There is a broad consensus among linguists and cognitive scientists that human language involves a “combinatorial system” (broadly construed), that determines how words can be combined to form grammatical structures, and a “semantic system” that interprets such grammatical structures. However, there is no consensus on the precise relationship between these two systems. In particular, it is still unclear whether the combinatorial and the semantic system operate completely independently, or whether certain combinatorial patterns are in fact meaning-driven.

To address this question, clause-embedding predicates such as “think” and “wonder” provide an important test case. These predicates vary in the types of complements they can combine with. For instance, “think” only combines with declarative clauses (e.g., “that Jo left”) while “wonder” only combines with interrogative clauses (e.g., “who left”). Also, only some of them can combine with a noun phrase (e.g. “believe the rumour” is grammatical but “think the rumour” is not). In languages like Spanish, they furthermore vary with respect to the grammatical mood of their complements (indicative or subjunctive). There is preliminary evidence for a systematic link between such combinatorial patterns and the fine-grained semantic properties of these predicates. For example, predicates expressing an unfulfilled desire (e.g. “hope”, “wish”) never combine with interrogative clauses (e.g. “Jo hopes who left” is ungrammatical). However, the lack of a systematic investigation of such connections across multiple languages, and of a unified theoretical framework, have so far prevented a thorough understanding of such potential meaning-driven combinatorial restrictions.

MECORE will pursue an integrated approach to investigate the relation and interaction between the combinatorial and the semantic system in the area of clause-embedding, by combining cross-linguistic data-collection and semantic experiments with the development of unified theoretical analyses. It will make use of recent developments in the field: semantic theories that make it possible to articulate very precise hypotheses about the relationship between meaning and combinatorial restrictions, and novel experimental methods that deliver fine-grained data to evaluate such hypotheses.

Concretely, the project will 1) collect data from 14 languages around the world (4 Germanic languages: Dutch, English, German and Swedish; 2 Romance languages: Italian and Spanish; as well as Akan, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese, Kîîtharaka, Mandarin, Polish and Turkish) on the combinatorial and semantic properties of clause-embedding predicates, 2) develop theoretical hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying potential meaning-driven combinatorial patterns in clausal embedding, and 3) quantitatively evaluate these hypotheses based on behavioural experiments (by evaluating correlations between judgments about specific semantic properties and combinatorial properties across predicates). The results will shed new light on the fundamental question of how the combinatorial and the semantic system operate together in the human language faculty. The resulting data will be made publicly available to serve further research and computational applications.

(Image credit: Darwin Bell)