difference in form without difference in meaning

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Sat Aug 6 06:45:17 UTC 2011

One issue here is 'what is meaning?' Is this supposed to include only lexical
meaning? Does it include aspect? Does it include definiteness? Does it include
the relative topicality of different referents? I mention these factors in
particular because they are common factors which affect voice alternations
(active vs passive, ergative vs antipassive). If such factors are included as
'meaning', then it's going to be pretty hard to find cases in which there are
syntactic alternations which aren't associated with meaning differences.

Another issue is that, as Florian mentions (and I described in my message about
do/VS in English questions), there are often a variety of factors all of which
have an effect on an alternation. I am particularly aware of this because I
studied at Penn and I'm completely used to doing multivariate statistical
analysis such as sociolinguists typically do with phonological
variables--except that I've also done them with syntactic alternations. And
even aside from factors like aspect, definiteness, topicality, etc., there's
also the matter of style, which further confounds the issue. And heaviness (for
the EME do/VS alternation the most important factor was that 'do' was
particularly favored with transitive verbs with nominal subjects, e.g. 'Did
Bill see the bird?' vs 'Saw Bill the bird?'

This said, if we take a broad understanding of 'meaning', my experience so far
has been that I have never met an alternation for which I haven't been able to
find SOME meaning-related difference. This includes active vs passive, argative
vs antipassive, clitic-climbing in Romance languages (e.g. Spanish 'quiero
conocerlo' vs 'lo quiero conocer'), and 'equivalent' English modals like
should/ought, have to/have got to. The various 'I' words (boku, ore, watashi)
and 'you' words (anata, kimi, omae, etc.) in Japanese have clearly different
meanings. Even words from different speech levels in Javanese, where the
alternation is supposedly conditioned purely by stylistic factors, turn out to
have slightly different meanings. I haven't tried to find a meaning difference
for complementizer 'that', and I have to admit that I have an instinctive
feeling that there is no difference--but I wouldn't be surprised that if I
spent a long time investigating the topic, I could find some difference.

Also--the fact that different speakers claim that there is a meaning distinction
in a certain case but the describe it in opposite terms doesn't mean that there
isn't a meaning difference--it usually seems to mean that the speakers are
using the term in different ways. When I've asked Russian speakers about the
difference between the obligation markers nuzhno and dolzhen, some will say
that one is more stronger while others will say that the other is stronger--but
it's because express two types of obligation, one an objective obligation based
upon 'the nature of things', the other based upon emotions, and some people
think that one kind of obligation is stronger while others think that the other
kind of obligation is stronger. Similarly, I repeatedly had the experience of
being confused about the meanings of Arabic emotion words because Arabic
speakers generally believe that emotions which are kept inside are 'stronger'
than emotions which are expressed, whereas the reverse is generally true for
English speakers (who tend to think that if an emotion is too strong it can't
be controled). So the descriptions of the average person aren't really worth
too much in many cases if you don't know what they mean by them.

Quoting "T. Florian Jaeger" <tiflo at csli.stanford.edu>:

