Nominal phrase meaning

The workshop "Nominal phrase meaning" will take place January 11-12, 2018 at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin / ZAS.


In this workshop, we aim to explore nominal phrase meaning as expressed in the feature make-up of nominal expressions and their conceptual/ontological correlates. By dealing with well-known generalizations about nominal expressions and their grammatical markings, our purpose is to understand how these two dimensions contribute to the form and meaning of nominal expressions.

The two main topics of interest include - but are not limited to – (a) the division of nouns between mass and count and (b) nominal kind nouns. The varied structure of these nominal expressions across languages as well as their potential cognitive correlations have sparked much interest in the literature, but there is still no agreement about what these nominal expressions are, what defines them and what is the role of grammatical markings in their properties. 

Regarding the first issue, we may ask what is the basic distinction between (countable) things, e.g. bun and (non-countable) stuff, e.g. bread, and how is it reflected both on the grammatical level and on the conceptual level? It has been argued that the cognitive difference between count and mass nouns can be stated in terms of stable vs. non-stable units (cf. Doron & Muller 2013). From the point of view of feature make-up, a relatively widespread pattern across languages is that  mass nouns cannot pluralize (*two sugars), but count ones can (two chairs). However, between these two poles lies a variety of nominal expressions that were shown to exhibit properties of both count and mass nouns in respect to some tests (cf. for instance, Rothstein 2010 and Schwarzschild 2011 for some discussion). It has also been shown that mass nouns can be pluralized in some languages, e.g. Greek, albeit with a different type of plural (Alexiadou 2011, cf. Tsoulas 2006). Considering this diverse behavior, it is possible to find a basic distinction between countable and non-countable nouns? And what would the role of grammatical markings - number, articles, etc. -  be in this difference? 

Regarding the second issue, we may ask what are the conceptual representations of nominal kinds, and what does the fact that they are cross-linguistically expressed with simple or absent morphology tells us about the mapping between conceptual and grammatical levels? Likewise, what does the range of meanings of bare plurals tells us about which ontological categories are important? While the semantics of nominal kinds seems to be stable across languages, their morphological realization differs greatly. Languages differ with respect to which linguistic forms can be used to refer to kinds. To illustrate, while many languages use singular definite DPs to refer to kinds, languages differ with respect to plurals: in English bare plurals can refer to kinds, while in Spanish or Greek, bare plurals cannot refer to kinds and definite plurals are used instead, while in other languages such as Brazilian Portuguese nearly every kind of nominal can refer to kinds (see Longobardi 1994; Chierchia 1998; Dayal 2004; Ionin et al. 2011). Recently, the claims that “there is no language that has a ‘generic’ article, that is, an article which is used exclusively with generic NPs” and that “generics have the tendency to employ the least marked aspect-tense choice in the language” (Dahl 1995), have played an important role in the generics literature. Interestingly, they have been confounded into a single claim that generics assume the most unmarked form in the nominal domain and have been used as evidence that generics are a cognitive default (Leslie 2007). Addressing these claims requires systematic cross-linguistic studies across a diverse range of languages and engaging with the exploration of the conceptual correlates of nominal expressions.

Hopefully, the clues provided by these nominal expressions about the relation between grammatical marking and conceptual representation can be expanded to other areas of inquiry.