Neg-Raising — 4

by pieterseuren

Remarkably, verbs of the want-class appear to be very strong Neg-Raisers, so much even that some linguists have declared their non-raised versions ungrammatical. I think that goes way too far, but it is a fact that these predicates, if they are Neg-Raisers, seem to be the strongest ones of all. Any suggestion of a polite understatement or of “euphemistic reticence” (Horn 1989, p. 333) so as to mitigate the negative import possibly carried by the utterance and leave it to the listener to infer the more precise L-not(p) from the less precise not-L(p) is absent here. A drowning child crying out I don’t want to die can hardly be taken to have raised the negation from the embedded infinitival out of regard for his/her possible rescuers, who are politely invited to infer that what the child wants is to stay alive. So, if want and its cousins are Neg-Raisers, they have gone all the way down the path of grammaticalization without any trace being left of the presumed pragmatico-linguistic origin of NR. Put differently, the relative weakness of the negative import adhering to want-not(p) sentences is insufficient to explain the very strong pressure on these predicates to have the negation as the highest operator, standing over the main predicate when a negative wish is expressed. This is a question that needs clarification.

I can think of two possible, and perhaps mutually compatible or complementary, answers, neither involving NR. One, not unattractive, solution is to split up the verb want (and its cousins and equivalents in different languages) into two variants, one expressing ‘wanting’ in a strong sense, the other expressing the weaker sense of mere willingness. Let us call the strong variant want1, with the meaning ‘want positively/preferably’, or, in the best practical translation I can think of, ‘really want’. The weak want, say want2, represents a mere willingness and is synonymous with be willing, be prepared. This ambiguity is taken to be universal, except for those languages that distinguish the two senses lexically.

Ancient Greek, for example, had two words for ‘want’: boúlomai and ethélo. Although they sometimes occur indiscriminately in the extant texts, the proper meaning of boúlomai is ‘really want’ or ‘rather want’ or ‘strongly want’, whereas ethélo has the weaker sense of ‘be willing’, ‘not be averse to’. Liddell & Scott, the 19th-century Ancient Greek dictionary sans pareil—I have used it for sixty years now and have never ever found a misprint in all of its 2111 huge pages of dense print in a variety of fonts—quotes, for example, “Ei boúlei, soì egò ethélo lógon léxai” (‘if you really want it, I am willing to tell you something’) from Plato’s Gorgias 522e.

If we further assume that want1 is a positive polarity item (PPI) and want2—other than be willing, which is neutral—a negative polarity item (NPI), then not-want1(p) will only be possible with not as the metalinguistic, presupposition-cancelling, echo-producing radical negation allowed to stand over PPIs, and not-want2(p) will only be possible with the default, presupposition-preserving, negation, or in other so-called ‘negative contexts’, such as questions or if-clauses. In fact, the simple verb want used in invitational questions like Do you want to join me for a drink? clearly represents want2 and not want1, unless the question is formulated as Do you really want to join me for a drink?, which is rather the opposite of an invitation. As far as I can see, this set-up seems to fit the facts to a tee. But it means that want and its cognates must be taken to be systematically ambiguous between these two senses. The advantage, I think, of this analysis is that it is more precise than any pragmatically flavoured solution and that it explains the fact that the negation over want and its cousins very strongly enforces the reading ‘not be willing’, much more so than in genuine NR cases. In fact, the strength of this enforcement matches the strength of the default, presupposition-preserving minimal negation over the nondefault, metalinguistic, presupposition-cancelling radical negation.

To hark back to the Greek pair boúlomai and ethélo, the suggestion arises that the former, when properly used, should thus be a PPI, whereas ethélo would tend towards being an NPI. Whether this is actually so, I have not been able to make out. But it is striking that of the many quotes given in Liddell & Scott, those with ethélo occur overwhelmingly in a negative context, whereas this is not so for boúlomai.

This solution thus does not involve NR: the negation is found in its ‘original’ place, the one standing over want1 being the radical, the one standing over want2 being the minimal negation. For either verb, the internal negation is possible but marked, just as it is for verbs of perception: I definitely heard the clock not strike is not normal English but stylistically marked and meant to have a special, mildly amusing, effect. (The example is taken, if I remember correctly, from the post-WWII British comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.)

