The lexical semantics of lexical categories, 2018–2023

European Research Council Consolidator grant
Andrew Koontz-Garboden (PI)

The distinction between the major lexical categories of noun, verb and adjective figures into myriad linguistic generalizations and has been a center of gravity in the study of language since antiquity. Notwithstanding their importance, lexical categories are poorly understood (see e.g., Baker & Croft 2017). Outstanding is whether there are generalizations about the meanings words in the major categories have. Many have claimed there are, and proposed theories linking meaning and category, in a one to one fashion. Such theories have been criticized, however, in light of clear counterexamples, and consequently the search for a universal link between meaning and category is perceived by many to have been unsuccessful (see von Fintel & Matthewson 2008). This project recasts the search for a link, in the spirit of recent work (Francez & Koontz-Garboden 2017: Chapter 5), not as one for a one-to-one mapping, but for constraints on meaning induced by category. The project targets a domain where the set of relevant meanings is small, but where there is variation in category: property concept sentences—sentences like (1) He is very clever, whose main predicate is an adjective or, (2) akwai shi da waayoo `He is very clever (lit: He exists with cleverness; Hausa; Newman 2000:179)’, whose main predicate is not an adjective, but is translated by a sentence whose main predicate is an adjective in languages with a large class of them. Although (1) and (2) have the same meaning, their component parts do not. Recent work shows that the words in property concept sentences that introduce the descriptive content (clever in (1), waayoo (2))–property concept words–vary in meaning, not just in category (Dixon 1982). With three postdocs, this project draws on a 200 language typological survey and in-depth fieldwork to examine the crossclassification of meaning and category in property concept words to shed light on the semantic nature of nouns, verbs, and adjectives generally.

The meaning of verbal roots across languages, 2015–2018

National Science Foundation (USA), BCS-1451765
John Beavers (PI) and Andrew Koontz-Garboden (co-PI)

Language serves not just as a means of communication but also a window into how humans perceive the world. Verbs have been a rich source of information about how humans categorize events, and one tantalizing result of work on verb meaning is that the possible meanings a verb can have are not arbitrary. Rather, there are recurring meaning components of high generality that define classes of verbs according to the broad situation type being described, including cause and effect, bodily action, and possession, and verbs within a class tend to have shared grammatical behaviors. Individual verbs within a class are distinguished by idiosyncratic details that fill in the specifics of the broader situation, e.g. the name of a specific action, usually with few grammatical ramifications. However, how general and idiosyncratic components combine in the meaning of a verb is still not well understood, nor is the space of what idiosyncratic meanings an individual verb within a class can have, including how distinct general and verb-specific meanings even are.

This project addresses these lacunae by examining the idiosyncratic meanings of verbs describing change-of-state (e.g. break, redden) and caused possession (e.g. give, send), which have been claimed to exemplify possible limits on idiosyncratic meanings. The methodology involves (i) in depth studies of these verbs in English and Kinyarwanda (chosen for its rich verbal morphology), the latter through field work, and (ii) a broad survey of change-of-state verbs in a genealogically balanced 100 language sample drawn from existing published reference materials. The goal is to isolate general and idiosyncratic meaning in verbs through inferential and morphological patterns. The results will be integrated into a theory of how verb meanings are composed using modern techniques in compositional semantics. The expectation based on pilot data is that while idiosyncratic meanings are not limited in terms of their literal content, they fall into limited types regarding their relation to the rest of the verb’s meaning, making some predictions about possible and impossible verbs.

Structural and typological variation in the dialects of Kurdish, 2014–2017

Research Grant AH/K007084/1, Arts and Humanities Research Council
Yaron Matras (PI) and Andrew Koontz-Garboden (co-PI)

The grammar of multifunctionality, 2011–2014

Research Grant AH/H033645/1Arts and Humanities Research Council
Andrew Koontz-Garboden (PI), Yuni Kim (co-PI), Itamar Francez (project partner), Chris Kennedy (project partner)

The project explores the linguistic phenomenon known as multifunctionality, which occurs in language any time that a single element (whether a word or a unit smaller than a word) is used in more than one distinct context, as with, for example, the suffix –ka that appears on nouns in Ulwa to indicate possession. It appears not only on the possessed noun in a noun phrase like Andrew balauh-ka `Andrew’s table’, but also on adjectives, as in pau-ka `red’. If this happened only in Ulwa, we might rightly think it an accident, but there are a number of other unrelated languages that show the same kind of use of possessive morphology on adjectives, Hausa (Chadic; Nigeria), Huave, Moseten (Mostenan; Bolivia), among them.

We aim to show through the detailed study of multifunctionality in possessive morphology, that phenomena of this kind have been underappreciated and have serious consequences for formal linguistic architecture. We accomplish this through breadth and depth studies.

Modality and existentiality in Ulwa, 2008–2009

Small Grant SG-48036, British Academy
Andrew Koontz-Garboden (PI)