Parts of Words: Compositional Semantics for Prosodic Constituents

A disseration by Ron Artstein
sumbitted to the Graduate School—New Brunswick
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
October 2002

The full text of the dissertation (119 pages, PDF, 564K).


Focus below the word level (e.g. Jill only brought home a stalagMITE from the cave) and coordination of parts of words (ortho and periodontists) show that the compositional processes of focus and coordination apply to units that lack an independent meaning. Such constructions are interpreted through phonological decomposition, which assigns denotations to otherwise meaningless phonological units. The denotation of a focused or coordinate part is a string of sound (so the word part mite denotes its own sound), and the rest of the word denotes a function from sounds to word meanings: stalag denotes a function that for each sound α yields the meaning of the word stalagα, and dontist maps a sound α to the meaning of the word αdontist.

The grammar of focus and coordination works the same way above and below the word level. Given phonological decomposition, the alternative set (Rooth 1985, 1992) for stalagMITE includes the meanings of the words stalagmite and stalactite—meanings formed by applying the denotation of stalag to a string of sound; this alternative set is used in computing the restriction on only. The sentence Bill and Martha are ortho and periodontists is true in case Bill is an orthodontist and Martha is a periodontist by virtue of a cumulative inference (Scha 1981), since Bill stands in the dontist relation to the string ortho, and Martha to the string perio. Cumulative conjunction is motivated independently, accounting for multiple plurality readings of coordinate plural adjectives (Italian quadrati e rotondi ‘square-pl and round-pl’ applies to a minimum of four objects).

Only prosodic units the size of a foot or larger can be focused or coordinated: a morphological or PHONOlogical solution and morpho and phonological are fine, but *morphology or PHONOlogy and *morpho and phonology are ungrammatical because the morphemes phono, morpho are not prosodic constituents in phonology, morphology.

Echo questions are interpreted via focus semantics, which licenses them on word parts (Mononga-WHAT?), and exempts them from locality restrictions in general. Echo questions are only “metalinguistic” when they occur on word parts; this is because below the word level, compositional semantics is sensitive to the form of linguistic expressions.