Monthly Archives: March 2012

Semantic Vs. Syntactic Arguments, Their Real Or Alleged Distinction

When John runs, he is, whatever else he is doing, transferring energy to the ground beneath him.  But when we say ‘John runs’, it never seems to matter to us what is happening to the ground.  We are just interested in John’s running.  So ‘runs’ in ‘John runs’ is a one-place relation.  John is the sole “central participant” in the situation comprising his running, at least when … (see below).  RUNS(John).

When Joe eats, or Satish reads, sometimes all that matters to us is that Joe is eating, or that Satish is reading.  In that case, the corresponding relations are the one-place relations given by EATS(Joe) and READS(Satish).  But sometimes it does matter to us what Joe is eating, or what Satish is reading.   In that case, different relations come into play, namely, the two-place relations given by EATS(Joe, salmon fillet with barcode 1123581321) (why I impishly specify the barcode may or may not become clear in later posts; it is something dba-related), READS(Satish, Die Phaenomenologie Des Geistes).  What Joe is eating matters to us at the moment because he is discussing his plan to lose weight; what Satish is reading matters because we know that, given what he is reading, the wiring in his brain is in danger of becoming a tangled mess.  Likewise, sometimes it matters to use where John is running to.  John is running to a place where the tiger chasing him cannot easily turn him into a meal.  RUNS(John, place where the tiger cannot reach him, identified by GPS coordinates 95°23’29″W, 29°48’27″N).

So EATS is not a single verb, because it sometimes names a one-place relation, and sometimes a two-place relations.  Ditto READS and RUNS.

In Chapter 3, Some basic linguistic relations chapter, of their The syntax of natural language:  An online introduction using the Trees program Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch distinguish between semantic arguments and syntactic arguments in an attempt to explain why these verbs sometimes take just one argument, sometimes two.   Semantic arguments are the “central participants in a situation.”  This is at least intuitively clear to me.

Syntactic arguments are…well, I am really  not clear what a syntactic argument is supposed to be.  “Syntactic arguments, on the other hand, are constituents that appear in particular syntactic positions (see Chapter 4 for further discussion)”, say Santorini and Kroch.  Doubtlessly what a syntactic argument is as distinct from a semantic argument will be completely clear to me, in fact, as obvious as dust, when I have digested Chapter 4, and everything I am saying now will become clearly beside the point.  But at the moment, I do not know what a syntactic argument is.

So for now, I will explain the ‘sometimes takes one argument, sometimes takes two arguments’ character of RUNS, EATS, and READS by claiming that EATS, for example, sometimes names a two-place relation and sometimes a one-place relation, depending upon the context.  EATS, RUNS, READS are ambiguous.

I am throwing this explanation up into the air, with the intention of seeing how long or how short a time it takes for it to get shot down by someone with a better grasp of linguistics.  Again, I am writing to learn.

Santorini and Kroch seem to think that, for example, EATS is a relation existing purely objectively, independently of contexts determined by what matters to us.  If I try to specify as completely as I can what eating comprises, I will include the fact there is an eater as well as food that goes into the eater’s alimentary system.  “eat denotes a relation between eaters and food.”  On the other hand, my attempt at a complete specification of what running comprises would include the fact that there is a runner as well as energy that the runner is transmitting to the ground.  Should I then say ‘runs denotes a relation between a runner and the ground’?  No, because what counts as a ‘central participant in a situation’ depends upon what matters to us, not on an exhaustive description of the situation by some perspectiveless, omniscient being for whom all aspects are equally important.  No mattering, no centrality.  No mattering, no relations named by verbs.  Different aspects of a situation that matter at a given time, different relations named by the same word, e.g., EATS, RUNS, READS.

That EATS, for example, may name different relations depending on the number of arguments it takes may get obscured a bit by the fact the flow of conversation can easily turn, at any moment, towards the topic of what Joe is eating.   That something is getting eaten is always very close to the surface when we say “Joe eats”, especially given that the flow of conversation can at any moment very easily turn towards the topic of what Joe is eating. It can easily become something that matters to us, requiring a different relation.   On the other hand, the flow of conversation never seems in danger of turning towards the energy that the ground is receiving when John runs.  So we never seem to need RUNS to name, in addition to RUNS(actor) and RUNS(actor, goal), the additional relation RUNS(actor, object getting transformed by receiving energy, goal).  Contrast this to THROWS, where what gets transformed by the reception of the throwing energy does usually matter to us.  THROWS( Travis, ball with barcode 1235, Tinh).  Travis throws the ball to Tinh.


