Wednesday, August 21, 2013

deep semantics 3: barrier verbs and aktionsart

This is the seventh in a series of posts detailing data and analysis from my not-quite-entirely-completely-achieved linguistics dissertation (list of previous posts here).

Recall that if an entity wants to achieve a certain outcome, yet is impeded by some force, this situation can be encoded by a barrier verb in English, such as prevent, ban, protect.

Barrier Verbs and Aktionsart

Part of the semantic interpretation of barrier verbs involves event duration. Barrier verbs typically represent states (i.e., the temporal extent of the negated event is presupposed to have no necessary end boundary). Dowty described some basic tests for determining the Aktionsart class of a verb in a sentence. These now classic tests include the “occurs with X for an hour, spend an hour Xing” test for states and activities. However, some barrier verbs more readily allow a for an hour duration phrase than others.

For example, detain allows for an hour readily, but ban is less acceptable (to my American English speaking ears):
a. John was detained from entering Canada for an hour.
b. ?John was banned from entering Canada for an hour.
Although (b) is neither strictly ungrammatical nor strictly unacceptable, it intuitively seems like less of a default association between the stative event that the verb ban evokes and the duration phrase. I will stipulate, however, that (b) may be more acceptable to British speakers than American English speakers.

The verb detain seems to suggest a temporary state. However, none of these barrier verbs is strictly telic, as the in an hour test shows:
c. *John was detained from entering Canada in an hour.
d. *John was banned from entering Canada in an hour.
This is truly a fine grained semantic distinction requiring much more detailed analysis.


Dominik Lukeš said...

I think you need richer semantics to deal with this. I would expect some sort of barrier schemas and force dynamics would apply here. Speakers/hearers will then use real world (encyclopedic rather than lexical) knowledge to integrate the meanings.

For instance, it's not just the time magnitude but also the space dimensions as well as scenarios of typical length and nature of the event. So while 'banning someone from Canada for an hour' seems odd, you could say 'I was banned from the kitchen for an hour' which might be slightly hyperbolic, but not in the case of 'I was banned from the kitchen for an hour every day'. In this context, 'detained' would sound odd if it lasted an hour but could be ok if it was just a few minutes. But of course, both of these verbs are subject to a certain semantic prosody, as well, so they don't quite fit in all contexts.

The same goes for c. and d. I'd say they sound ungrammatical on their own. But if you establish a plausible scenario, they might work. "It took them three weeks of legal wrangling to ban me from Canada. But John was banned from Canada in an hour."

This goes to a deeper issue with 'stative' verbs as a category. While they certainly share some features, they are certainly amenable to 'activing' as is happening to 'like', 'love', etc.

Chris said...

Dominik, thanks, these are good points. I wonder if it's fair to say that aksionart is contextual and can be a bit fluid? Maybe aksionsart and aspect are like grammaticality judgments - more of a quaint fantasy than a reality of language.

Dominik Lukeš said...

Funnily enough, I've done some work on aspect and modality in here (see slide 6).

The point was that a general definition of aspect is not very useful. The same with tense and aktionsart. They make for useful generalization because of the way they may be grammaticalized in a language but in actual use they are subject to a filling in of relationship schemas. For instance, perfective verbs can be used against type to express repetitive actions when the speaker has an strong attitude towards the action. Things like these cannot be derived simply form a definition of aspect, in fact, if all you know is the definition of perfective/imperfective, you'd exclude those uses. On the other hand, nominalized verbs very strongly preserve their aspectual heritage. So you would use two different deverbatives to translate "Shopping for the pram, took just a minute." (perf) and "Shopping for the pram, took forever." (imperf)

So these concepts are a bit more than a fantasy but I wouldn't be too shy about calling them reified heuristics. This becomes particularly problematic when people (like so much of NLP) try to model these reified heuristics rather than actual language use.

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