January 20, 2015

Guest speaker: Ryan Bochnak (University of California, Berkeley)

Ryan Bochnak is a postdoctoral researcher and Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his dissertation at the University of Chicago in 2013. Ryan is a semanticist keenly interested in cross-linguistic variation and documentation of understudied languages; he has worked on gradability, comparison, Washo (isolate/Hokam), and Luganda (Bantu, spoken in Uganda).

On Friday he will be giving a talk at 3 PM in SS 560A: "Variation in degree semantics in comparatives and beyond." A reception in the department lounge will follow.

The standard degree analysis of gradability in English holds that the function of degree morphology, such as the comparative, measure phrases, and degree adverbs, is to bind a degree variable located in the lexical semantics of gradable predicates. In the first part of this talk, I discuss the landscape of gradation structures in Washo (isolate/Hokan), and argue that this language systematically lacks degree morphology of this sort. I propose that this gap in the functional inventory of Washo stems from variation in whether languages introduce degree variables into the semantic representation that can be bound by such operators. This analysis predicts both the systematic absence of degree morphology, as well as the norm-related interpretation of gradable adjectives in conjoined comparisons.

This type of variation raises an interesting question regarding areas of grammar beyond comparison. Specifically, does the variation in gradable predicates extend to other categories as well? In the second part of the talk, I investigate one such area of grammar where degree semantics has been argued to play a crucial role, namely in aspectual composition. I argue that while so-called degree achievement verbs in English and their counterparts in Washo share certain interpretational similarities, such as allowing both telic and atelic readings, we nevertheless find important differences, which can be linked to the availability versus absence of degrees.

This analysis thus has important consequences not only for theories of gradability in natural language, but also the nature of cross-linguistic variation in the semantic component of grammar, specifically the division of labor between variation in functional categories and the lexicon. It furthermore informs us on what possible human languages can look like, and how much a language can do without while still allowing its speakers to communicate effectively.

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