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The Semantic Typology of Causatives: Quantitative Evidence and Pragmatic Explanation

Date and Time: 
Thursday, February 7, 2019. 03:00 PM - 04:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Building 460, Room 126
Workshop: 
Cognition and Language Workshop
Meeting Description: 

This talk discusses new approaches to the crosslinguistic study of the syntax-semantics mapping in causatives, drawing on recent advances by the Causality Across Languages (CAL) team (NSF BCS-1535846; https://causalityacrosslanguages.wordpress.com). The talk’s leitmotif is the observation of an isomorphism between the structural and semantic complexity of verbal representations of causality, known as the Iconicity Principle (Haiman 1983): conceptually simple, ‘direct’ causal chains (binary, physical, agentive, causation dynamics) are preferentially associated with morphosyntactically simple expressions, including lexical and morphological causatives, while more complex chains (non-binary, nonphysical, non-agentive, and/or involving enabling dynamics) are preferentially mapped to structurally more complex expressions (including periphrastic causative constructions and clause-combination constructions).

The first part of the talk presents a typological study of the semantic variables driving complexity across languages. Our approach uses a novel combination of elicited production and comprehension. Preliminary findings unsurprisingly support the Iconicity Principle. However, an intriguing typological split emerges: whereas speakers of English and Yucatec prefer to use compact causative constructions (simple transitive verbs, resultatives, or morphological causatives) with passive voice for the encoding of chains with non-prototypical causers (natural-force causers and accidental human causers), Japanese and Korean speakers prefer to resort to structurally more complex representations (clause combination constructions) for the encoding of such non-agentive causal chains.

In the second part of the talk, I argue that the Iconicity Principle is motivated not only by a semiotic ecology of predictability, as argued by Haspelmath (2008a,b), but also by a semiotic ecology of informativeness. Moreover, predictability-driven iconicity and informativeness-driven iconicity can be unified under a single theoretical umbrella: Grice’s (1989) theory of generalized conversational implicatures. When a more complex expression is more informative than a simpler alternative, the use of the more complex expression is preferentially restricted to information-richer meanings. That both Manner and Quantity maxims fundamentally serve to ensure iconicity in natural language utterances was clearly seen by Grice (1989: 358).

Juergen Bohnemeyer is a professor of linguistics at the University of Buffalo.

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