My past and present funded research projects are described below.
Arabic Degree Semantics (2017-present), Austrian Science Fund (FWF) research grant P30409. This project brings novel empirical evidence from contemporary Syrian Arabic to bear on the question of the proper analysis of the comparative and superlative and related components of a theory of degree semantics. Syrian Arabic has been recently discovered to have the typologically rare feature that the superlative morpheme may occur at some syntactic distance from its scalar associate. This same morpheme has a comparative use as well, contingent on its syntactic context. This project expands the documentation of the full range of empirical facts pertaining to this morpheme, its comparative use, and its negative counterpart meaning 'least' or 'less', again depending on context. This new data is applied to the analysis of four semantic problems that have long been viewed as particularly revealing of the nature of the grammar of degree. The four semantic problems relate to 1) interactions of the comparative and superlative with modal verbs ('scope splitting' phenomena), 2) the interpretation of comparatives and superlatives in 'sandwich' scenarios, 3) the comparative's structural relation to the superlative, and 4) differences in the distribution of the comparative and superlative. These four issues have often served as testing grounds for theories of the meaning of the comparative and superlative in the literature. Arabic provides us with the opportunity to test these theories, refine them, or construct new ones against the empirical backdrop of a language where the surface distribution of the comparative and superlative reflects their structural scope to a great extent.
Parameters of Possession (2015-2019), Austrian Science Fund (FWF) research grant P27384-G23.This research project investigates parallels between double object constructions and possessive constructions in English, German and Arabic, with the aim of identifying structural commonalities and parameters of variation in the representation of possession across constructions and across languages. The investigation builds on recent developments in the analysis of the double object construction that indicate that the prepositional frame (e.g. "Mary gave the keys to Doris") is derived from the double object frame (e.g. "Mary gave Doris the keys"), in contrast to previous lines of inquiry about their relatedness, which have either taken the double object frame to be derived from the prepositional frame or have taken the frames to represent alternative argument structures. The new view of the double object alternation has consequences for the analysis of two types of cross-linguistically attested possessive construction. In languages like English, possession is primarily expressed with the transitive verb 'have', while in languages like Arabic, possession is primarily expressed with a preposition supported by the auxiliary corresponding to 'be'. It is thought that the Arabic-type possessive construction is related to the prepositional frame of the double object construction and the English-type construction to the double object frame. The new view of the double object alternation opens up the possibility that the Arabic-type prepositional possessive structure is derived from an English-type transitive structure, a possibility that has not been investigated in the past. This project pursues this possibility in the course of a contrastive analysis of English, Arabic and German. The comparison of Arabic with English and German is significant because of recent research indicating that some double object verbs in Arabic license a dative indirect object, as found in German, while other verbs license an accusative indirect object, as found in English. The three-way contrast between Arabic, English and German in the expression of possession and caused possession is intended to isolate syntactic threads in argument structure and case licensing running through these construction types in the three languages, highlighting fundamental uniformities in the mental representation of linguistic structure. It simultaneously isolates points of variation between them and parametric restrictions on deviations from these uniformities. The anticipated results of the project include a typology of possible syntactic structures for possession and caused possession in the three languages and an analysis of the interrelationships, derivational or otherwise, between the structures, that identifies the uniformities underlying these structures and the parameters of potential variation.
Divergences in Form and Meaning in Comparative Perspective (2014-2017), Austrian Science Fund (FWF) research grant P27236-G23. This research project investigates a cluster of semantic similarities in English and Arabic verb phrases and their adjectival derivatives ('participles'). Similar semantic features are expressed in partially different morphological and syntactic forms in the two languages. The investigation of these dissimilarities in form allows us to separate fundamental from accidental correspondences between form and meaning in the two languages and isolate potential universals in this area. This research project focuses on the cluster of semantic properties expressed by the perfect construction in English and the related passive construction. The English perfect is expressed by the auxiliary 'have' in combination with the same form of the verb that occurs in the passive, though it displays the active syntactic frame. The meaning of the perfect is expressed in Arabic by the active participle in combination with the auxiliary corresponding to English 'be'. In combination with 'be', the English passive participle is ambiguous between a 'verbal' and 'adjectival' passive. In Arabic, the passive participle expresses only the adjectival passive, while the function of the verbal passive is performed by a dedicated finite verb form. Hence, the same semantic features are allotted to different morphosyntactic formats in English and Arabic, and the comparative examination of these constructions promises to reveal which aspects of the form-meaning correspondence are critical to the expression of these semantic features and which are contingent. Comparative research on the relationship between form and meaning is significant in its potential to uncover grammatical universals. The fact that clusters of semantic properties may manifest themselves in dissimilar morphosyntactic formats across languages potentially obscures universal threads in the structure the human capacity for language. Research that investigates such divergences advances the state of the art in linguistic science by identifying hidden cross-linguistic uniformities relevant to both the theory of language and the study of human cognition broadly.
Symmetries in the Structure of Quantity and Degree (2012-2014), Austrian Science Fund (FWF) research grant M1397-G23 (Lise Meitner Program). This project investigates relationships between the semantic categories 'degree' and 'quantity' in human language, through the investigation of constructions in which degree modifiers are co-opted as quantifiers. The existence of cases in which expressions in one category are borrowed into the other points to a degree of permeability in the boundary between the two categories. This permeability in turn suggests that these two cognitive domains share a similar architecture, so that expressions from one domain lend themselves to a parallel usage in the other. This research program is therefore at once theoretically reductive, demonstrating parallels between apparently separate linguistic domains, and empirically revealing, identifying parallels in the cognitive underpinnings of the perception of degree and quantity. A large part of this research is dedicated to the investigation of superlative adjectives in Arabic. Parallels in the manner of association of superlatives with the following noun and the manner in which the universal quantifier 'kull' ('every') associates with the following noun suggest that 'kull' is a superlative adjective. Similarly, 'akthar' is a morphologically transparent superlative derivative of 'kathiir' ('many'), and functions as a proportional quantifier meaning 'most'. We expect that the identification of similarities and differences in the meaning and use of these quantifier/adjectives will serve to isolate abstract commonalities in the structure of the cognitive domains they transition between.