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5. Semantic Consequences


If recent proposals about the syntax-semantics interface are valid, the syntactic structure proposed above should allow to make specific predictions about the semantic differences of Bantu sentences with or without noun class marking on the verb. Since noun class inflection of the verb can be shown to correlate with VP-internal vs. VP-external argument saturation, the Mapping Hypothesis of Diesing 1992 becomes immediately relevant. According to Diesing, material from the VP is mapped into the nuclear scope and receives an existential reading, whereas material outside the VP belongs to the restrictive clause and is thus interpreted as presuppositional. Traditionally, definiteness was thought to be the linguistic indicator of presuppositionality, but Enç 1991 showed that specificity is a more accurate measure and argued that the so-called 'definiteness effect' should more aptly be named 'specificity effect'. Since the bulk of relevant Bantuist literature predates this development, the issue surrounding specificity remains understandably murky.

            In the Bantuist literature, it has long been conjectured that there is at least a strong tendency for noun class markers on the verb to correlate with definiteness of the argument. Doke 1955: 10-14, for example, observes that

'an indefinite subject or object is not represented in the predicate by its class concord, but by an indefinite concord or by none at all...Representation of a subject or an object by an absolute...pronoun ensures that the subject or object concerned is definite...When the simple object is indefinite, it is not represented by any concord with the predicate...When the simple object is definite, the objectival concord agreeing therewith is incorporated in the predicate, though this concord may be omitted if the object is a definite pronoun or a noun with definite significance'.  

The problem with this concentration on definiteness (rather than specificity) is, however, that the picture is less clear-cut than one would hope for. Bresnan/Mchombo 1987 show that direct objects may be interpreted as definite or indefinite regardless of the presence of corresponding verbal inflection:


            However, when the data are reinterpreted in terms of specificity, as defined by Enç 1991 as a form of discourse linking, i.e. presuppositionality, Bantu languages provide rather nice evidence in favor of Diesing’s mapping hypothesis. Notice that (24b), which according to Bresnan/Mchombo serves as counterevidence for correlating verbal noun class marking with definiteness, presumably requires some previous discourse in order for the interpretation of the noun class prefix as ‘one’ to be felicitous. Thus, the relevant argument may not be definite, but it is specific as expected. Keach 1995: 114 states explicitly for Kiswhaili that object marking is usually topic-bound, i.e. presuppositional.[1]

Since the correlation between presuppositionality and verbal inflection thus seems to be strong, the following semantic mappings are predicted from the syntactic structure:

a. In ‘impersonal constructions’, both subject and object are non-specific. ku- in [Spec, TP] blocks the subject from raising out of VP, which in turn blocks raising of the object (in form of object NC). Since non-specificity rules out inherently specific definite interpretations, common nouns in impersonal constructions are predicted to be indefinite in translation, which is supported by the facts:


b. If subject and object agree with verbal inflection, they must be specific. A specific interpretation can in principle accomodate both definite and indefinite noun phrases, but definite translations are preferred.[1]   


c. If the subject is specific and no object marking is present on the verb, the object is predicted to be ambiguous. Without overt evidence for movement to [Spec, AgrOP], the object will be interpreted as in situ, i.e. VP-internal, and thus as non-presuppositional and non-specific. LF movement to [Spec, AgrOP] is, however, still a possibility, such that a specific interpretation remains an option. This explains the ambiguity between definite and indefinite English translations.


[1]               If the translations are definite, it provides nice support for my theory. However, one should keep in mind that English definiteness marking does not exactly match the specific vs. nonspecific distinction in Bantu languages. In translations where specificity is not considered relevant, the natural choice for nonspecific phrases in Bantu would be an indefinite description in English, while the translator would probably gravitate towards an English definite for Bantu specifics, even though indefinites would also be possible in suitable contexts. I believe that the following example provides such a context:

                                Babe   tinja       u-to-ti-nika                ematsambo   kusasa

                                father  5pl-dog subj-fut-obj-give      3pl-bone       tomorrow

                                ‘Father will give dogs bones tomorrow.’

Mahajan (1991) observes that scrambling in Hindi correlates with specificity. tinja in the above example is left-adjoined to TP, which essentially corresponds to IP-scrambling and has similar topicalization effects (as the translations of parallel examples show in Thwala, e.g. 40c). I will thus assume that this example does not provide counterevidence against my proposal.   

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[1]               Keach makes a distinction between "animate" (class 1/2: reference to humans and animals) and inanimate class marking. While inanimate object marking requires a topic object, the animate object marking may cooccur with a non-topicalized overt object. While Keach takes this to be a characteristic of agreement, i.e. of a different functionality of class marking, I would nevertheless maintain that this behavior does not contradict my proposal, and a unified analysis remains the simpler alternative.