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CLT Seminar - On the Semantics of Possessives


(Stanley Peters and Dag WesterstÄhl)

The talk develops the account of possessives begun in our book Quantifiers in Language and Logic (Oxford UP, 2006, ch. 7; familiarity with it is not presupposed). One novelty is that we consider post-nominal as well as pre-nominal possessive constructions, and that we do not focus on particular features of English. In contrast with most authors, we find the similarities between possessive constructions across languages more striking than the differences.

A main claim is that (real) possessives always involve two quantifiers: one over the 'possessors' and one over the 'possessed' objects. We show that the interplay between these two explains features of possessives that have appeared puzzling when one restricts attention (as does 95% of the literature) to very simple possessives where these quantifiers are not visible on the surface. In particular, it helps explain the role of the definite article in possessive contexts, and why it has seemed (erroneously) to almost all linguists that possessives must be definite. (Cf. the synonymous sentences "At least two teachers' pupils are bright" and "The pupils of at least two teachers are bright".)

Two further themes will be discussed (time permitting). One is the form of possessives, in view of the fact that the possessed noun may be relational or not ("Mary's sisters" vs. "Mary's cars"; this was the topic of Barbara Partee's lecture on possessives in Göteborg one year ago). The other is the ubiquity of narrowing (as observed in Barker 1995): that the first quantifier mentioned above is restricted to those individuals who 'possess' something of the relevant kind. (E.g. "Most beginning assistant professors' children were present at the opening" says nothing about the childless beginning assistant professors.) This appears to have an interesting consequence for the compositionality of possessive constructions.



Date: 2007-12-13 10:15 - 12:00

Location: F304


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