Cross-Linguistic Variation in the Treatment of Beneficiaries and the Argument vs. Adjunct Distinction

By Creissels, Denis | Linguistic Discovery, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Cross-Linguistic Variation in the Treatment of Beneficiaries and the Argument vs. Adjunct Distinction


Creissels, Denis, Linguistic Discovery


1. Introduction

This paper argues against the idea of a straightforward relationship between semantic argumenthood and its possible morphosyntactic correlates, and in favor of the position according to which:

* argumenthood should be defined in semantic terms as a comparative concept independent from its possible correlates in the syntactic organization of individual languages,

* semantic argumenthood should be defined as a scalar rather than categorical concept, and the definition should be formulated in such a way as to assign the highest degree of argumenthood to participants showing the highest possible degree of involvement in an event, and the lowest degree of argumenthood to phrases that do not refer to participants in the event denoted by the verb, but to its circumstances.

In this paper, I do not propose a precise definition of the features that might be relevant to a definition of semantic argumenthood compatible with the cross-linguistic variation observed in the syntactic contrasts between NPs commonly considered as expressing arguments or adjuncts, and I do not discuss the criteria for distinguishing arguments from adjuncts either. The notion of argumenthood has been discussed, and argumenthood tests have been proposed, in classical works such as Jackendoff (1977), Marantz (1984), Pollard and Sag (1987), Grimshaw (1990). Schutze (1995) provides both a detailed survey and an interesting discussion in which he argues in favor of a scalar conception of argumenthood. However, the detailed discussions of argumenthood one can find in the literature almost always deal exclusively with English, which leaves open the question of the cross-linguistic relevance of their conclusions. In this paper, I would like to propose another possible approach to argumenthood as a comparative concept and its syntactic correlates, based on the observation of cross-linguistic variations in the extent to which NPs to which a particular semantic role is assigned show a syntactic behavior more or less similar to that of typical arguments or typical adjuncts.

The role of beneficiary provides a particularly good illustration of the extent to which the behavior of NPs fulfilling a given semantic role may vary cross-linguistically in comparison with the behavior of typical arguments or typical adjuncts, providing thus clear support to the prototype approach to argumenthood. The status of beneficiaries as adjuncts is commonly considered relatively uncontroversial (Kittila & Zuniga 2010: 4), but a cross-linguistic comparison of the expression of beneficiaries with that of typical arguments and typical adjuncts reveals that things are not so straightforward.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 consists of some general comments about the approach to the argument vs. adjunct distinction explored in this paper. Section 3 illustrates the case of beneficiaries encoded in the same way as typical adjuncts. Section 4 illustrates the case of beneficiaries encoded like typical arguments. Section 5 discusses the status of beneficiaries in applicative constructions. Section 6 discusses a parallelism between beneficiaries in languages with obligatory applicatives and agents in transitivizing languages. Section 7 puts forward some concluding remarks.

2. A Prototype Approach to the Argument vs. Adjunct Distinction

2.1 Essential vs. non-essential participants and obligatory vs. optional noun phrases

The basic intuition underlying the argument vs. adjunct distinction is that arguments are in some sense required by the verb, which 'governs' them or 'subcategorizes' for them. A common explanation of this intuition is that each verb encodes a particular kind of event whose definition requires the mention of a given number of essential participants.

Semantic argumenthood can therefore be defined in terms of degree of involvement of participants in the event. …

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