Formalizing spatial-causal polysemy of Agent prepositions
Camil Staps, Johan Rooryck
November 2023

Current formal approaches to by-phrases in passives analyze the Agent preposition 'by' as semantically vacuous: 'by' merely rearranges the arguments so that the argument of 'by' fulfills the same function as the external argument in the corresponding active sentence. This leads to a view of agentive 'by' as essentially homonymous with spatial and temporal 'by'. We argue, on the basis of work in the cognitive linguistic tradition and a new analysis of the French Agent prepositions 'par' and 'de', that Agent markers do have non-trivial semantic content, and are polysemous rather than homonymous with their spatial counterparts. To formalize this we propose to model these prepositions with general denotations of a polymorphic type ⟨η, ⟨θ, t⟩⟩, which can be instantiated with a concrete type in a specific syntactic and semantic context, such as ⟨e, ⟨e,t⟩⟩ for the spatial meaning of 'by'. The use as an Agent preposition is simply one of these instantiations, with type ⟨e, ⟨s,t⟩⟩ (where s stands for events). The concrete meaning in context depends on both the general, polymorphically typed denotation and the specific type in the given context. In this way our proposal integrates a useful insight of cognitive linguistics in a semantic formalization of the passive, and opens up possibilities for similar accounts of other highly grammaticalized prepositions.
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Reference: lingbuzz/007721
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keywords: by-phrases, passive, prepositions, polysemy, causation, proto-agentivity, semantics
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