Home » Greek » Reading Aubrey’s Thesis (1)

Reading Aubrey’s Thesis (1)

I’ve started reading Mike Aubrey’s masters thesis, which I suggest you do too. To get the statement of bias out of the way, I have vague sympathetic feelings towards Aubrey based entirely on internet interactions, and recommend his updated-just-enough-to-keep-you-subscribed blog. Apart from that I have no vested interest in talking him up.

Why should you read his masters thesis? 1. It’s about Greek. 2. It applies linguistics, not just grrrammmar (I didn’t mean to write it like that, but my keyboard spat it out thus and I thought it worth keeping!), 3. It’s about the perfect, kind of. And everyone loves to talk about the perfect these days. 4. If nothing else, by the end of it you will have absorbed so much technical jargon that you will be able to bamboozle your interlocutors into silence on any topic, especially unrelated ones.

You should know, too, that I am not formally trained in linguistics. Studying 5.5 languages and having a perverse interest in the field turned me into a paralinguist, and leeching off my wife’s textbooks while she did an MA in applied linguistics have given me all the hubris of someone who thinks they know linguistics but probably would fail the intro course.

What’s Aubrey’s thesis doing? You can understand it as basically testing two things going in different directions: on the one hand, it’s testing some of the limits of Role and Reference Grammar on its ability to deal with “detailed semantics of distinctions” (p2, quoting Butler 2003), especially related to temporality and aspectuality (tense and aspect). So it’s a thesis putting RRG to the test. How? by applying RRG to the Greek perfect. In the other direction, it’s testing a hypothesis about the Greek perfect, so the outcome ought to be a better notion of RRG in the area of semantic distinction, and conversely a better understanding of the Greek perfect. Great!

In chapter 2 of his thesis, Aubrey sets to work to talk about what RRG is and what it does. RRG breaks things down around 2 ‘representations’, Syntactic and Semantic. What I’m going to do is try and give you a dummies guide to Aubrey’s thesis. So, syntactic has to do with how you arrange the relationships between words (and word-y things, linguistic units, but let’s just stick with words in this version), and semantics has to do with meaning. Good? Great. RRG has a bunch of neat ways of talking about different states, events, and processes, and a few ways to carve up the space of syntax.

RRG is basically realist about language. Language talks about stuff. To do that you must have ‘predication’ and you must have ‘reference’. I.e, you must talk about something (a referent), and you must say something about it (predication). Language is a tool to achieve communication: to say Xs about Ys.

So onwards, RRG treats semantics as the basis for syntax. How one talks about the structure of language utterances is determined by the ‘what’, the meaning, of that utterance. This is why the predicate is the syntactic nucleus. It’s the heart of the heart of what’s going on in a clause! Then you add in an argument or two, and voila! it’s a core. What’s an argument? it’s an X or a Y you substitute into sentence to make it work. e.g. John eats violins. ‘John’ is an argument. ‘violins’ is an argument. They are variables that we use with a nucleus, with a predicate, with ‘eats’, to make a core.

I’m going to skip some stuff about operators. Let’s go to 2.1.2 Semantic representation. In this section RRG breaks down “what verbs do” into different classes. Aubrey presents 6

  1. States
  2. Achievements
  3. Accomplishments
  4. Activities
  5. Semelfactives
  6. Active-achievements

A state just describes what is. “I am dead”. There is nothing dynamic about a state. It doesn’t have to be an unchanging state. “I am hungry” is a state, but not an eternal one. All the rest are dynamic, they involve action, movement, change. Achievements and accomplishments sound like they are the same thing, but they’re not. “The window shattered” is an achievement: something happened and a new state was achieved, but the action was ‘all at once’, or ‘punctual’. “The window froze” is an accomplishment: it didn’t all at once freeze, it underwent a process of getting colder until it reached a state of being frozen. Activities are dynamic, but they don’t necessarily have an end point. “I swam” describes an activity.

The last two are expansions, as you can see from semel-factive’s breakdown, it is an achievement that is simultaneous but doesn’t involve a change of state. Whereas an active achievement takes an Activity and adds an endpoint. “I swam to work” for example.

There’s a really great table at 2.4 which shows how all these 6 classes are divided up by whether they are +/i Static, Dynamic, Telic, Punctual. Telic, if it’s unclear, is whether it has an end point.

Not only this, but just after 2.5, Aubrey fills you in on various ways to ‘test’ to see whether a predicate can be classified into each of the 6 categories.

What does all this have to do with Aspect? Good thing we’re reading a thesis on it. In section 2.2 Aubrey notes that there is a pretty big ‘gap’ between RRG’s description of different types of predicates, and the question of aspect. It’s the problem that Aspect really lies in the realm of operators, things that ‘do stuff’, neat stuff like, ‘mark and show you the aspect of the verb’.

When you come to tense and aspect, these are part of “the difficult issues of peripheral and complex grammatical categories”. So what’s a poor Greek linguist to do? Aubrey says, that what RRG needs is some better categorisation and tools for classifying what’s going on with tense and aspect. And that’s chapter 3.

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