The other possible answer I have in mind does not require NR either, nor the assumption of an ambiguous want, but requires a theory of prelexical syntactico-semantic analysis close to what was proposed by Jim McCawley in the late 1960s. This analysis plays on the fact that verbs for ‘wanting’ carry the notion of preference in their meaning, which can be given semantic substance by assuming the semantic operator ‘rather’ as an element in their syntactico-semantic analysis. The verb want is then decomposed, in the sense of prelexical syntax, into the component parts ‘rather’ and, say, ‘have-it-that’, with ‘rather’ already being a PPI and the predicate ‘have-it-that’ being neutral as regards polarity. The combination ‘rather+have-it-that’ is then taken to correspond to what we have called above want1. Since, in the semantic tree structure, ‘rather’ is an operator over ‘have-it-that’, the negation not can occur both above and below ‘rather’. If it occurs above ‘rather’, then, since ‘rather’ is a PPI, it must be the non-default, metalinguistic, presupposition-cancelling, radical NOT, which occurs only in assertive main clauses and only as the highest operator. We can thus have a sentence corresponding to, for example, ‘I NOT rather have it that I die’, with the radical NOT and the well-known echo-effect, expressing the meaning that it is not the case that the speaker wishes to die, as has been suggested in current discourse. If, by contrast, not occurs between ‘rather’ and ‘have it that’, resulting in a structure ‘rather+not+have-it-that(p)’, rather is the highest operator and not can, therefore, only be the default, presupposition-preserving, minimal not. The difference in meaning with ‘NOT+rather+have-it-that(p)’ is striking. Apart from the difference between radical and minimal NOT/not, there is the scope difference, which matches that between ‘NOT-rather’ and ‘rather-not’: the former is, strictly speaking, neutral as regards the speaker’s wishes; the latter, due to the higher rather, expresses a marked preference for the negative, as in ‘rather+not+I have-it-that(I die)’, which is close enough, semantically, to I don’t want to die in the default sense. Thus, in the configuration ‘rather+not+have-it-that(p)’, ‘have-it-that’ is equivalent to our want2, in the meaning ‘be willing’.

The problem is, of course, how to specify the lexicalizations into want1 and want2 in a systematic and generally valid way. For want1 this is  relatively simple: the combination ‘rather+have-it-that’ can be combined into one form want, which has inherited its PPI-status from rather. But want2 causes a problem in that the minimal not occurs between ‘rather’ and ‘have-it-that’. McCawley was in the habit of using the expression “brute force” to gloss over problems of this nature, but that was precisely one of the things that made him vulnerable. So I won’t do that. I’d rather state the problem as it is. We can hypothesise, of course, that ‘rather+not+have-it-that’ as a whole lexicalises into not-want2, but then we must assume an underlying not for all negative contexts, also for those without any overt not, which is quite a step to take. Or we can simply assume that the semantic element ‘rather’ is deleted during final lexicalisation and ‘have-it-that’ is replaced with want, so that we have NOTwant1(p) and not-want2(p) alongside each other, with a very strong preference for the latter. But as long as we know so little about these things, that would be a clear instance of “brute force”. All I can do here is leave the question open.

One should note that in neither of these two analyses is it possible to fit the items concerned into a Square structure, the reason being that two different negations are involved, the one minimal and the other radical, which makes it impossible to have the relations of contradiction, contrariety and subcontrariety in one Square structure in any linguistically relevant way. For language, the Square is relevant only if radical falsity is left out of account.

I personally have not made up my mind yet as to which of the two answers I am willing to put my money on, but I think it is useful to consider both. A crucial point is the status of prelexical syntax. If it turns out after all—I mean after Chomsky’s perfidious war against Generative Semantics—to be possible to develop a well-motivated general theory of prelexical syntax providing legitimate room the second solution, then the chances of my money going to the second solution will be considerably enhanced, since, I think, it will then account for the ambiguity of want-predicates in a motivated way and may even be seen to incorporate the first solution. If, on the other hand, prelexical syntax in any form turns out to be a nonstarter, I think one will have to fall back on the first solution, which is not too bad either, as the phenomenon of universal lexical ambiguities is becoming more and more known and accepted. Unless, of course, my entire approach is misguided, in which case I want to see solid arguments, not the kind of wishy-washy rhetoric one has unfortunately got used to in linguistics these days.

There is one further point that remains to be mentioned. Various authors, including Horn (1989, pp. 339–40), have argued that want and its cousins cannot be Neg-Raisers because every language has sentences like I want chocolate or I like you, with their respective negations I don’t want chocolate or I don’t like you, which show the same ambiguity as in I don’t want to die but which lack an embedded clause to raise the negation from. The conclusion drawn by some authors (discussed in Horn 1989) that, therefore, NR does not exist for any predicate at all goes way too far, but as long as one defends the NR analysis for the want-class, the objection has to be answered. However, in my view the want-class predicates do not induce NR: neither of the two solutions requires NR. So what we have is a situation in which a given predicate can take either a referential or a clausal argument term, which is nothing exceptional. Predicates of perception, such as hear, see, feel are clear examples: one can see a sinking ship and one can see a ship sinking. Or else (but only for want-predicates, not for the like-class), one can assume that the predicate have is systematically deleted under both want1 and want2: I want an apple is then short for ‘I want to have an apple’ and likewise for I don’t want an apple—a proposal that has been well known since the days of traditional grammar. (Systematic deletions of designated lower predicates of a general nature are well known in the languages of the world. In German, for example, one can say Ich muß nach Berlin, literally ‘I must to Berlin’, which is short for ‘I have to go to Berlin’. The same go-deletion, by the way, occurs frequently in Shakespeare’s texts.)

This is as much as I have to say about NR for the moment. I am taking a few weeks’ holiday now, with only occasional access to the internet. I hope to be back in good shape by mid-January next year. In the meantime, to all of you my best wishes for a good Christmas and a happy New Year.