[Lingtyp] Workshop 49th SLE: Notions of 'feature' in linguistic theory: cross-theoretical and cross-linguistic perspectives

Lars Hellan lars.hellan at ntnu.no
Fri Oct 30 14:33:32 UTC 2015

*/Notions of 'feature' in linguistic theory: cross-theoretical and 
cross-linguistic perspectives/*

*Workshop proposal for the 49th SLE meeting,*

*Naples, August 31 – September 3, 2016*

*Workshop organizers*

*Lars Hellan, Andrej Malchukov, Ian Roberts, Michela Cennamo*

Linguistic frameworks and theories largely agree on what the basic units 
in languages are – words, sentences, phrases, morphemes, etc. – but 
differ in how they analyze the behavior of these units. ‘Features’, 
broadly speaking, means ‘properties’ of the units, where ‘properties’ 
are conceived partly relative to what is in focus of a given research, 
partly relative to the formal exposition of the properties. Recently the 
notion of feature has been the focus of renewed attention (e.g., Corbett 
2012; Kibort & Corbett 2010), yet many aspects remain controversial, 
also due to the fact that the concept of feature and its role differs 
across different frameworks and linguistic traditions.

Formally speaking, ‘feature structures’ in formal grammars are typically 
attribute-value matrices, where an attribute (the word ‘feature’ is here 
often used as equivalent to ‘attribute’) generally indicates a 
/parameter/ of specification (like ‘tense’), and a value indicates the 
exact value of a parameter (like ‘present’, for the parameter tense); 
the ‘matrix’ is constituted by a set of such attribute-value pairs, 
together characterizing a unit, whose properties often are complex 
enough to require a set of attribute-value pairs.(See for instance 
Pollard and Sag 1994, Butt et al. 1999, Bresnan 2001, Copestake 2002, on 
how these notions are implemented in HPSG and LFG.) Formal operations 
defined on features in these settings are for instance ‘unification’, 
and ‘merge’.

In more ‘substantive’ interpretations, features are more conceived as 
phenomena, such as tense, aspect, case, etc. Although the ‘formal’ and 
‘substantive’ uses are of course interrelated, there is thus a potential 
ambiguity in the term ‘feature’ when used, being either to be understood 
as an ‘attribute’ relative to a formal setting, or a linguistically 
interesting property of items. When speaking of /interaction /between 
features, this in turn may relate either to how sets of attribute-value 
pairs in a matrix are formally organized, or to how phenomena are 

In recent minimalist theory (Chomsky 1995, 2000, 2001) the notion has 
been linked to that of “interpretability”: the simplest notion of 
uninterpretable feature is as one which lacks either its attribute or 
its value (but see Pesetsky & Torrego 2001, 2007 for a different view). 
Features may interact by forming hierarchies (or feature geometries, to 
borrow a term from phonology). One thing that mainstream minimalist 
theory has overlooked, however, is the possibility that certain features 
may be “deeper”, than others. Here several questions arise: one is the 
possibility that the notion of pleiotropy from genetics may be useful 
and, perhaps, more than just a useful analogy (see Biberauer & Roberts 
2015).If this idea is correct, then the question which naturally arises 
is which the allegedly pleiotropic features are. Nearly all frameworks 
have some place for notions such as Person, Tense, etc., as they are so 
cross-linguistically common. Hence one central theme of the workshop 
will be to compare treatments of these linguistic properties across 
frameworks, especially if they are seen as linguistically significant 

In typological research, at least the following approaches can be 
mentionedas relevant to the theme of features:

1) The study of grammaticalization/universality/areality of features, 
including prominence of certain features in particular languages (e.g., 
Bhat 1999 distinguishes between aspect-dominated languages with temporal 
meanings as an implicature, and tense-oriented
languages, where tense would be expressed and aspect implicated).
2) Features and universal gram-types in the sense of Bybee/Dahl (e.g., 
Bybee & Dahl 1989) and more generally, to what extent individual 
categories are universal or language particular (cf. a discussion 
between Haspelmath and Newmeyer in /Linguistic Typology/ and /Language/; 
Haspelmath 2007, 2010, Newmeyer 2007, 2010).
3) Holistic typologies as “coalitions” of features: on this view certain 
features tend to co-occur possibly leading to holistic language types 
(cf., e.g., early work by Czech typologists reviewed by Sgall 1985). 
More recently holistic typologies have not enjoyed much popularity in 
typology, butperhapssome basic insights can be recovered from Corbett’s 
canonical typology (Brown et al 2013) perspective where one also deals 
with somewhat idealized types.It also lines up with generative work on 
parametric variation, following work by Baker (1988, 1996), Huang (2015) 
and Roberts (2012).
4) Local interaction of features, including interaction of morphological 
features (see, e.g., Malchukov 2011 on “present perfectives” and other 
infelicitous feature combinations; cf. also Xrakovskij 1996; Plank & 
Schellinger 1997; Aikhenvald & Dixon 1998), as well as resolution of 
feature conflicts in syntax (e.g., choice of agreement with coordinate 
subjects with incommensurable gender values; Corbett 2012).

In view of these various traditions and frameworks, we think there is 
significant potential in furthering the cross-school understanding of 
analytic practices pertaining to the notions mentioned, and we therefore 
invite scholars across frameworks to present or discuss projects and 
research traditions from the viewpoint of the roles that features and 
feature representations play in them. Papers on issues in relation to 
the putatively pleiotropic features Tense, Case and Person are 
particularly encouraged, likewise presentations of the typological 
approaches mentioned; papers addressing semantic features are also very 
much welcome. In conclusion, we stress once more that the workshop topic 
is formulated intentionally broadly, since one of the goals of the 
workshop is methodological: to promote a dialogue between typologically 
minded scholars representing different research traditions.


