: roots can have any type of templatic meanings in them — sometimes orthogonal to and sometimes overlapping with the meaning of the template it occurs with — and many types of idiosyncratic content. In principle this means strong correlations of semantics to grammatical properties predicted by these two hypotheses do not hold up. However, we ultimately show that a principled theory of possible root meanings in terms of how much templatic and idiosyncratic meaning a given root has arises from the counterexamples to these hypotheses, and coupled with a novel analysis of the compositional properties of event structures and principles for how event structures relate to grammar a theory of possible verb meanings still arises, albeit not as strong a theory as might otherwise have held.

In this talk I recap and expand on some of these findings, focusing primarily on the question of bifurcation. I first address the empirical observations and requisite methodological tools needed to argue against this hypothesis, focusing on change-of-state verbs and ditransitive verbs of caused possession in English. I also explore the kind of compositional approach to event structures that can handle roots with complex, templatic meanings. I then present newer work that explores similar verb classes in Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language spoken in Rwanda, and show how the same fundamental problems for bifurcation can be probed for in another language. Particular attention will be paid to verbs of caused possession in Kinyarwanda, which are mostly formed by productive applicativization processes that occur across a much wider set of verb classes. The resulting paradigms of applicativized verb meanings are more complex in English, showing significantly more types of root classes, yet ultimately again constitute a fundamental counterexample to the Bifurcation Thesis.


Link to the handout