John showed his etchings to Mary

Standard

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Or consider:

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John showed his etchings to Mary/John showed Mary his etchings.

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but

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John exhibited his etchings to Mary/*John exhibited Mary his etchings.

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Is it that Mary is in metaphorical possession of etchings that are shown to her but not of etchings that are exhibited to her? How is one to tell? More to the point, how is the child to tell? Remember that, according to Pinker’s story, the childfigures out that ‘exhibit’ doesn’t dative-move when hedecides that it doesn’t—even metaphorically—express prospective possession. But how on earth does he decide that?31

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I should emphasize that Pinker is explicitly aware that there are egregious exceptions to his semantic characterization of the constraints on dative movement, nor does he suppose that appeals to “metaphorical possession” and the likecan always be relied on to get him off the hook. At least one of the things that he thinks is going on with the doubleobject construction is a morphological constraint on dative movement: polysyllabic verbs tend to resist it (notice show/*exhibit; tell/*repeat in the examples above). But though Pinker remarks upon the existence of such non-semanticconstraints, he appears not to see how much trouble they make for his view.

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Remember the architecture of Pinker’s argument. What’s on offer is an inference from ontogenetic considerations to the conclusion that there are definitions. What shows that there are definitions is that there is a semantic level oflinguistic representation at which verbs are lexically decomposed. What shows that there are semantic-levelrepresentations is that you need semantic vocabulary to formulate the hypotheses that the child projects in the courseof learning the lexicon; and that’s because, according to Pinker, these hypotheses express correlations between certainsemantic properties of lexical items, on the one hand, and the grammatical structures that the items occur in, on theother. Double-object constructions, as we’ve seen, are supposed to be paradigms.

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But it now appears that the vocabulary required to specify the conditions on such constructions isn’t purely semantic after all; not even according to Pinker. To predict whether a verb permits dative movement, 15you need to know not only whether it expresses (literally or metaphorically) ‘prospective possession’, but also thepertinent facts about its morphology. What account of the representation of lexical structure does this observationimply? The point to notice is that there isn’t, on anybody’s story, any one level of representation that specifies both thesemantic and the morphological features of a lexical item. In particular, it’s a defining property of the (putative)semantic level that it abstracts from the sorts of (morphological, phonological, syntactic, etc.) properties that distinguishbetween synonyms. For example, the semantic level is supposed not to distinguish the representation of (e.g.)“bachelor” from the representation of “unmarried man”, the representation of “kill” from the representation of “causeto die”, and so forth.

Well, if that’s what the semantic level is, and if the facts about morphological constraints on double-object structures are as we (and Pinker) are supposing them to be, then the moral is that there is no level of linguistic representation atwhich the constraints on dative movement can be expressed: not the morphological level because (assuming thatPinker’s story about “prospective possession” is true) morphological representation abstracts from the semanticproperties on which dative movement is contingent. And, precisely analogously, not the semantic level because semanticlevel representation abstracts from the morphological properties of lexical items on which dative movement is alsocontingent.

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Time to pull this all together and see where the argument has gotten. Since heaven only knows what “prospective possession” is, there’s no seriously evaluating the claim that dative movement turns on whether a verb expresses it.What does seem clear, however, is that even if there are semantic constraints on the syntactic behaviour of doubleobject verbs, there are also morphological constraints on their syntactic behaviour. So to state such generalizations at asingle linguistic level, you would need to postulate not semantic representations but morphosemantic representations. It is,however, common ground that there is no level of representation in whose vocabulary morphological and semanticconstraints can be simultaneously imposed.

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This isn’t a paradox; it is perfectly possible to formulate conditions that depend, simultaneously, on semantic and morphological properties of lexical items without assuming that there is a semantic level (and, for that matter, withoutassuming that there is a morphological level either).Jean-marc pizano

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