Since the emergence of functional categories in linguistic theory was motivated for structural and morphosyntactic reasons, most proposed functional categories had no associated semantic content, but only grammatical content. Indeed, scholars like Richard Kayne (Kayne 1994, 2005) don’t even attribute grammatical content to functional structure, which is just an abstract skeleton created for movement needs.
However, formal semantics has independently pursued model-theoretical analyses of grammatical elements like determiners and tense (Barwise and Cooper 2008; Keenan and Stavi 1986; Partee 2004), which, unsurprisingly, are prototypical functional categories (Abney 1987; Pollock 1989).
Surprisingly, even though they are a major feature of modern linguistic theory (Cann 2001; Chomsky 1998; Cinque 2002; Cinque and Rizzi 2016; Muysken 2008; Poletto 2000; Ritter 1991) our current understanding of the content of functional categories is still fragmentary and inconsistent (e.g. the different treatment of Degree in the nominal and verbal sentential domains). This project is aimed at filling this gap from a semantic perspective, but taking into account the effects at the interfaces. Our hypothesis is that functional categories have semantic import in two different ways:
- an inherent semantic content (for example, Det is typically associated with a familiarity meaning (Barker 2000; Birner and Ward 1994; Fiengo 1987; Heim 1983));
- a formal semantic operation (for example, Det shifts the semantic type of its complement from a property <e,t> to an entity <e> (Cohen and Erteschik-Shir 2002; de Swart 2001; Partee 2008)).
We are testing this hypothesis on a range of functional categories across three domains, the nominal, the verbal/sentential and the peripheral domains. Therefore, we will study the following main topics:
T1. The meaning of functional projections at the nominal domain: D / Num
T2. The meaning of functional projections at the verbal / sentential domains: v / Asp / Neg / Deg / Voice
T3. The meaning of functional projections at the peripheral domain: Topic / Focus / Force / Voc
We are not only interested in the exact semantic contribution of each functional head, but also with their interactions with other functional heads under study (e.g. Negation and Degree in exclamative sentences, Voc and Force in imperative clauses, D and Topic in nominal expressions in sentence initial position, Asp and Voice in passive sentences). Furthermore, we will study the way these functional heads are encoded cross-linguistically, and their implications for different modules of the theory of grammar.