The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 5/9 - Neil Myler

Speaker: Neil Myler (NYU)
Title: Building and interpreting HAVE sentences in (mostly) English
Date/Time: Thursday, May 9, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

The full abstract is available here (pdf).

The literature on the syntax and semantics of possession sentences is vast. However, much of it can be seen as trying to deal with two major puzzles: what we might call the too many meanings puzzle (why do possession constructions across languages have the ability to convey a myriad of seemingly unrelated meanings, like kinship, body parts, permanent ownership, abstract attributes, etc.?), and the too many (surface) structures puzzle (why do possession constructions vary so much in their surface syntax across languages, from transitive HAVE constructions, to existential BE constructions containing an oblique possessor, to copular BE constructions containing a PP possessee?; Why is the transitive HAVE pattern relatively rare?).

I suggest that a solution to both of these puzzles is forthcoming if we take thematic roles out of the syntax, and instead have them be read off from the output of syntax in the semantic component (a conclusion argued for already on different grounds by Schäfer 2008; Wood 2012; Bruening 2013; Marantz 2009, 2013). The post-syntactic conception of thematic roles has an important consequence: whether a given argument-introducing head takes a complement or specifier is determined in the syntax, but whether it assigns a thematic role or not is determined in the semantics. This means that the notion of “syntactic argument of head X” is potentially independent of the notion of “semantic argument of head X”. I argue that this independence is key to understanding the syntactic structures of possession sentences and how they give rise to the gamut of apparently unrelated “possessive” interpretations. In particular, I argue for the following hypotheses, which rely on this conception:

  • HAVE and BE are realizations of the same abstract light verb ‘v’. Semantically, this ‘v’ is a type-neutral identity function, which will simply pass the denotation of its complement up the tree (this follows a long tradition of proposals that BE and HAVE are meaningless in themselves).
  • This ‘v’ is spelled out as HAVE only if it occurs in the environment of Kratzer’s (1996) Voice, and Voice takes a specifier. Otherwise, this ‘v’ is spelled out as BE. (i.e., HAVE is simply the transitive form of BE- much in the spirit of Hoekstra 1994. The analysis also follows the tradition of Freeze 1992 and Kayne 1993 in taking HAVE to be BE+”something else”, but takes the “something else” to be something other than an incorporated preposition).
  • The thematic roles associated with permanent ownership and the various inalienable possession relations (the part-of relation, kinship, etc) are associated with distinct DP-internal argument-introducing heads, but languages may vary in whether they first-merge the possessor in a possession sentence into the specifier of one of these DP-internal positions, or somewhere higher up in the tree.
  • The main source of cross-linguistic variation in the syntax of possession sentences is thus the position in which the possessor is introduced into the structure. If the possessor is introduced in spec-VoiceP, we have a HAVE construction/language. If the possessor is introduced anywhere lower than spec-VoiceP (e.g. in a spec position inside the possessee DP itself, in the spec of a pP which takes the possessee as its complement, in the spec of an applicative head, etc.), then we have a BE construction/language.