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


Virginia Dawson

Erik Hans Maier


University of California, Berkeley
Department of Linguistics


24 march
Ciara Anderson (Trinity College Dublin)
The adjective in Grassfields Bantu – a misnomer?

The presentation will work towards establishing whether the notion of ‘adjective’ as a discrete category in a selection of Grassfields Bantu languages may in fact be a misnomer. Authors such as Dryer (1992) and Hawkins (1983) have suggested that semantic definitions suffice when it comes to cross-linguistic comparisons of categories such as adjective. Rijkhoff (2002; 2016) has challenged this however, noting that 50% of the languages used in his iconicity research may have to be discounted due to word class miscategorizations on notions such as ‘adjective’. In such cases, loosely defined categories of terms such as adjective may render theories relating to typological predictions of word order unworkable.

Therefore, it is pertinent to establish what types of languages we are dealing with when examining GB in light of his theory. One possible explanation for discrepancies is that there is in fact no distinct class (or a minor closed class) of adjectives in the languages in question. Rather “further measures” may have been taken upon noun and verb-like lexemes in order to function in the role of a modifier.

This examination will lean towards a definition of the adjectival word class as one which takes into account the syntax-semantics interface as per Hengeveld (1992 a, b). An analysis of the modifier deemed as adjective in a selection of Grassfields Bantu Ring languages; Bamunka, Mmen, and Babungo through the lens of Role and Reference Grammar, lends support to Rijkhoff’s (2002;2016) claim that purely semantic definitions for such categories may not be helpful in typological analyses.


31 march
No Meeting (Spring Break)

5 april
Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (National University of Singapore)
Extraction and licensing in Toba Batak

Special meeting time and location: Noon-1pm Wednesday April 5th, 3401 Dwinelle

7 april
Guillaume Thomas (Toronto)
Topic TBA

14 april

21 april
Maria Khachaturyan (Berkeley)
Topic TBA

28 april
Inge Genee (Lethbridge)
Topic TBA

5 may

12 may
No meeting (Finals week)


17 march
Lidia Mazzitelli (Universität zu Köln)
Impersonality and agentivity in Lithuanian

In my talk, I will review the semantic properties influencing the productivity of impersonal passives in Lithuanian and the consequences that this has for a definition of 'impersonal passive agent'. Seminal studies on German (Primus 2011) and Polish (Bunčić 2015) have shown that in these languages not all predicates are equally suitable for creating impersonal passives. Predicates with a lower level of agentivity (such as 'sweat', 'bleed') are much less acceptable than predicates with a high level of agentivity (such as 'work', 'talk'). At this stage of the research, though, it is not clear yet what the exact features are that define a 'felicitous agent' for the passive impersonals in these languages. A definition based on the simple aggregration of “volitionality”, “sentience” and “motion”, the properties that define proto-Agents in Dowty's (1991) approach has proved unsatisfactory (Primus 2011): non-volitional but moving and sentient agents of 'bleed' and 'sweat' score definitely worse that non-volitional and non-moving agents of 'fear' and 'rejoice'.

In Lithuanian, various types of impersonal constructions are found (cf. Ambrazas 2006). I will focus only on the impersonal passive -ma/-ta construction, where the predicate appears in the non-agreeing (neutral) form of present passive participle (in -ma) or past passive participle (in -ta). Impersonal -ma/-ta constructions from virtually all types of verbs: transitives, unergatives and even unaccusatives; the subject slot, though, must be occupied by a nominative-marked NP. An example is provided in (1):


Mano tėvynėje dirbama nuo gimimo iki mirties
my fatherland.LOC work.PTC.N.SG from birth.GEN
to death.GEN

'In my country one works from birth to death.'

From a semantic point of view, Lithuanian has been claimed to be very liberal in forming and using -ma/-ta impersonals, the only constraint being the humanness of the agent (Shibatani 1998). However, even in Lithuanian not all -ma/-ta forms are equally frequent. According to a corpus search, -ma/-ta forms derived from predicates like 'work' and 'dance', whose agents have all the properties of proto-Agents, are indeed very frequent in the corpus. Mental predicates like 'believe' and 'doubt' – whose agents are volitional, and thus sentient, but not moving– also show a very high frequency of use. Instead, verbs as 'feel', 'bleed' and 'stink' are used much more rarely. As in German and Polish, a definition of agent based on feature aggregation is not adequate. I propose, tentatively, that the productivity scale of Lithuanian -ma/-ta impersonals may be more fruitfully captured by a definition of agent that foregrounds responsability as the most prominent agentive feature.

10 march
Tessa Scott (Berkeley)
Mechanisms of Resumptive Pronouns

Resumptive pronouns (RPs) have been traditionally analyzed as indicating that an A-bar dependency was not derived through movement, but rather that the RP was bound by the head of the A-bar dependency, and that that head was base generated in its surface position (Ross 1967, Kroch 1981, Erteschik-Shir 1992). Conversely, gaps in A-bar dependencies were thought to indicate movement of the XP. McCloskey (2006) paints this exact picture for resumptive pronouns as realization of a non-movement strategy of forming RCs. Many scholars have pointed out that languages often do not adhere to this RP/gap non-movement/movement dichotomy (Sichel 2000, Adger and Ramchand 2005, Aoun and Li 2006). In this presentation I present novel data from Swahili that supports both syntactic motivations for RPs (in the traditional sense), morphological constraints on their form, and phonological reasons for the (non)-optionality of their overt pronunciation, which all contribute to the surface realization of RPs. The multiple forces acting on these pronouns account for the robust variability in the form and behavior of RPs cross-linguistically.

