Theoretical background

In the previous project, entitled “Compositionality of meaning. Theoretical and empirical perspectives” (COMPOSING 2) we investigated the role of parametric variation in semantics, especially focussing on discussing whether this kind of variation is lexical or just morphophonological. In particular, we aimed at answering the following questions: (i) how semantic variation must be understood in lexical roots, (ii) whether parametric variation exists in the meaning representation of the categories D(eterminer), Num(ber) and Neg(ation), and (iii) whether parametric variation exists in the form of Information Structure (IS) and in the components IS interacts with.

          The main results of our previous project have been published in high-ranked journals and prestigious publishing houses showing that the innovative research conducted within our previous project has contributed new knowledge in different areas of current linguistic theory. The resulting publications are the following:


Question (i): Borik and Espinal 2015, Espinal in press, Espinal and Mateu accepted, Espinal et al. 2016, Espinal and Tubau 2016a, Etxeberria and Irurtzun (eds.) accepted, Puig-Mayenco and Marsden accepted, Puig-Mayenco et al. accepted, Silvagni 2015, 2017, Tubau 2015, 2016, and Villalba and Planas-Morales 2015.

Question (ii): Borik and Gehrke (eds.) 2015, Borik 2016, Cyrino and Espinal 2015a, b, Déprez et al. 2015, Espinal 2016, Espinal and Cyrino 2017, in press, Etxeberria 2016, Etxeberria and Irurtzun 2015, Etxeberria et al. 2015, González-Fuente et al. 2015, Li et al. 2016, and Tubau et al. accepted.

Question (iii): Espinal and Tubau 2016b, Espinal and Villalba 2015, Riester et al. accepted, Tubau et al. 2015, Villalba 2016a, b, c, 2017, and Villalba and Planas-Morales 2016.


The new project that we present here will focus on the following theoretical issues:


  1. Do functional categories such as Determiner, Number, Negation, Voice, Aspect, Focus, Topic and Vocative have any inherent semantic import?
  2. Can different functional projections be related to specific semantic operations?
  3. Are there cross-categorial semantic notions affecting functional categories?


According to Rizzi and Cinque (2016:140), ‘the distinction between lexical and functional words (…) dates back at least to Aristotle’s distinction between “concepts” and “grammatical meaning”’. Such a distinction is central in modern syntactic theory (cf. Chomsky 1965, 1981; Carlson 1983, among others), with the focus progressively changing from the sole study of lexical categories to the inclusion of functional ones. The assumption that, like lexical heads, functional heads project their own phrases (Chomsky 1986) motivated the extension of X-bar theory from lexical categories to all syntactic categories and made it possible to relate lexical categories such as VP and NP to higher functional layers such as I(nflectional) Phrase (Hale 1983), or DP (Abney 1987). Later, functional heads were identified as the triggers of syntactic operations involving movement (Kayne 1975), and as the loci of parametric variation (also known as the Borer-Chomsky conjecture, Borer 1983).

          The specific functional categories that we aim to investigate in the present project, namely D, Degree (Abney 1987), Neg (Pollock 1989), Num (Ritter 1991), Aspect (Travis 1991), Voice (Kratzer 1996), Topic, Focus (Rizzi 1997), and Vocative (Moro 2003), were proposed in the literature between the late 90s and the early 2000s, and have continued to receive attention in the linguistics literature to date. However, they have been mostly approached from a syntactic perspective, which means that the issue of what their semantic contribution is to the sentence has been neglected to a large extent up to now.

          The present project constitutes a follow-up of the previous one in that it continues to advance in our understanding of the functional categories D(eterminer), Neg(ation), Num(ber), Topic and Focus. In particular, we want to research into (i) the relation of definiteness with uniqueness, familiarity, maximality and saliency, (ii) different kinds of negative dependencies, as well as the nature of negative polarity items and their relation with the sentential negative marker in different languages, (iii) the interpretation of Num in relation to its head or modifier status and the position where it is merged; Num and the interpretation of nominals as count, and (iv) the relation of topichood and definiteness.

          Furthermore, we aim to extend our investigations to the semantics of Aspect, Voice, Degree, and Vocative. Specifically, we want to research into (i) the role of Voice and Aspect in determining the interpretation of various types of verbal predicates in passive constructions, as well as the division of labour between different types of passive constructions both language-internally and cross-linguistically, (ii) the syntax and semantics of Degree across languages, as well as the relation of Degree in nominals and adjectives to the quantification over events in the verbal domain, and (iii) the syntax and semantics of Vocatives.

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