Naylor’s Argument That Tagalog Lacks A Subject

The most persuasive and clearest argument I’ve found for the claim that Tagalog lacks a subject is Paz Buenaventura Naylor’s in her contribution to SUBJECT, VOICE AND ERGATIVITY (ed. Bennett, Bynon, Hewitt).  The majority so far of the posts in this blog have been attempts to wrap my head around this argument and to state the argument in my own words; I am placing this set of arguments in the category ‘Wrapping My Mind Around The Argument That Tagalog Lacks A Subject.’ In trying to gain a maximal grasp on this argument, I’ve learned a tiny bit of linguistics; but any illusion I may have produced (not likely anyway) of having any authoritative voice at all on the subject is just that, an illusion.  I am writing to learn, not to force-feed the world from my <this is meant ironically>vast store of knowledge</this is meant ironically>.

What follows is Naylor’s argument in a nutshell.  Further posts will be going into the details and articulating some disagreements.  I reserve the right to go back to her article and find out I have horribly misrepresented her position.

1)  A verb is a relation whose relata are (in the case of 2-place relations) subject and direct object and (in the case of 3-place relations) subject, direct object, and indirect object.  Conversely, a subject and object (direct and indirect) are always relata in a verb.

2)  Tagalog doesn’t have verbs.  What look like verbs are really something else:  They are names of actions rather than syntactical verbs.  We know that Tagalog doesn’t have verbs because ‘ng‘ is always a genitive.

3)  Since Tagalog doesn’t have verbs, and since subjects and objects are relata of those relations that are verbs, Tagalog does not have subjects.  (Neither does it have objects, direct or indirect.)

4)  This should be enough to show that Tagalog does not have a subject, but one can’t resist pounding in an additional nail in the coffin by pointing out the claims about syntax made by linguists such as Paul Kroeger are just wrong.

Many of my further posts in the blog will be elaborations on and criticisms of the above outline of an argument.


In The Afterglow Of A Dazzling Light. The Gentle Lapping Of Waves Onto the Beach At Subic Bay. “Some Linguists Claim That Tagalog Lacks A Subject.”

I am in Subic Bay, in the Philippines.  I am inside a beach house, whose unglassed (but protected by iron bars) windows open out to the beach on Subic bay.  I am spending a pleasant (( but also, for reasons I won’t go into here, anxiety-filled (and yes, the two can go together) ) afternoon working through a sliver of a LEARN FILIPINO book.  I hear the gentle lapping of the waves onto the beach.  The light outside is dazzling, brilliant; inside I am in its afterglow.  Quite a few cats and kittens prowl about, not exactly starved but also clearly not completely confident they know where their next meal is coming from.

“Do Tagalog sentences have subjects?” the book’s author asks in a footnote.  “Some linguists say yes, others say no.”  A bit more accurately, the question should be “Does Tagalog have a subject construction at all, in any sentence,” since many perfectly functional and common Tagalog sentences plainly lack a subject construction, e.g., kaka logoff ko lang sa trabaho, and umuulan.  

Later, the author does insist that Tagalog does have a subject.  His insistence struck me (maybe unfairly) as having a bit of a tone of ‘Now shut up!  I am not going to discuss this any further!”

Kakaiba ang Tagalog!  What strange language is this whose weirdness makes some authorities think it lacks a subject?  What is a subject anyway?

So as part of my effort to learn Tagalog, I started to try to wrap my mind around the controversy.  Many of the posts here are attempts to learn about the controversy (‘does Tagalog have a subject construction?’) by writing about it.

They Were Brought Together By Effort; They Came Together Spontaneously

I’m in back of a red Volkswagen bus (Westphalia model) that my mother is driving in Phoenix, Arizona.

I spot a sign through the front window.  I just learning how to read, and I make a slow effort to sound out the letters. God knows how many seconds this took.  Not so many, at any rate, that we did not pass the sign before I had gathered together all of the letters.

F*I*R*E*S*T*O*N*E.  Firestone!  The sign is for a Firestone location!

Wonderment at the sounds and letters coming together to mean something, no matter how ordinary.  (And back then even Firestone franchises were still new enough to me to be not quite ordinary.)


I am in the Philippines.  Jamby (a handsome, warm, macho young man in his early twenties) says something in Tagalog to me.  I hear just a continuous stream of unintelligible sounds.  Then, a fraction of a second later, the discrete words ‘doon’, ‘maruming’, and ‘damit’ separate themselves out from the continuous stream of sounds.  Then another fraction of a second later, the words connect themselves in my mind grammatically.  Oh!  he is asking me where my dirty clothes are!

Wonderment at the sounds and words spontaneously separating themselves out from the stream and then, equally spontaneously, gathering themselves together to mean something, no matter how mundane.

I Never Knew You Could Construct A Language This Way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In Chicago, I worked for a time at a tiny company that provided direct mail and letter-shop services.  One day a young, blond man in his late teens or early 20s delivered a package.  “What do you guys do?” he asked.

“We make sure the junk mail gets to your house,” I replied.

“Really!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I didn’t know there were people who did that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he said with an intonation expressed a naive wonderment the memory of which will abide in me for a long time.  His enthusiasm at discovering heretofore hidden aspects of his world was endearing.

My reaction to Tagalog is much the same, laden with much the same emotional tone of unending wonderment:  I never knew you could construct a language this way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!