3 march
Kenneth Baclawski Jr. (Berkeley)
What happened to 'What happened'?

The question 'What happened' is typically assumed in the focus literature to elicit a response with broad/sentence-focus. Fanselow & Lenertová (2011) use this as a diagnostic to suggest that German 'Subpart of Focus Fronting' is an instance of optional prosodic movement completely unrelated to discourse context. However, a closer examination of 'What happened' in Catalán shows that the answer may in fact contain overt topic-movement. This leads to the conclusion that 'What happened' is ambiguous between a Narration/discourse coordination question (1) and an Explanation/discourse subordination question (2; using concepts from Segmented Discourse Representation Theory, Asher & Lascarides 2003). With this in mind, we conclude that German Subpart of Focus Fronting is in fact constrained by discourse context, only licensed in discourse subordination contexts. To explain this data, we propose that C has two flavors: a discourse coordination C (CDC) and a discourse subordination C (CDS). Topic-movement is shown to be generally constrained to CDS (López 2009). Cross-linguistic variation in topic-movement is then explained as featural variation in these C heads and their respective cophonologies.

(1) A: First, I went to the store. Then I went to the bank. Then...,
B: What happened? / Then what happened? / #Why?
A: Then, I came back home.

(2) A: John hasn't come to class for the past week.
B: What happened? / #Then, what happened? / Why?
A: He got the flu.

24 february
Nico Baier (Berkeley)
Unifying Anti-Agreement and Wh-Agreement

Many languages exhibit anti-agreement (AA), an effect in which phi-agreement with a DP is disrupted when that DP is involved in A'-dependency. In this paper, I argue against the predominant view that AA derives from a syntactic constraint on the A'-movement of certain arguments or from certain structural positions (Richards 1997; Schneider-Zioga 2007; Diercks 2010; Erlewine 2016). Instead, AA is a form of wh-agreement – dedicated agreement morphology that indexes extracted arguments (Chung and Georgopoulos 1988). The effect is the result of a phi-probe copying both phi- and wh-features from a goal. AA arises when partial or total impoverishment applies to the [phi+wh] feature bundle in the morphological component, blocking insertion of an otherwise appropriate, more highly specified agreement exponent.

17 february
No Meeting

10 february
Round Robin

All are welcome to bring data, questions, or ideas related to syntax and semantics for discussion at this year's first Round Robin. According to hallowed tradition, names of those who want to present will be drawn from a hat and presenters will have up to 5 minutes to discuss their topic.

2 february
Omer Preminger (Maryland)
What the PCC tells us about "abstract" agreement, head movement, and locality

Special meeting time and location: 3-430 PM Thursday Feb 2nd, 1229 Dwinelle

Based on the cross- and intra-linguistic distribution of Person Case Constraint (PCC) effects, I argue that there can be no agreement in phi-features (person, number, gender/noun-class) that systematically lacks a morpho-phonological footprint. That is, there is no such thing as "abstract" phi-agreement, null across the entire paradigm. There is, however, one important caveat: PCC effects arise not only with overt phi-agreement, but also with clitic doubling. This cannot be because clitic doubling is agreement; it behaves like movement (and unlike agreement) in a variety of respects. Nor can this be because clitic doubling, qua movement, is contingent on prior agreement – since the claim that all movement depends on prior agreement is demonstrably false.

I propose that clitic doubling requires prior agreement because it is an instance of non-local head movement, and movement of X^0 to Y^0 always requires a prior syntactic relationship between Y^0 and XP. In local head movement (à la Travis 1984), this requirement is trivially satisfied by c-selection. But in non-local cases, agreement must fill this role.

I conclude by discussing the nature of this no-null-agreement generalization. As a grammatical principle, it would be a classic case of mixing levels, requiring reference to syntax and morpho-phonology at once. I suggest, instead, that it is not a grammatical principle at all – it is the consequence of a conservative acquisition strategy with respect to the placement of unvalued features on functional heads (cf. Biberauer & Roberts 2015).

27 january
Bernat Bardagil-Mas (Groningen)
Postposition-doubling in Panará

In this talk I will discuss ongoing research on the complex verbal morphology of Panará (Jê). An issue in Panará syntax that is a central phenomenon in my research of the language is the syntactic status of certain objects that appear in the form of obliquely-marked participants selected by postpositional phrases. These objects can also be represented on the agreement morphology on the verb, thus exhibiting behaviour akin to that of the verb's direct arguments. After presenting the phenomena as they appear superficially, I will explore an analysis based on agreement and feature-checking relations to derive the opacity of frozen PPs and the transparency of clitic-doubling PPs.

20 january
No Meeting