The interpretation of complex nominal expressions in Southeast Arnhem Land languages

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In this chapter, I examine the function of noun class prefixes in several non-Pama-Nyungan languages. In these languages, prefixes show several alternants. I show that these alternants are distributed according to discourse functions “topic” and “focus”, making them somewhat like articles in European languages (or better, the topic marking clitics in Japanese and Korean). The topic marker is also found in a number of polarity contexts: under the scope of negative and interrogative operators in the clause. In order to understand this highly unusual phenomenon, we need to understand the nature of references to kinds, and the realisation of number and quantification in these languages. This examination reveals that topics serve to enable operators to bind variables without a well-defined configurational phrase structure. The adaptation of the tools of formal semantics to nonconfigurational languages is in its infancy. This paper represents an initial step in understanding the similarities and differences between the semantics of such languages, and the better-described languages of Western Europe.


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