02 October 2011

GLOW Workshop on Empty Categories

Empty categories in syntax: are there any?

Organizers: Gisbert Fanselow and Gereon Müller

Keynote speaker: to be announced. 

Abstract deadline: November 15. 

Description: Obviously, there are morphemes that are devoid of semantic content, so that the postulation of morphemes (or words and phrases) that lack a phonological interpretation can be considered a natural move. Indeed, most grammatical models employ elements that are unpronounced. They may already exist in the lexicon, or be created by grammatical processes such as deletion in syntactic movement chains or in contexts of ellipsis. Grammatical models must be explicit about the licensing condition for such unpronounced material.

There is a more restrictive concept of empty elements: he introduction of empty categories into syntactic representations in the Government-and-Binding framework was once considered a major milestone in the development of grammatical theory. Empty categories in this sense are not just syntactic elements that lack a phonological matrix, rather, they have special properties (as compared to pronounced material) that are subject to specific conditions such as the Empty Category Principle of Chomsky (1981). Their postulation promised, e.g., an elegant approach to the locality of movement or crossover phenomena, identifying connections between seemingly unrelated areas such as A-movement, the binding of reflexives, and scopal properties of quantifiers. Extrasyntactic motivation was argued to exist in the form of morphophonological evidence (recall the discussion of wanna contraction) or psycholinguistic results (e.g., the issue of the reactivation of an antecedent at the site of the trace, Nicol 1993). The postulation of empty categories and the modelling of their syntactic properties figured prominently in argumentations for the idea that UG constitutes an abstract formal competence unrelated to other cognitive capacities in a principled way. The discovery of such invisible (inaudible) elements seemed to put linguistics on par with disciplines such as the physics of elementary particles. The inventory of empty categories was quite differentiated: the traces of A- and A-bar movement, head movement traces, PRO, pro, empty expletives, empty operators. 

Thirty years later, empty categories in this narrow sense have lost most of their importance in syntactic theory. The shift from a representational to a derivational approach in syntax eliminated the need for a device for encoding transformational history such as traces, and attempts to formulate a satisfactory model for properties specific to empty categories have failed (cf., e.g., Hornstein 1995 for the ECP), which is not surprising on the background of a minimalist approach to grammar. 

The purpose of our workshop is an evaluation of empty categories, both in the narrow and the broad sense, as part of the syntactic toolbox, answering questions such as

  • What are the substantial differences between approaches working with and without empty categories? To what extent are these differences merely due to overall changes in the grammatical architecture (e.g., derivation vs. representation?)
  • how can the phenomena previously captured by models of empty categories (such as common locality aspects for different sorts of descriptive phenomena) explained without them?
  • can empty categories be eliminated completely from grammatical theories? What consequences does this have for the abstractness of linguistic representations?

We invite abstracts for 45 + 15 minutes talks. Abstracts are to be submitted via EasyChair. Please consult the abstract guidelines before submitting.