Structuring Semantic Representations – Beth Levin (Stanford)

March 23, 2004 all-day

Over the years, predicate decompositions — representations of verb meaning that take the form of combinations of primitive predicates, such as the infamous CAUSE TO DIE for “kill” — have come in for substantial and sometimes well-merited criticism. Yet, such representations continue to be adopted, suggesting that there is something appealing about them. In this talk, I identify two underappreciated properties of these representations that make them effective semantic representations and present several types of evidence to demonstrate this. First, predicate decompositions can easily capture the “bipartite” nature of a verbs meaning. For instance, a specification of the meaning of “lengthen” must indicate that it describes a change of state event and that the relevant state involves the length of the changed entity. These two types of meaning components can be represented using a small set of event types defined in terms of combinations of primitive predicates together with “roots” representing a verbs idiosyncratic or core meaning (Grimshaw 1993, Hale & Keyser 2002, Jackendoff 1983, 1990, Mohanan & Mohanan 1999, Pesetsky 1995, Pinker 1989, RH&L 1998). Second, perhaps the most important distinction among event types involves a dichotomy between simple events and complex events — an event composed of simple events. In fact, the notion “complex event” or a comparable notion — most often “causative event” — has been invoked since at least the generative semantics era, though its interpretation and role in linguistic explanation have changed over the years. Predicate decompositions can easily capture this fundamental distinction. In support of the importance of these two properties of semantic representations, I review ways in which they gain explanatory power in my joint work with Malka Rappaport Hovav. First, the distinct argument expression options manifested by two semantic classes of English transitive verbs — surface contact verbs (e.g., “wipe”, “scrub”, “sweep”) and change of state verbs (e.g., “break”, “dry”, “open”)— can be tied to differences in the complexity of the events they denote: simple events for surface contact verbs and complex events for change of state verbs; these differences, in turn, reflect differences in the nature of the roots of these two types of verbs. Second, the distribution of fake reflexives in resultative constructions (“Sally sang herself hoarse/Sally sang hoarse”) is sensitive to event complexity. Third, event complexity illuminates crosslinguistic variation in the transitive verb class and leads to a natural differentiation among transitive verb objects, providing insight into the repeated observations that not all objects are equal, observations that have previously attributed to slippery notions such as “affectedness.” Finally, the interaction of event complexity and the bipartite nature of verb meaning provides the key to understanding the origins and properties of English object alternations (e.g., the locative alternation: “stuff groceries into a bag/stuff a bag with groceries”).

Beth Levin is the William H. Bonsall Professor in the Humanities and the Chair of the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University. After receiving her Ph.D. from MIT in 1983, she spent four years at the MIT Center for Cognitive Science, where she had major responsibility for the Lexicon Project. She joined Stanford’s Department of Linguistics in 1999, after twelve years at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the lexicon — the component of the language system that serves as a repository for information on the words of a language. She has conducted extensive breadth- and depth-first studies of the English verb lexicon, which have provided the foundation for her theoretical research. Her recent work investigates the linguistic representation of events and the ways in which events and their participants are expressed in English and other languages.

Center for Language and Speech Processing