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


19 december
Exam week

12 december
Reading week

5 december
Eric Prendergast (UCB)

Locative determiner omission and the articulation of definiteness in Albanian prepositional phrases

This talk will focus on the contrasting articulation of definiteness in Albanian determiner phrases. Albanian expresses definiteness on both common and proper nouns with a post-posed clitic that shows agreement in gender, number, and case and occurs in second position in the noun phrase. When unmodified nouns occur within the domain of certain locative prepositions, however, definiteness is expressed by the omission of any overt determiner; attaching a determiner is in fact ungrammatical. The addition of modifiers—adjectives, adnominals, prepositions, possessive pronouns, Genitive noun phrases, or relative clauses—leads to ‘reappearance’ of the determiner as the exponent of definiteness. I trace determiner omission to the loss of the archaic Albanian Locative case and I argue that the failure of determiner omission to extend to modified nominal structures is evidence that nominal modifiers originate as arguments of D, a view proposed in classical transformational grammar by Smith (1964) and more recently revived to account for adjectival inflection in Japanese (Yamakido 2005, 2007) and Ezafe in Persian (Larson and Yamakido 2008).

28 november

21 november
Judith Aissen (UC Santa Cruz)

Syntax-prosody mismatches in Tzotzil

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.

14 november
Ken Safir (Rutgers)

Verb Stems in Jóola Eegimaa: How compositional is agglutinative morphology?
(with Mamadou Bassene, Rutgers)

The agglutinative morphology of verb stems poses many problems for theory and analysis, insofar as distinct theoretical commitments as to what counts as a linguistic unit do not always align. The verb stem morphology of Jóola-Eegimaa ((Eegimaa, henceforth), an Atlantic language of the Niger-Congo family,poses just such a challenge. We argue that our analysis, which relies on several operations that rearrange the underlying syntactic structure of the verb stem in Eegimaa, permits the various demands of syntax, semantics and morphology to receive a unified analysis for which there is striking empirical support. Insofar as the success of our analysis depends on core minimalist assumptions, our approach supports not just the minimalist approach in general, but also has implications for the copy theory of internal merge, for the typology of head movement, for the role of syntax in the derivation of words before surface morphological operations, for the nature of surface morphological operations, and for the compositional and de-compositional analyses and interpretation of the verbal spine. We also briefly explore the possibility that the operations that underlie stem-affixation and interpretation in Eegimaa may provide a window into some of the vexing morphosyntactic complexities found in other agglutinative languages.

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

Nominal Reference in a Tiered Lexicon: A Semantic Account of Noun Classifiers in Two Amazonian Languages

In this talk we describe and analyze the superficially dissimilar noun classification systems of Máíhɨki (Tukanoan) and Matsigenka (Arawak), two unrelated languages of Amazonian Peru. In Máíhɨki, noun classification in part resembles gender and numeral classifier systems (Aikhenvald 2003): classifiers participate in agreement processes, individuate mass nouns, and appear obligatorily in numeral constructions. In Matsigenka, classifiers do not participate in agreement processes, do not individuate mass nouns, and appear only optionally in numeral constructions. They additionally appear in adjectival constructions, incorporate into verbs, and participate in nominal compounding. These apparent differences cast doubt on whether it is appropriate to treat both phenomena under the umbrella of 'classification'. Nevertheless, the two languages are remarkably similar in terms of the meanings of the nouns that pattern as classifiers.

Our goal here is to justify our and others' impulse to label these and similar systems as noun classifier systems by couching discussion of noun classification proper in a broader presentation of the semantic properties of the nominal lexicons of both languages, asking the question: what is required of different nouns in these languages to establish reference? We take as our starting point the notion -- proposed by Chierchia (1998) -- that languages differ with respect to the argumental or predicative status of bare nouns. We propose that in Máíhɨki and Matsigenka, the nominal lexicon is tiered rather than uniform. That is, a certain subset of nouns is exclusively argumental [+arg, -pred], while another is exclusively predicative [-arg, +pred] (a distinction standardly assumed to hold for entire languages, and not subparts of lexicons.) Yet other elements form part of a set of type-shifting operators, which we describe in turn. With these facts in mind, we analyze the locus of variation between the two languages' noun classifiers in type-theoretic terms, that is, how they pattern within a larger nominal space. In doing so, we aim to provide precise analytical tools for language documentarians in their description of noun classification systems that go beyond traditional descriptions of such systems in terms of spatio-configurational properties of the classified referent (e.g., shape, size, consistency, etc.).

31 october
Lelia Glass (Stanford)

Corpus evidence for systematicity in compounding
(with Beth Levin and Dan Jurafsky)

Compounds have been seen as a challenge for compositionality because one seems to need a great deal of context to understand how the head and the modifier relate to each other. For example, pumpkin bus might mean a bus that transports pumpkins; a bus that turns into a pumpkin at night; or the bus that is stopping at a pumpkin patch on the way home (Downing 1977).

In this talk, we agree with Dowty's compositional analysis: that a compound indicates a subset of the head noun and that the modifier has some 'appropriately classificatory' relation R to the head. But we argue that this compositional account is only the beginning of the story: we also investigate what relationships tend to hold between heads and modifiers in different sorts of compounds, and we explore what relationships are 'appropriately classificatory' in different domains.

We present evidence from a corpus study that compounds referring to artifacts (made by humans for a purpose) have systematically different patterns in their head-modifier relations than compounds referring to natural kinds (existing in nature independent of humans). We suggest that artifacts are conceptually categorized in terms of events -- the event of their creation or the event of their canonical use (Nichols 2008). Thus artifact modifiers tend to refer to ingredients used in the head's creation (chocolate cake) or the head's purpose (fish knife, used to cut fish). In contrast, we claim that natural kinds are conceptualized in terms of an abstract essence (Bird & Tobin 2009), and thus tend to be named for distinguishing properties such as geographical origin or appearance. We also present experimental evidence consistent with this analysis.

We observe that (1) compounds can be given a compositional analysis along the lines of Dowty; but (2) that we can better understand what Dowty's 'appropriately classificatory' relation 'R' is and how it is identified in context when we investigate the head-modifier relationships in compounds naming different types of entities.

24 october
NELS Practice Talks

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.