Please send preliminary abstracts of no more than 300 words by *November 
17* to the workshop organizers at: lars.hellan at ntnu.no 
<mailto:lars.hellan at ntnu.no>, malchuko at uni-mainz.de 
<mailto:malchuko at uni-mainz.de>, and igr20 at cam.ac.uk 
<mailto:igr20 at cam.ac.uk>.

Abstracts will be evaluated by the organizers, and selected abstracts 
will accompany the workshop proposal. We will notify you of inclusion in 
the workshop proposal when we submit it on November 25.

Note that if your abstract is included in the workshop and the workshop 
is accepted, you will also need to submit a full abstract of up to 500 
words to be reviewed by the SLE scientific committee. The deadline for 
the submission of full abstracts is *January 15, 2016*.

For further information, please refer to the SLE meeting webpage at 


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. and Robert Malcolm Ward Dixon. 1998. 
Dependencies between grammatical systems. /Language/ 74: 56–80.

Baker, M. (1988) /Incorporation: A Theory of Grammatical-Function 
Changing/. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Baker, M. (1996) /ThePolysynthesis Parameter. /Oxford/New York: Oxford 
University Press.

Bhat, D.N.S. 1999. /The prominence of tense, aspect and mood/. 
Amsterdam: John


Biberauer, T. & I. Roberts (2015) Emergent parameters and syntactic 
complexity: new perspectives. Talk given at Complexity Workshop, 
University of Trondheim.

Bresnan, Joan 2002. /Lexical Functional Grammar/. Oxford: Blackwell.

Brown, Dunstan, Marina Chumakina&Greville G. Corbett (eds.) 
2013./Canonical morphology and syntax/. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Butt, Miriam, Tracy Holloway King, Maria-Eugenia Nini and Frederique 
Segond. 1999./A Grammar-writer's Cookbook/. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Bybee, Joan L., and Östen Dahl. 1989. The Creation of Tense and Aspect 
Systems in the Languages of the World. /Studies in Language/ 13:51-103.

Chomsky, N. (1995) /The Minimalist Program/. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (2000) “Minimalist Inquiries: The Framework,” in R. Martin, 
D. Michaels & J. Uriagereka (eds) /Step by Step: Essays on Minimalist 
Syntax in Honor of Howard Lasnik/. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 89-156.

Chomsky, N. (2001) “Derivation by Phase,” in M. Kenstowicz (ed) /Ken 
Hale: A Life in Language/. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 1-52.

Copestake, Ann. 2002. /Implementing Typed Feature Structure Grammars./ 
Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Corbett, Greville G. 2012. Features. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive 
categories in crosslinguistic

studies. /Language/ 86.663–87.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2007. Pre-established categories don’t exist: 
Consequences for

language description and typology. /Linguistic Typology/ 11.119–32.

Huang, C.-T. J. (2015)‘On syntactic analyticity and parametric theory’, 
in Y.-H. Audrey Li, Kibort, Anna and Greville G. Corbett (eds). 2010. 
/Features: Perspectives on a Key Notion in Linguistics/. Oxford: OUP.

Malchukov, Andrej. 2011. Interaction of Verbal Categories: Resolution of 
Infelicitous Grammeme Combinations. /Linguistics/ 49: 229–282.

Newmeyer, Frederick J.J. 2007. Linguistic typology requires 
crosslinguistic formal

categories. /Linguistic Typology/ 11.133–57.

Newmeyer, Frederick. 2010. On comparative concepts and descriptive 
categories:A reply to Haspelmath. /Language/, 86: 3, 688-695.

Pesetsky, D. & E. Torrego. (2001) T-to-C movement: causes and 
consequences. In M. Kenstowicz (ed) /Ken Hale: A Life in Language/. 
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 495-538.

Pesetsky, D. & E. Torrego. (2007) The syntax of valuation and the 
interpretability of features. In S. Karimi, V. Samiian & W. Wilkins 
(eds) /Phrasal and Clausal Architecture: Syntactic Derivation and 
Interpretation/. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 193-220.

Plank, Frans& Wolfgang Schellinger. 1997. The uneven distribution of 
genders over numbers: Greenberg Nos. 37 and 45. /Linguistic Typology 

Pollard, C. and Sag, I. 1994. /Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar/. 
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, I. (2012). Macroparameters and Minimalism: A Programme for 

Research. In: C. Galves, S. Cyrino, R. Lopes, F. Sândalo and J. Avelar 

/Parameter Theory and Linguistic Change/. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sgall, Petr. 1995. Prague school typology. In: Masayoshi Shibatani& 
Theodora Bynon (eds.), /Approaches to language Typology/, 49-85. Oxford: 
Clarendon Press.

Simpson, Andrew, and W.-T. Dylan Tsai (eds.), /Chinese syntactic in 
cross-linguistic perspective/. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-47.

Xrakovskij, Viktor S. (1996). ‘Grammatičeskiekategoriiglagola: 
opytteoriivzaimodejstvija’ [Grammatical categories of the verb: towards 
a theory of category interaction]. In Alexander V. Bondarko (ed.), 
/Mežkategorial’nyesvjazi v grammatike/, 22–43. St. Petersburg: Nauka.

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