Category Archives: CRISSP Lecture Series

The Roberts Lectures: Parameter Hierarchies and Comparative Syntax

Ian Roberts

CRISSP is happy to announce a CRISSP Lecture Series with Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge) on December 16-19, 2014. The title of the Lecture Series is ‘Parameter Hierarchies and Comparative Syntax’.


This course looks at a way to break new ground in syntactic theory by reconceptualising the principles-and-parameters approach to comparative syntax, retaining its strengths and attempting to deal with its perceived weaknesses. The central idea is to organise the parameters of Universal Grammar (UG) into hierarchies, which define the ways in which properties of individually variant categories may act in concert; this creates macroparametric effects from the combined action of many microparameters. The highest position in a hierarchy defines a macroparameter, a major typological property, lower positions define successively more local properties. Parameter-setting in language acquisition starts at the highest position as this is the simplest choice; acquirers will “move down the hierarchy” when confronted with primary linguistic data (PLD) incompatible with a high setting. Hence the hierarchies simultaneously define learning paths and typological properties.

In this way, the criticism that formal comparative syntax has little to offer typological studies can potentially be answered. Lastly, a more purely theoretical component of the talk aims to show that the nature of the hierarchies is determined, not directly by UG, but by UG interacting with domain-general principles of simplicity and efficiency. The lectures will focus on the cross-linguistic analysis of null arguments, head movement and Case/agreement phenomena.

Research funded by the ERC Advanced Grant No. 269752.

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The Nouwen Lectures: Schedule and Abstracts

The schedule, title and abstract of the Nouwen Lectures are now available.

Title: Scales and expressions of quantity and degree
Schedule: 15 October (15:30-18:30), 16 October (10:30-13:30), 17 October (13:00-16:00)


Scales play a central role in the semantics of many natural language phenomena. In these lectures, I focus on three kinds of scalar operators: (i) quantifiers, semantically complex operators that form scales themselves; (ii) numeral modifiers, operators that express manipulations of the numerical scale, and (iii) intensifiers, operators that highlight regions on a scale of degrees. The common theme I focus on is that these kinds of operations are not always purely scalar, but that they are semantically and pragmatically complex.

Lecture 1: Quantifiers
One of the success stories of formal semantics is the programme of “Generalised Quantifiers” (e.g. Barwise and Cooper 1981). It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the abundance of insights and tools that emerged from this programme. This notwithstanding, I will highlight several complications that make it that the denotations offered by generalised quantifier theory are in several different ways overly simple. That is, the semantic and pragmatic effects of quantifiers are not fully covered by relations between sets and cardinalities, and the scales such relations form.

Lecture 2: Modified numerals
In the second lecture, I will zoom in on the numerical scale and ways in which natural language allows for quantification on the basis of this scale. Geurts and Nouwen 2007 show that modified numerals with superlative morphology, like “at least 4”, do not have a purely scalar meaning but that there has to be some epistemic component to them: “John found at least 4 marbles” seems to convey that the speaker does not know exactly how many marbles John found. In more recent work on this topic, it has become clear that the precise nature of this epistemic flavour is very hard to pin down. I will highlight some interesting aspects of the resulting discussion. In addition, I will be looking at more complications, especially those offered by prepositional numerals like “up to 100” and I will compare the numerical scale to the spatial structures that form the normal domain of prepositions like “up to”.

Lecture 3: Intensifiers
Finally, I will turn to adjectives and their intensifiers. Simple unmarked adjectives are interpreted with respect to a cutoff point on a scale, the so-called standard of comparison. For “John is tall” to be true, John has to be taller than some (context-dependent) degree of height. It is often believed that intensifiers like “very” are essentially vague scalar operations manipulating this standard. “John is very tall” is just as vague as “John is tall”, but the standard of comparison for being “very tall” is simply higher than that for “tall”. I will argue that in many cases, however, it is not the case that intensifiers directly encode the amplification or slackening of the relevant standard. In particular, I will be looking at cases of intensification where the modifier is lexically transparent, as in “surprisingly tall” or “ridiculously tall”. I will argue that a lot of intensification comes about not by scalar operation, but by an indirectly provided signal of the speaker regarding his emotive or evaluative attitude to the sentence.

