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Concatenation and Grammar: How to Get Systematic

Dr. Paul M Pietroski

Tuesday, March 28, 2006, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of Maryland, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

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Human languages exhibit recursivity, in the form of adjunction, and grammatical relations that hold between predicates and their arguments. Simple cases of adjunction�as in �red ball� and �sang loudly��can be analyzed, to a first approximation, as predicate conjunction. Letting �e� range over entities and events: �Red(e) & Ball(e)�, �PastSinging(e) & Loud(e)�, etc. But a noun or verb can be modified by many adjuncts, while a verb takes only a small number of grammatical arguments; and the phrase �stabbed Caesar� cannot be analyzed as �PastStab(e) & Caesar(e)�. It can, however, be analyzed as �PastStab(e) & Patient(e, Caesar)�; where the Patient of a stab is the entity stabbed, and the grammatical argument corresponds to a participation relation�being the Patient of�that an entity can bear to an event. These increasingly standard remarks invite a two-part speculation: (i) the recursive core of natural language is a system for concatenating predicates, with concatenation signifying predicate-conjunction; and (ii) grammatical relations, like being the subject or object of a verb, reflect an additional �thematic� component that makes it possible to combine predicates with designators in a suitably general way. The idea is that while the name �Caesar� is not a predicate that can be coherently conjoined with the verb �stabbed�, being an argument of a verb matters semantically; and the complex predicate, �Patient(e, Caesar)� is conjoinable with the event predicate �PastStab(e)�. From this perspective: grammatical relations let humans use the recursive core of language to create complex conjunctive representations from constituents that are unconjoinable; and lexicalization is a process in which prelinguistic representations are associated with suitably general predicates, like �PastStab(e)�, that are conjoinable with others. I think this conception of semantics has many virtues, not least of which is that it fits nicely with the idea that linguistic meanings are �Concept Construction Instructions� that let us humans systematize our prior representations�in roughly the ways that Spelke and others have recently been suggesting.

Dr. Paul M Pietroski