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Periodic Report Summary 1 - NOUN CLASSES (The interpretive function and syntactic category of noun classes)

Goals :
The primary goal of this research project was to explore the similarities and differences in the ways languages classify their nouns. Many well-studied languages divide nouns into gender-based grammatical classes, e.g. the masculine-feminine system of French and Italian and the masculine-feminine-neuter system of Russian and German. Algonquian languages, such as Blackfoot, are famous for their animacy-based classification system. In these languages all nouns are either animate or inanimate. This project sought to determine how the animacy-based classification system of Blackfoot differed from familiar gender-based systems. Since Blackfoot is considered an understudied and threatened language, a second goal was to develop a comprehensive description of the noun class system of this language.

1. Animacy and gender are qualitatively different kinds of classification systems
In languages with a gender-based noun class system, having a fixed and inherent gender is one of the properties that distinguishes nouns from verbs and adjectives. Consequently, it is widely assumed that gender is a formal feature of ‘little n’, the category that defines nouns. Wiltschko (2012) developed the intriguing hypothesis that animacy in Blackfoot serves a different purpose, more specifically that it determines aspectual classes of nouns (i.e. Seinsarten). In Ritter (2014), I explore the consequences of this hypothesis. In particular, I show that animacy plays a role in both nominal and verbal aspectual classification. These findings constitute additional evidence that Blackfoot uses participant-based features, to perform the same grammatical functions as spatio-temporal features in familiar gender systems. As a result, Blackfoot appears to have a very different kind of grammatical system. However, at an abstract level the two systems are in fact remarkably similar, because both kinds of features serve to fulfill same universal interpretive functions.

2. Distinguishing two kinds of animacy in grammar
A closer look at the grammatical system of Blackfoot reveals that there are in fact two related, but distinct types of animacy in this language. In Wiltschko & Ritter (2015), we argue that the two types of animacy, which we label morphological animacy (m-animacy) and high animacy
(h-animacy), are constructed in different ways: M-animacy is a head feature that determines noun class and plays a role in syntactic agreement operations, whereas h-animacy is selectable feature of arguments. This suggests that m-animacy is a property of nouns whereas h-animacy is a property of noun phrases. The two kinds of animacy also have different distributions. Only languages that have animacy-based form classes have m-animate nominals, but h-animate nominals are universal because all languages have predicates that select for high animates. We identify empirical differences between m-animate and h-animate nominals that are intended to serve as diagnostics for the exploration of animacy in other languages.

3. The role of High animacy in Blackfoot and beyond
My most recent work (Ritter 2015, Wiltschko & Ritter 2015, Ritter & Wiltschko 2016) explores the distinction between m-animacy and h-animacy, and focuses on the role of h-animacy in grammar. This series of papers argues that h-animacy plays a role in argument structure, event structure, and argument licensing.

3a. High animacy is relevant for argument structure
Some languages, including Japanese, Irish and Blackfoot, restrict subjects of transitive verbs to high animate arguments, i.e. arguments that refer to human or animate beings. In Blackfoot, similar restrictions apply to some types of objects. In Wiltschko & Ritter (2015), we develop a formal treatment of this semantic restriction, analyzing it as the result of a syntactic operation of SELECT H. In Japanese and Irish SELECT H is restricted to one position; in Blackfoot SELECT H is ubiquitous. The broader implication of this treatment is that semantic selection is in effect a syntactic operation, and selectable properties of arguments are syntactically represented.

3b. High animacy is relevant for event structure
Taken together, the results of Ritter (2014) and Wiltschko and Ritter (2015) suggest that SELECT H might play a role in in event structure as well as argument structure in Blackfoot. In Ritter (2015, in prep.) I show that this is indeed the case, arguing that all syntactic categories that represent event structure components (i.e. Voice, Appl, I-Asp) share the property that they SELECT H in Blackfoot. I develop an analysis that accounts for a number of unusual properties of the event structure in Blackfoot, including the fact that causers and agents alike must be H-animate, and the fact that there appears to be no distinction between anti-causative and stative eventualities.

3c. High animacy as an alternative to Case
The hypothesis that high animacy is marked in the syntactic representation of noun phrases that denote animate beings leads to the expectation that we should find evidence in languages other than Blackfoot. In Ritter & Wiltschko (2016), we argue that two kinds of impersonal subjects in in German, implicit subjects of impersonal passives and the impersonal pronoun man ‘one’ are high animate (H-animate) noun phrases. Both types of impersonals pick out non-specific humans, and both have been analyzed in previous literature as referentially and structurally defective, in part because they lack nominative case. We propose that their H-animacy serves as a mechanism to license these defective noun phrases. (NOTE: This paper was started as part of the Marie Curie CIG project in spring 2015, but completed after it was terminated.)

Expected final results: As the project was terminated early, no further results are anticipated.


Daphna Tripto, (Head of the Research Liaison Section)
Tel.: +97286472425
Fax: +97286472930


Life Sciences
Record Number: 187671 / Last updated on: 2016-08-23
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