Northwestern Events Calendar


Public PhD Dissertation Defense: Peter Baumann - Incremental Structure Building and Islands

When: Friday, September 3, 2021
11:00 AM - 1:00 PM Central

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Talant Abdykairov  

Group: Linguistics Department

Category: Academic


Human language processing is incremental. In this dissertation, I explore how an incremental perspective can help us clarify our understanding of transformational syntax, which typically proceeds bottom-up. As part of our exploration, I develop an incremental head-driven parsing algorithm for Minimalist Grammars. The two main innovations of this parsing algorithm are the formulation of a left-corner-like transformation for feature sequences of linguistic expressions, and the treatment of syntactic movement by inverting movement chains.

When viewed from the perspective of incremental parsing, some aspects of syntax become simpler: movement turns out to always be 'covert': the phonological form of a lexical item is processed when it is encountered in the input, but its meaning may get moved around in the derivation and the resulting logical form. 
In addition to the standard Minimalist Grammar operations Merge and Move, I also discuss adjunction and coordinate structures. Adjunction is reduced to Merge with the help of an Adjunctivizer head, which takes the phrase adjoined to as its complement and projects the same category that it selects. I also discuss the distinction between A-movement and A-bar-movement, arguing that A-bar-movement is in some sense optional and that the licensing features for A-bar-movement are not part of specific lexical items, but are instead introduced by functional heads. 

I then sketch a compositional semantics that follows the incremental syntactic derivation: instead of being type driven, semantic composition will be driven by syntax, such that every syntactic Merge or Move operation corresponds to semantic Function Application with the syntactically selecting element uniformly acting as the function and the selected element as its semantic argument. 
Turning to the semantics of movement, I argue that an A-bar-moved expression makes separate meaning contributions at the top and at the base of a movement chain. The meaning contribution at the base of the chain is the core meaning of the moved item, while the meaning discharged at the top of the chain is provided by the head, which also introduces the licensing feature. So A-bar-movement always reconstructs, except when the moved element is a quantificational determiner phrase, which can take scope via Quantifier Raising licensed by a scope feature. 

Finally, I use the proposed incremental syntax and semantics to argue that syntactic islands should not be viewed as constraints within syntax. Instead different island effects may have different non-syntactic explanations. I first argue that specifiers are islands because of incremental structure building. Second, I offer an explanation of weak islands: I argue that weak island effects are identical to (focus) intervention effects, and that movement chains introduced by a Q head cannot span across (focus) interveners. But movement licensed by the scope feature of determiner phrases is not affected by intervention effects and can thus span across weak island interveners.

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