The Circle is a weekly forum dedicated to discussion of the descriptive, experimental, and theoretical study of syntax and semantics, featuring presentations of ongoing research by members of the Berkeley Linguistics Department and other departments, as well as discussion of previously published works.


Fridays, 3:00-4:30pm


1303 Dwinelle Hall


Nico Baier

Katie Sardinha

previous semesters

spring 2014
fall 2013
spring 2013
fall 2012
spring 2012
fall 2011
spring 2011
fall 2010
spring 2010
fall 2009
spring 2009
fall 2008
spring 2008
fall 2007
spring 2007
fall 2006
spring 2006
fall 2005


University of California, Berkeley
Department of Linguistics


24 october
NELS Practice Talks


31 october
Lelia Glass (Stanford)

7 november
Zachary O'Hagan (UCB) and Stephanie Farmer (UCB)

14 november
Ken Safir (Rutgers)

21 november
Judith Aissen (UC Santa Cruz)

A number of Mayan languages have enclitics which are subject to both prosodic and morphosyntactic licensing requirements. On the morphosyntactic side, they are licensed by certain D-related features (e.g. definiteness, person) and are thus motivated within DP. However, they are positioned on the right edge of a prosodic constituent -- the intonational phrase (⍳) -- that typically corresponds to a much larger syntactic constituent, i.e. the clause. This creates a syntax-prosody mismatch, as well as a kind of long-distance dependency. Exemplifying with material from Tzotzil, I will suggest that this is not an edge-based phenomenon per se, but rather that these cases reflect the requirement that the clitics in question carry the boundary tone associated with the right edge of ⍳, a tone which is realized on the final syllable of ⍳. This forces the clitics into an extreme right-edge position which may be arbitrarily far away from the position in which they are motivated. I will speculate about the origins of the Tzotzil system and then show that one dialect has eliminated these mismatches in an interesting way.

28 november

5 december
Eric Prendergast (UCB)

12 december
Reading week

19 december
Exam week


17 october
Andrea Beltrama (Stanford, U Chicago)

From semantic composition to Valley Girl talk. Intensifiers at the socio-semantics interface.

Intensifiers such as very, really, so, extremely, are pervasive in natural language. In particular, linguists have addressed intensification with respect to two areas: intensifiers’ semantics, and intensifiers’ usage in the social landscape. Yet, although each of these two approaches has uncovered a striking amount of variation in its own domain, an actual integration between these two perspectives is currently missing. Exploring this relationship represents the main goal of this talk.

The presence of a principled connection between semantics and sociolinguistics stems from the following observation. While the use of an intensifier with a gradable predicate comes across as fairly neutral (in (1)), the occurrences in (2) normally index a richer constellation of indexical information. First, these expressions are intuitively labeled as informal and colloquial. Moreover, they normally suggest an association with readily identifiable and specific character types (“Valley girl” for “totally“ (Suh 2012), “Generation X” for “so“ (Zwicky 2011), and others)

(1a) The tank is totally full (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of fullness)
(1b) The house is very big (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of size)
(1c) The building is so tall that planes almost touch it (Gradable. Source: scale of height)

(2a) Your attitude is very Berkeley (Non-gradable. Source: stereotypical traits of Berkeley)
(2b) I totally left this at home (Non-gradable. Source: certainty about the proposition)
(2c) I’m so next in line! (Non-gradable. Source: eagerness/enthusiasm about being next)

My leading hypothesis is that speakers, when making use of intensifiers, are exploiting the semantic notion of gradability as a stylistic resource to construct social meaning and social evaluations. In particular, I suggest that intensifiers that semantically target non-lexical scales shift the focus away from the propositional content, “importing“ into the semantic composition socially relevant speaker-oriented dimensions such as emotions, attitudes and evaluations.

By making these scales salient, intensifiers can be used by the interlocutors as a linguistic means to portray themselves as particular social types of speakers, becoming a stylistic resource in the process.

10 october
Karen Lahousse (University of Leuven)

Word order in French and the syntax-information structure interface

Verb-nominal subject inversion in French (VS) is subject to a range of constraints having to do with (i) the syntactic structure of the configuration, (ii) the type of licensing contexts and (iii) the information structure interpretation of the postverbal subject and the whole construction. I argue in favor of a “low” analysis for VS, and show how the licensing contexts of VS are determined by general information-structural principles, which also hold for impersonal passive constructions, and, surprisingly, seem to be related to the formulation of EPP. A consequence of the proposal is that French VS word order is not radically different from VS in Italian, a welcome conclusion in the light of recent analyses having challenged the pro-drop parameter (which involves a radical distinction between French on the one hand, and Spanish and Italian on the other hand). I will also speculate on the difference between written French, where VS typically occurs, and spoken French, where this is not the case.

