This paper was first presented at Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language '97 in Boulder, Colorado. A published version can be found in Language Sciences 20(4): 399-414.

Some semantic reasons why iconicity between lexical categories and their discourse functions isn't perfect

Elaine J. Francis


Hopper and Thompson (1984, 1985) propose that the universal lexical categories 'noun' and 'verb' are iconic representations of their respective prototypical discourse functions -- 'discourse-manipulable participant' (noun) and 'actual reported event' (verb). In support of this proposal, Hopper and Thompson (henceforth H & T) present compelling cross-linguistic evidence that members of the categories 'noun' and 'verb' tend to display the widest range of morphosyntactic features typical of their category when they fulfill its prototypical discourse function. Similarly, they exhibit relatively fewer features when they fulfill relatively less prototypical discourse functions.

The cross-linguistic evidence for an iconic relationship between grammar and discourse function is significant (see also Croft 1991, Bhat 1994). However, there are various deviations from this tendency towards iconicity which demand explanation. In this paper, I present examples of stative verbs and generic NPs in English in which highly categorial features appear with nouns and verbs used in non-prototypical discourse contexts. Based on these examples, I show that the grammatical morphemes (inflectional affixes and function words) which accompany nouns and verbs may have multiple functions, some more prototypical than others, just as nouns and verbs do. However, unlike nouns and verbs, which typically wear their categorial features on their sleeves, grammatical items such as markers of progressive aspect often look the same morphologically and syntactically, even when they serve quite different semantic functions in different contexts. Moreover, even the most prototypical semantic function of an individual grammatical morpheme may be compatible with a much wider range of discourse contexts than than is prototypical in general for members of its associated lexical category. Thus, the presence of any particular grammatical morpheme may not present a reliable 'iconic' indication of the prototypicality of the noun or verb with which it combines.


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