Congratulations to Will Nediger on the successful defense of his dissertation, “Unifying Structure-Building in Human Language: The Minimalist Syntax of Idioms.”

Will's doctoral committee included Acrisio Pires (chair), Marlyse Baptista, Samuel Epstein, Ezra Keshet, and Richard Lewis. He would like to thank the committee for all of their comments and for an intellectually stimulating defense.


Unifying Structure-Building in Human Language: The Minimalist Syntax of Idioms


Idioms have traditionally posed difficulties for different syntactic frameworks, because they behave in some senses like lexical items but in other senses like syntactically complex phrases. In particular, despite showing evidence of having internal syntactic structure, they have apparently limited syntactic flexibility relative to non-idiomatic phrases. This dissertation proposes a Minimalist architecture which makes a sharp distinction between the lexicon and the syntax, but nonetheless accounts for the hybrid properties of idioms. I argue that idioms, like non-idiomatic structures, are built by iterative application of Merge, preserving the Minimalist notion that there is a single basic structure-building operation, Merge, in natural language. However, idioms are also stored wholesale in the lexicon in the form of syntactic structures with associated phonological and semantic representations. These lexically stored idioms do not serve as input to structure building through Merge. Rather, if the syntactic derivation builds a structure which matches a lexically stored idiom, then that structure may optionally be interpreted via the lexically stored idiom meaning.

Given my proposal that all idioms are built by means of Merge, I analyze extensive evidence for syntactic flexibility across different types of idioms, and argue that the apparent limitations on the syntactic flexibility of idioms can be explained without positing any idiom specific restrictions. Rather, I explain how the conceptual-intentional interface imposes independent semantic restrictions that constrain the syntactic derivation of particular idioms, accounting for distinctions that include the much-discussed contrast between decomposable idioms (whose meaning is distributed among their parts, e.g. spill the beans, in which spill can be paraphrased as ‘divulge’ and beans can be paraphrased as ‘secret’) and non-decomposable idioms (whose meaning is not distributed among their parts, e.g. kick the bucket, in which no independent meaning can be identified for kick or bucket). The semantic representations I propose for non-decomposable idioms are associated with their entire lexically stored structure, unlike those for decomposable idioms. This distinction interacts with independent semantic viii constraints to explain the apparently limited syntactic flexibility of non-decomposable idioms relative to decomposable idioms. This approach extends to idioms a unified structure-building procedure for natural language, while explaining the linguistic properties of idioms in a principled way, consistent with Minimalist assumptions.