> Hi Fritz,
> I've recently spent more time thinking about the very same question. I am,
> however, not even sure that it is a well-formed question. At least if we're
> willing to base our decision about the correct answer on data from actual
> language understanding (I am not sure that meaning can be meaningfully
> defined if we don't commit to this assumption).
> The mapping from perceptual input to meaning is noisy, so that two different
> forms can most certainly lead to the same set of inferences. This might seem
> irrelevant to your question, but I think it might affect the answer. Meaning
> differences that are associated with linguistic forms that are very likely
> to lead to overlapping perceptual inputs are unlikely to be learnable.
> You were asking about syntactic alternatives (or syntactically related forms
> that share the same meaning). But even for those, there are some that differ
> very little in perceivable linguistic form (e.g. that-omission, which you
> mentioned; or to-deletion after *help* in English). I think there are
> reasons to suspect that such difficult to perceive differences (in
> conversational speech either of these two words is often going to reduced to
> some co-articulatory information on the surrounding words) are unlikely to
> be associated with strong meaning differences. This, of course, hasn't kept
> people from claiming such meaning differences (e.g. Yaguchi, 2001; Dor, 2005
> for that-omission). However, those meaning differences that seem so apparent
> when we look at written language offline seem to be hard to confirm in
> studies. Some years ago, Rafe Kinsey (back then an undergrad at Stanford)
> conducted a study (together with Tom Wasow and me) on alleged meaning
> differences between complement clauses with "that" and those without. We
> didn't find any evidence for meaning differences. This, of course, doesn't
> mean that there are none. What I thought was interesting is that I used to
> bug some of my fellow students about whether they felt that complement
> clauses with "that" were different from those without "that". Almost all of
> them felt that there was a meaning difference. However, none of them agreed
> on what the difference was and several of them even had the exact opposite
> opinion! I find that example, though anecdotal in nature, quite instructive:
> perhaps we can't help thinking that there are meaning differences, but that
> doesn't mean that they are stable enough to become successfully associated
> with one of the two forms.
> I've been fascinated by the fact that most of my fellow psycholinguists
> simply assume that there are no (relevant) meaning differences between
> syntactic alternatives. They are quite fine running active vs. passive
> experiments where effects of animacy or givenness of the agent or theme on
> the preferred choice between the two structures are interpreted as evidence
> about the underlying structure of the production system, rather than as
> evidence for meaning differences. Arguably, they have one thing on their
> side: these and other factors have the predicted effects across many
> structural alternations across many languages (cf. e.g, Branigan et al 2009;
> Jaeger and Norcliffe, 2009 for overviews).
> I agree with the other comments that differences in form often end up
> becoming associated with differences in meaning, but I think that for many
> alternations, at any given point in time, differences in meaning **are just
> one of several factors* *that determine speakers' preference between the two
> forms. For example, there is evidence from heavy NP shift that sometimes the
> only reason why it happens is that the heavy NP was not yet ready for
> articulation when the speaker had to make a choice as to how to maintain
> fluency (Wasow, 1997). Also, would we really want to claim that the same
> speakers describing the same pictures reliably choose their argument order
> (e.g. in the ditransitive structure) based on the number of words in the
> theme/recipient constituent because that affects how likely they are to
> think of the picture one way or another, thereby affecting what subtle
> meaning difference they want to convey? It's possible, but I wouldn't bet my
> money on it. Do we want to attribute the fact that more predictable relative
> and complement clauses are less likely to have a relativizer/complementizer
> "that" to meaning differences (same of passive RCs, to-omission,
> contraction, etc.; Jaeger, 2006; 2010, 2011; Wasow et al., 2011; Levy and
> Jaeger, 2007; Frank and Jaeger, 2008)? From a processing-perspective this
> makes perfect sense, whereas the meaning theories that have been evoked
> differ for each of those cases.
> All of this is not to say that comprehenders aren't incredibly sensitive to
> the motivations behind speakers' preferences. Actually, there's plenty of
> evidence for that. For example, Arnold et al show that comprehenders know
> that speakers are more disfluent before difficult words and that knowledge
> allows them to process words that are a priori more difficult much faster
> after a disfluency. Similarly, comprehenders expect difficult material after
> a "that" at the onset of a complement or relative clause and if they don't
> get it this slows comprehension (relatively speaking; Race and MacDonald,
> 2003). I think it's perceivable that these processing-based expectations can
> easily create the 'illusion' of a meaning difference. They are also likely
> to 'cause' meaning differences in the long run, but it seems to me (from the
> data I have seen in experiments) that these meaning differences can be quite
> fickle for a long time and can be overriden by processing preferences. One
> of my students, Judith Degen, recently started looking into the possibility
> that such processing preferences might even affect the choice between two
> rather meaning-different forms (she's focusing on "some X" vs. "some of the
> X"; recently presented at XPRAG 2011).
> So my current best-bet-speculation (see also my thesis, Chapter 6.2.2) is
> that speakers, when they encode their intended meaning into linguistic
> forms, probabilistically select between different forms and that this
> selection is affected by the strength of connections between different
> meanings and that form as well as processing considerations (such as the
> well-documented preference to avoid speech suspension; for refs see, e.g.
> Clark and Fox-Tree, 2002; Fox-Tree and Clark, 1997; V. Ferreira and Dell,
> 2000; V. Feirreira 1996; Bock, 1987).
> so in this sense (if my argument makes sense), it would be misleading to
> think that most alternatives in syntactic alternations are meaning distinct
> unless you're willing to accept any difference in the probability
> distribution over inferred meanings given a linguistic form as evidence for
> difference meanings -- in that case, it would probably hold that no two
> forms are the same (including no two actual acoustic realizations of the
> same syntactic structure, since they will differ in speech rate, etc., which
> will affect some inferences the comprehender might draw).
> I think for any stronger claim about meaning differences there would need to
> be testable (and preferably quantifiable) theories about those meaning
> differences, so that they could be pitched against well-established theories
> of speakers' preferences during incremental language production.
> I hope some of this is useful? This would be an awefully long email if it
> turned out to be completely incomprehensible ;).
> florian
> One final thought - didn't Bresnan et al (2007) also discuss alleged meaning
> differences for the ditransitive alternation?
>  ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > Message: 1
> > Date: Thu, 4 Aug 2011 14:17:27 -0700 (PDT)
> > From: Frederick J Newmeyer <fjn at u.washington.edu>
> > Subject: [FUNKNET] difference in form without difference in meaning
> > To: Funknet <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>
> > Message-ID:
> >        <alpine.LRH.2.01.1108041417270.26399 at hymn33.u.washington.edu>
> > Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
> >
> > Dear Funknetters,
> >
> > I am looking for convincing examples of where two syntactically-related
> > sentence-types manifest clearly identical meanings, where 'meaning' is
> taken
> > in its broadest sense, including discourse-pragmatic aspects. Another way
> of
> > putting it is to say that I am looking for two sentence types that in early
> > TG would have been related by 'optional rules', but which absolutely do not
> > differ in meaning. It's not so easy to come up with good examples, once
> > differences in topicality and focus are allowed as meaning differences. One
> > possible example that comes to mind are sentences with or without
> > complementizer-deletion, such as 'I knew that he'd be on time', vs. 'I knew
> > he'd be on time'. But even here there have been argued to be meaning
> > differences.
> >
> > One possibility that has been suggested to me is from Early Modern English,
> > when many speakers could say both 'Saw you the bird?' and 'Did you see the
> > bird?' Does anybody have evidence that there were subtle meaning
> differences
> > here?
> >
> > I had always been quite skeptical of Dwight Bolinger's idea that
> > differences in (lexical and syntactic) form always correlate with meaning
> > differences. But I have become less skeptical recently.
> >
> > Thanks,
> >
> > --fritz
> >
> > Frederick J. Newmeyer
> > Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> > Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser
> > University
> > [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]
> >
> >

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