Most current linguistic theories—whose main proponents are speakers of and researchers in European languages—are modeled on languages with parts of speech systems organized into the three major classes of verb, noun, and adjective. Cross-linguistic investigation shows that not all languages fit this pattern: while nouns and verbs appear to be essentially universal, languages that have few or no adjectives are a typological commonplace. This implies that there is something marked about the adjectival class that must be accounted for by any credible attempt to define the three major lexical classes.
In order to account for the markedness of adjectives, this dissertation argues that parts of speech must be defined by combining the criteria of syntactic markedness and semantic prototypicality. The former characterizes lexical classes in terms of unmarked syntactic roles, the latter in terms of prototypical semantic content. Nouns can be defined as the expressions of semantic NAMEs which are unmarked syntactic actants, verbs as the expressions of semantic predicates which are unmarked syntactic predicates, and adjectives as the expressions of semantic predicates which are unmarked modifiers. Because syntactically modification is an inversion of the underlying semantic predicate ?> argument configuration, the role of modifier is a non-iconic one, motivating the cross-linguistic markedness of the adjectival class.
Taking as a starting point a four-member typology of parts of speech systems current in the literature, this dissertation shows that such a system is easily generated by free recombination of the two criterial features, one syntactic and the other semantic, that constitute our definitions of lexical classes. However, examination of five languages and language groups—Salishan, Cora, Quechua, Upper Necaxa Totonac, and Hausa—casts doubt on the existence of one of the four possible language-types, the noun-adjective conflating inventory. This can be accounted for by replacing the free recombination of semantic and syntactic features with an algorithm for the subdivision of the lexical inventory that gives primacy to semantics over syntax. The result is a sufficiently constrained theory of typological variation in parts of speech systems based on rigorous and criterial definitions of each of the three major lexical classes.
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