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What’s in Universal Grammar? On participles and the inventory of grammatical primitives

Maša Bešlin, University of Maryland

Wed, 2/7 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 1-S-5 Green Hall

Program in Linguistics

One of the goals of syntactic theory is to account for the distributional properties of grammatical units. My central question is whether the lexical categori(zer)s like n(oun), v(erb), and a(adjective), which are partially responsible for determining distribution, are associated with any intrinsic semantic content. I examine this question through the lens of participles. Based on a number of distributional diagnostics, I argue that participles are a derived category, and that they should therefore not be considered primitives of the grammar. Specifically, I argue that both eventive and stative participles in a number of related and unrelated languages are deverbal adjectives. This challenges the consensus in the generative literature, which has converged on the conclusion that eventive participles are verbal, while stative participles are adjectival. Based on this case study of participles, as well as evidence from (deverbal) nominals, I argue that there is no one-to-one mapping between syntactic categori(zer)s and semantic content (contra e.g., Baker 2003, Panagiotidis 2015). Returning to the issue of grammatical primitives, I then claim that there has so far been no uncontroversial evidence (syntactic or semantic) that the lexical categori(zer)s from more familiar languages are universal. I finish by considering the consequences of this conclusion for language acquisition and the contents of Universal Grammar.


Maša Bešlin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland. She works in the subfields traditionally called syntax and morphology, with an empirical focus on Slavic and Mayan languages. Her research has investigated such topics as the status of participles as a lexical category, locality constraints above and below the ‘word’ level, raising constructions, bare-NP adverbials, case, and ellipsis.

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