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Notions of 'feature' in linguistic theory: cross-theoretical and cross-linguistic perspectives

Workshop at SLE 2016, Naples, August 31 – September 3, 2016

Workshop organizers:

Lars Hellan, Andrej Malchukov, Ian Roberts, Michela Cennamo


The papers of the workshop are here listed alphabetically. For those indicated in blue/green, the presentation opens when you click on the hyperlink. Those in red do not yet have their presentation uploaded.

  • Dorothee Beermann: Features and Domains

Download Dorothee's paper available

  • Theresa Biberauer: Emergent features: A minimalist perspective

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  • Walter Bisang: On a functional explanation of features

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  • Michela Cennamo: Gradience in semantic features and syntactic change: A case study from the voice domain

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  • Greville G. Corbett and Oliver Bond: Why there are exactly five types of morphosyntactic feature

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  • Chiara Gianollo: Semantic and formal features in negation systems: Diachronic implications

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  • Sean Gleason: How necessary is the Case feature in syntactic theory? Considerations from the Latin AcI

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  • Andrej Malchukov: Feature interaction and feature hierarchies: A typological account

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  • Wataru Nakamura: A two-tiered theory of Case Features: The case of the Hindi case (Marking) system

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  • Tabea Reiner: A model of TAM semantics

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  • Ian Roberts and Theresa Biberauer: Emergent parameters and pleiotropic formal features

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  • Federico Silvagni: A feature that makes the difference: Aspectual concord in romance copular clauses

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  • Sandhya Sundaresan: The four-way Person distinction and anaphora

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  • Akira Watanabe: Number features and numerals

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  • Susanne Wurmbrand: Semantic and formal agreement features — Evidence from nominal ellipsis in German

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Linguistic frameworks and theories largely agree on what the basic units in languages are – words, sentences, phrases, morphemes, etc. – but differ in how they analyze the behavior of these units. ‘Features’, broadly speaking, means ‘properties’ of the units, where ‘properties’ are conceived partly relative to what is in focus of a given research, partly relative to the formal exposition of the properties. Recently the notion of feature has been the focus of renewed attention (e.g., Corbett 2012; Kibort & Corbett 2010), yet many aspects remain controversial, also due to the fact that the concept of feature and its role differs across different frameworks and linguistic traditions.

Formally speaking, ‘feature structures’ in formal grammars are typically attribute-value matrices, where an attribute (the word ‘feature’ is here often used as equivalent to ‘attribute’) generally indicates a parameter of specification (like ‘tense’), and a value indicates the exact value of a parameter (like ‘present’, for the parameter tense); the ‘matrix’ is constituted by a set of such attribute-value pairs, together characterizing a unit, whose properties often are complex enough to require a set of attribute-value pairs.(See for instance Pollard and Sag 1994, Butt et al. 1999, Bresnan 2001, Copestake 2002, on how these notions are implemented in HPSG and LFG.) Formal operations defined on features in these settings are for instance ‘unification’, and ‘merge’.

In more ‘substantive’ interpretations, features are more conceived as phenomena, such as tense, aspect, case, etc. Although the ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ uses are of course interrelated, there is thus a potential ambiguity in the term ‘feature’ when used, being either to be understood as an ‘attribute’ relative to a formal setting, or a linguistically interesting property of items. When speaking of interaction between features, this in turn may relate either to how sets of attribute-value pairs in a matrix are formally organized, or to how phenomena are interrelated.

In recent minimalist theory (Chomsky 1995, 2000, 2001) the notion has been linked to that of “interpretability”: the simplest notion of uninterpretable feature is as one which lacks either its attribute or its value (but see Pesetsky & Torrego 2001, 2007 for a different view). Features may interact by forming hierarchies (or feature geometries, to borrow a term from phonology). One thing that mainstream minimalist theory has overlooked, however, is the possibility that certain features may be “deeper”, than others. Here several questions arise: one is the possibility that the notion of pleiotropy from genetics may be useful and, perhaps, more than just a useful analogy (see Biberauer & Roberts 2015). If this idea is correct, then the question which naturally arises is which the allegedly pleiotropic features are. Nearly all frameworks have some place for notions such as Person, Tense, etc., as they are so cross-linguistically common. Hence one central theme of the workshop will be to compare treatments of these linguistic properties across frameworks, especially if they are seen as linguistically significant features.

In typological research, at least the following approaches can be mentioned as relevant to the theme of features:

1) The study of grammaticalization/universality/areality of features, including prominence of certain features in particular languages (e.g., Bhat 1999 distinguishes between aspect-dominated languages with temporal meanings as an implicature, and tense-oriented languages, where tense would be expressed and aspect implicated).

2) Features and universal gram-types in the sense of Bybee/Dahl (e.g., Bybee & Dahl 1989) and more generally, to what extent individual categories are universal or language particular (cf. a discussion between Haspelmath and Newmeyer in Linguistic Typology and Language; Haspelmath 2007, 2010, Newmeyer 2007, 2010).

3) Holistic typologies as “coalitions” of features: on this view certain features tend to co-occur possibly leading to holistic language types (cf., e.g., early work by Czech typologists reviewed by Sgall 1985). More recently holistic typologies have not enjoyed much popularity in typology, butperhapssome basic insights can be recovered from Corbett’s canonical typology (Brown et al 2013) perspective where one also deals with somewhat idealized types.It also lines up with generative work on parametric variation, following work by Baker (1988, 1996), Huang (2015) and Roberts (2012).

4) Local interaction of features, including interaction of morphological features (see, e.g., Malchukov 2011 on “present perfectives” and other infelicitous feature combinations; cf. also Xrakovskij 1996; Plank & Schellinger 1997; Aikhenvald & Dixon 1998), as well as resolution of feature conflicts in syntax (e.g., choice of agreement with coordinate subjects with incommensurable gender values; Corbett 2012).

In view of these various traditions and frameworks, we think there is significant potential in furthering the cross-school understanding of analytic practices pertaining to the notions mentioned, and we therefore invite scholars across frameworks to present or discuss projects and research traditions from the viewpoint of the roles that features and feature representations play in them. Papers on issues in relation to the putatively pleiotropic features Tense, Case and Person are particularly encouraged, likewise presentations of the typological approaches mentioned; papers addressing semantic features are also very much welcome. In conclusion, we stress once more that the workshop topic is formulated intentionally broadly, since one of the goals of the workshop is methodological: to promote a dialogue between typologically minded scholars representing different research traditions.

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