3 october
Masoud Jasbi (Stanford)

Definiteness, Specificity, or Topicality: The Semantics of Differential Object Marking in Persian

In languages with Differential Object Marking (DOM), case marking of the object NP depends on certain semantic features. The usual suspects are definiteness, specificity, topicality, and animacy. Case marking is present when the right combination of these semantic features are present on the object NP. Persian is a DOM language where definite direct objects are obligatorily marked with the accusative case. For indefinite objects, case marking appears to be optional. Case-marked indefinites have readings which are often analysed as specific (Karimi 1990) or topical (Dabir-Moghaddam 1992, Dalrymple & Nikolaeva 2011). I suggest that the semantic contribution of the accusative case in Persian is closer to the notion of definiteness. Following Coppock & Beaver (2012), I argue for a composite notion of definiteness where the presuppositions of existence and uniqueness are triggered by different mechanisms. I analyse the Persian accusative case marker as an identity function which triggers an existential presupposition. I show that this account not only captures the insights of the specificity and topicality approaches, but also offers better empirical coverage.

26 september
Boris Harizanov (Stanford):

Denominal adjectives in Bulgarian and the syntax-morphophonology interface

An intriguing mismatch between syntactic structure and morphophonological structure arises in certain denominal adjectives in Bulgarian, whereby proper parts of words behave as phrases in the syntax. While on the surface these denominal adjectives are morphophonological words that exhibit a number of purely adjectival characteristics, their nominal components are syntactically active in ways expected of typical noun phrases with respect to their thematic interpretation, anaphoric properties, and interaction with the formation of syntactic dependencies.

I attribute this mismatch to properties of the mapping from syntax to morphophonology. In particular, I treat denominal adjectives as underlying noun phrases that are converted into adjectives in the course of the derivation, as part of a word formation process which combines a noun phrase with adjectivizing morphology. This approach leads to a syntactic treatment of at least some aspects of word formation: syntactic objects realized as proper parts of words and those realized as autonomous words do not necessarily differ for the purposes of syntax.

19 september
Anneliise Rehn (UCB):

Because Meaning: Language Change through Iconicity in Internet Speak

Language observers have noticed that for English speakers, especially on the internet, the possibilities for because are expanding. In the past four years, we see examples of sentences such as “The apple falls to the ground because science” or “I’m going to the store because hungry.” All parts of the sentence after the word because are replaced by a single word. My research focuses on how because X is now being used, what the new construction means, and the impact of this case on our understanding of language as a whole. The research indicates new conclusions about language development, specifically on how iconicity impacts that development. The popularization of because X was empowered by the iconic connection between the form of because X and the meanings which became associated with it.

12 september
Syntax Circle Round Robin

Anyone and everyone who wants to can have up to 10 minutes to talk to the Circle (including questions). You may talk about ANY topic, as long as its related in some way to syntax and/or semantics! For example, you could talk about…

…a problem you’re trying to work out
…an interesting idea you read about over the summer
…a theory that bothers you, or that you just love
…a project you’ve just completed and what’s next
…some intriguing data that you don’t know what to do with

The point of the Round-Robin format is NOT just to showcase finished work (although you are welcome to do this if you’d like!), but also to stimulate ideas for ongoing work and projects, and find out about what people are finding interesting these days.

Format: Anyone who wants to present will put their name into a hat, and we’ll draw randomly for presentation order. You have 10 minutes from the moment you start talking, but you don’t have to use the whole 10 minutes. That’s it!

If you know you would like to present ahead of time, email katie.sardinha@berkeley.edu so we can get an idea of numbers. Even if you don’t contact Katie, you can still decide to present on the day itself.

5 september
Peter Jenks (UCB):

NP and DP in Classifier Languages

I argue for the existence of a DP projection in some but not all noun phrases in Mandarin Chinese and Thai. More specifically, a DP is projected in noun phrases with a determiner, but not in those with definite bare nouns. The main evidence for the existence of a DP projection comes from 1) syntactic and semantic properties of classifier-selecting determiners such as demonstratives and 2) modifiers which attach above these determiners, which can be analyzed as their explicit domain restriction. Then, building on E-Type analyses of pronouns, I demonstrate that it is the presence of this domain restriction, covert or overt, that enables certain bound readings of DPs, for example donkey anaphora. With these facts in hand, I present a novel observation: donkey anaphoric readings are unavailable with bare nouns, even though these languages otherwise allow putatively definite readings of bare nouns. This demonstrates that bare nouns do not project DP. Thus, while classifier languages like Thai and Mandarin Chinese do project DP in some contexts, definite bare nouns are bare NPs.