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Colloquium: Seth Cable
Friday, April 14, 2017, 11:00am - 01:00pm
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Negation and Antonymy in Tlingit


Seth Cable

University of Massachusetts Amherst



The central focus of this talk is the curious morpho-syntactic structure of certain negative predicates in the Tlingit language (Na-Dene; Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon). In Tlingit, there is a small but highly frequent set of stative, gradable antonym pairs, where the negative antonym is formed from: (i) the root of the positive antonym, (ii) the negation marker tlél (or hél), (iii) an additional (unproductive) morphological operation. To illustrate, the following are the expressions in Tlingit meaning ‘it is good’, ‘it is bad’, and ‘it is not good’.






tlél       ushkʼé


tlél        ukʼé




It is good.


NEG IRR.shCL.good

It is bad.


NEG IRR.0CL.good

It is not good.


Note that while (1b) and (1c) both contain the negation marker, (1b) differs in that the so-called ‘verbal classifier’ prefix has shifted from ‘0’ to sh-.

The primary goal of this talk is to develop and defend a formal syntactic and semantic analysis of negative predicates like (1b), one that both elucidates their morpho-syntactic structure and explains how that structure is mapped onto their observed meaning. In particular, I will show that: (i) the negation appearing in (1b) is VP-external, clausal negation, and is not an incorporated negation (unlike English un- or non-); (ii) the meaning of (1b) is indeed that of a gradable negative predicate, and is not simply the propositional negation of (1a) (unlike the meaning of (1c)). The case for these two claims will be based upon a variety of facts and phenomena surrounding these structures, particularly their interactions with degree modifiers. Under my proposed analysis, the morphological operation observed in (1b) – i.e., the change in the verbal classifier – is the effect of a special Degree-Operator, one that can only be licensed by (clausal) negation, and must undergo movement to SpecNegP (in effect, a negative-concord item). We will see that this analysis predicts a variety of facts concerning (1b), especially its syntactic/semantic contrasts with (1c).


Furthermore, I show that the proposed analysis of (1b) has consequences for our understanding of negative gradable adjectives in English. In brief, so-called ‘Cross-Polar Nomalies’ (CPNs) have been argued to show that all negative adjectives in English contain an underlying negation (Büring 2007, Heim 2008). I show that similar ‘CPNs’ can be found in Tlingit. However, due to idiosyncrasies of Tlingit morpho-syntax, Büring’s (2007) analysis of CPNs has an advantage over Heim’s (2008) with respect to the Tlingit facts.

Location Public Affairs 2214