Barwise, Jon, and Robin Cooper. “Generalized quantifiers and natural language.” Linguistics and philosophy 4.2 (1981): 159-219.
Geurts, Bart, and Rick Nouwen. “‘At least’et al.: the semantics of scalar modifiers.” Language (2007): 533-559.

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Auxiliaries and Structural Gaps – Current Issues in Nanosyntax

CRISSP is happy to announce the Starke Lectures, a three-day lecture series by Michal Starke:

Lecturer: Michal Starke (University of Tromsø)

Title: Auxiliaries and structural gaps – current issues in Nanosyntax

Date & time: 18, 20, 22 March 2013, 10.00-13.00

Location: CRISSP/Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel, Stormstraat 2, room 3201.


In these lectures, I will follow up on some traditional themes of nanosyntax (such as Germanic verbal morphology) and will look at several topics that remain mysterious in current syntactic research, such as the structure and order of auxiliaries, the nature of so-called 'categories', the still-unsolved problem of affix-hopping, the so-called Bobaljik-paradox for cartography, etc. I will strive to derive properties of these phenomena without adding to the spartan theoretical apparatus of nanosyntax, mostly by tracing them back to the interaction between phrasal spellout and hostile environments for phrasal spellout: structures with gaps in them, stretches of structure that are not constituents, etc. 

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The Gajewski Lectures: Polarity and Truth Conditions

Jon Gajewski will give a CRISSP Lecture Series from December 19 to December 21. The title and the abstract for the lectures are now available: “Polarity and Truth Conditions.”

More information on the time, date, venue and registration can be found in the events section.


These talks will concern how the distribution of negative polarity items is affected by truth-conditional and non-truth conditional meaning. Von Fintel has influentially argued that one kind of non-truth conditional meaning, presupposition, must be factored out of the licensing conditions on polarity items. Chierchia, on the other hand, has shown that another kind of non-truth-conditional meaning, implicatures, can interfere in NPI-licensing. I will argue that both are correct, but that there are important additional generalizations to be made about when and where non-truth-conditional meaning matters for determining the acceptability of a polarity item.

Evidence for this view will come primarily from examination of the distinction between weak and strong NPIs. Weak NPIs are those like English ever that have been argued to appear in downward entailing environments, cf. Ladusaw’s work. Strong NPIs appear in a proper subset of the environments that weak NPIs appear in. Zwarts influentially proposed that the distribution of strong NPIs can be captured with the formal property of anti-additivity. I have argued for a different view that takes the different roles of non-/truth-conditional meaning into account. In this talk, I will argue that strong NPIs show greater sensitivity to non-truth-conditional meaning than weak NPIs.

One issue that will have to be clarified is what aspects of the environment of a polarity item are relevant to determining the acceptability of a polarity item. For example, one must decide if there is an operator that can be identified as the constituent whose semantic properties license the occurrence of a polarity operator or if the presence of a polarity item is sanctioned by the total semantic properties of a constituent that contains it (roughly licenser- vs. environment-based approaches). I will argue for a hybrid of the two approaches whereby both properties of the licenser and material between the licenser and polarity items must be considered.  Having investigated the separate roles of truth-conditional meaning and non-truth-conditional meaning in licensing, I argue that the licenser must be treated differently from other material within the environment of licensing.

Pursuing this account will lead us into discussion of problematic cases. The first problem case is definite descriptions.  Negative polarity items can in limited cases occur in definite descriptions. The new approach to NPIs that I advocate requires re-examining the distribution of NPIs in definites. The second class of problem cases involves complex quantificational expressions I predict to license strong NPIs but do not. I will argue that these are not true counterexamples on the grounds that these operators do not create licensing environments when viewed from a suitably spare perspective on logical form. In this regard, I will discuss previous work on unacceptability that derives from trivial truth conditions.