, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 47-95
Date: 16 Mar 2007

The emergence of syntactic structure

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


The present paper is the result of a long struggle to understand how the notion of compositionality can be used to motivate the structure of a sentence. While everyone seems to have intuitions about which proposals are compositional and which ones are not, these intuitions generally have no formal basis. What is needed to make such arguments work is a proper understanding of what meanings are and how they can be manipulated. In particular, we need a definition of meaning that bans all mentioning of syntactic structure; it is not the task of semantics to state in which way things are put together in syntax. The present paper presents such a theory of meaning. This, in tandem with some minimal assumptions on the syntactic process (that there can be no deletion) yield surprisingly deep insights into natural language. First, it rehabilitates a lot of linguistic work as necessary on semantic grounds and defends it against potential claims of redundancy. For example, θ-roles and linking are an integral part of semantics, and not syntax. To assume the latter is to put the cart before the horse. Second, as a particular example we shall show that Dutch is not strongly context free even if weakly context free. To our knowledge, this is the first formal proof of this fact.

This paper has been presented first at the 9th South Californian Philosophy Meeting in November 2004. The ideas go a long way back. My deepest intellectual credits are to Albert Visser and Kees Vermeulen. They have opened my eyes to the fact that indices are not what we really want. Unfortunately, Kees cannot see the fruit of our long conversations in 1991/1992 when I was a visitor at the philosophy department in Utrecht. His untimely death leaves a gap no one can fill. I will try my best to give credit to his contributions to semantics and continue where he had left things. I have toyed with the idea of performing the elimination of indices for a long time without major success. I was unable to see what to put in their place. The present paper tells me why this was so. What unfolded in front of my eyes was a maze of technical apparatus that is needed in order to push through. I have no regrets; I think the work had to be done. In the process of getting my ideas out, I had the benefit of help from Hans-Martin Gärtner, Ben Keil, Greg Kobele, Ed Keenan, Philippe Schlenker, Marcus Smith, Dominique Sportiche, and Ed Stabler. Needless to say they might not share my views on the matter and thus should not be held accountable for what I say in the sequel. The responsibility is entirely my own.
In memory of Kees Vermeulen (1966–2004)