Event classification and event decomposition

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Abstract operators such as DO, BE, GO, CAUSE and BECOME are used in a number of approaches to semantic analysis which involve the lexical decomposition of verbs, e.g. Jackendoff (1990) and Hale & Keyser (1993), building on the ideas of the generative semanticists. Sometimes, decomposition of concepts in natural languages is cited as evidence of the underlying logical structure of verbs. For example, according to Van Valin & LaPolla (1997: 104), in many languages activity predicates are not simple verbs, but complex predicates formed with a generalised action verb, supposedly corresponding to an ‘underlying’ predicate ‘do’, e.g. safaaii kar ‘clean something’ (lit. ‘do cleaning’) in Hindi. The question addressed in this paper is whether overt systems of event classification bear any resemblance to the patterns of event decomposition proposed in the literature. I will focus on Jaminjung, a Northern Australian language with around 35 semantically generic verbs which function as classifiers of events (Schultze-Berndt 2000). It is striking that Jaminjung does not have a generic verb corresponding to the semantic primitive ‘cause’. A variety of verbs occur in expressions of events that would be represented with a ‘cause’ predicate in decompositional approaches. These include –arra ‘cause to be in a position, put’, -malinyma ‘cause to be in existence, make’, and a number of more specific verbs describing a type of impact, such as –ijja ‘affect with pointed end (poke, stab, spear, sew)’ or –ina(ngga) ‘affect with blade, chop’. The latter do not entail causation; rather causation arises as an inference in complex verbs specifying a cause and a result, e.g. bag gana ‘chop with the result of breaking’. A Jaminjung verb that raises serious problems for a decompositional account is the multifunctional verb –yu(nggu), which could be glossed as ‘do’, e.g. in an utterance like warndug ngawu-yu ‘what will I do?’. However, this verb does not entail agentivity, since it also occurs in inchoative expressions, e.g. wurrguru nganthuwu-yu ‘you will turn into a devil’, and even in expressions of physical or emotional condition which might be regarded as stative, e.g. butharl ngayunggum ‘I am sad’. Importantly, the inchoative function of this verb is restricted to internally caused state changes, in the sense of Levin & Rappaport Hovav (1995). Externally caused state changes are encoded in Jaminjung by complex verbs involving the verb ijga ‘go’, e.g. bag gajgany ‘it broke’. The findings suggest that in systems of event classification, patterns based on bodily experience such as trajectory, instrument, and motion, are more important than abstract notions of causation and control, but also that such systems may exhibit more fine-grained distinctions than those captured by the semantic primitives, e.g. between internal and external causation, or between locomotion and change of location. 
References Hale, Kenneth & Samuel Jay Keyser, 1993. On argument structure and the lexical expression of. syntactic relations“, in: Hale / Keyser, The View from Building 20, 53 – 109. Cambridge MA: MIT-Press. Jackendoff, Ray, 1990, Semantic Structures. Cambridge, MA: MIT-Press. Levin, Beth, and Malka Rappaport Hovav. 1995. Unaccusativity: at the syntax-lexical semantics interface. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Schultze-Berndt, Eva (2000) Simple and complex verbs in Jaminjung: A study of event categorisation in an Australian language. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics. Van Valin, Robert D. & Randy J. LaPolla, 1997. Syntax: structure, meaning and function. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - 2007
EventInternational Cognitive Linguistics Conference 10 - Krakow (PL)
Duration: 15 Jul 200720 Jul 2007


ConferenceInternational Cognitive Linguistics Conference 10
CityKrakow (PL)


  • complex predication
  • verb semantics
  • semantic decomposition
  • Australian languages


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