Lisa Matthewson


Research Classification

Research Interests

Austronesian languages
Cross-linguistic variation and universals
Salish languages
Semantic fieldwork
Tsimshianic languages

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters

Research Options

I am available and interested in collaborations (e.g. clusters, grants).
I am interested in and conduct interdisciplinary research.
I am interested in working with undergraduate students on research projects.

Research Methodology

Fieldwork on Indigenous languages


Master's students
Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
Any time / year round
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).

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Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Functional categorization parameters : argumenthood with functional heads other than D in Carioca Brazilian Portuguese and Pirahã (2023)

This dissertation examines the functional architecture of nominal constructions in two languages: Carioca Brazilian Portuguese (BrP; Indo-European) and Pirahã (Muran). Both languages introduce empirical problems for the view that nominal phrases must be headed by determiners to be arguments of verbs, since both languages have arguments without determiners. I argue that determiners are not universally needed for argumenthood, and that arguments can be licensed by other functional categories. I argue that cross-linguistic variation in the nominal domain can be explained in terms of three factors: which features are grammatically active in the nominal spine, and how and where these features associate with the spine. Crucially, I postulate that nominal constructions are licensed as arguments when all functional features in the derivation are valued.I claim that in Carioca BrP and Pirahã, the functional category that forms arguments is Class. I further argue that the Class phrase is headed by gender features in Carioca BrP and by noun class features in Pirahã. In Carioca BrP, gender marking is obligatory and triggers agreement with almost every other category in the nominal domain. I argue that this is evidence that a valued gender feature associates with the lowest functional head in the nominal spine, forming ClassPs. Number marking, on the other hand, is optional. Thus, Carioca BrP allows bare numberless nominals in argument position, which get number neutral interpretations. If a [+pl] number feature is present in the derivation, it is obligatorily spelled out in the form of a clitic plural marker that needs a higher functional head – a D-like category – to host it.I also argue that Class alone can license arguments in Pirahã. I show that noun class features are active in the nominal system, as evidenced by the pronominal forms of the language. Treating gender and noun class as analogous categories, I claim that Pirahã valued noun class features also associate with a Class head. Hence, ClassPs are licensed as arguments in this language as well. I conclude by showing that the analysis has the potential to account for argumenthood cross-linguistically, using English, French, and Dene Sųłiné as examples.

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'Yeah, I doubt it.' 'No, it's true.' How paradoxical responses impact the common ground (2021)

Speakers use paradoxical responses, such as `yeah, that’s not right’ and `no, I agree’, but the function of these responses is not clear. While one use of response particles (RPs) such as 'yeah' and 'no' is to signal acceptance or rejection of at-issue content into the common ground, the linguistic content that follows these RPs in paradoxical responses suggests that `yeah’ is not agreeing to at-issue content, nor is `no’ rejecting it. This raises the question, what are these responses signalling to update the common ground?This dissertation argues that the two components of paradoxical responses, the RPs and the followup content, are selecting different targets. The set of targets includes not only the at-issue content, but also speaker beliefs and the questions under discussion. Testing this hypothesis, called the Response Target Hypothesis, draws on a mix of methodologies, one experimental and one rooted in corpus data. Corpora of transcribed, unscripted conversations were searched for RPs plus followup content; 200 tokens for `yeah’ and `no’ were identified for a total of 400, 173 of which were paradoxical. In addition to accepting and rejecting the at-issue content, responses which targeted speaker belief and questions under discussion were also frequent. In paradoxical responses, the followup content almost exclusively targets the at-issue content, and RPs select the additional targets. The experiment presented two-phase scripted conversations to participants: one phase using a combination of response particle and followup content, and the second phase checking if the common ground was updated by phase one. Participants were asked to rate the acceptability of the conversation after hearing both phases. Conversations which included paradoxical responses had a likelihood of being judged `appropriate’ or `very appropriate’ similar to those conversations which included non-paradoxical responses but which varied only in the RP. In other words `yeah, it wasn’t’ patterened along similar lines as `no, it wasn’t.’Both data streams support the hypothesis that RPs can target more than at-issue content; the results demonstate that RPs that have followup content can target speaker beliefs and questions under discussion independent of at-issue content.

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Belief-of-existence determiners: evidence from the syntax and semantics of Nata augments (2019)

This thesis makes two inter-related claims about the augment (a.k.a pre-prefix or initial vowel) based on evidence from Nata (Eastern Bantu, E45). Syntactically, the Nata augment is the realization of the functional category D(eterminer). The view that the augment is D is consistent with the claimthat argument expressions are DPs, while predicate nominals obligatorily lack the D shell (cf. Longobardi 1994; Matthewson 1998; Déchaine and Tremblay 2011 and others). Semantically, I argue that the D distinction in Nata is solely based on speaker’s belief of existence. Beyond Nata, I claim that the core notion of existence is pertinent to other Bantu languages as well. The thesis challenges the widely held view that the D position is necessarily related to specificity or definiteness. I demonstrate that, once definiteness and specificity are controlled for in a precise fashion, the true contribution of Nata Ds as belief-of-existence Ds can be discerned. Cross-linguistically, the Bantu belief-of-existence D intersects with Salish assertion-of-existence Ds. In Salish, existence is asserted based on the speaker’s personal knowledge (Matthewson 1998). In Nata, this requirementis lacking. The Nata belief of existence D thus behaves as “the weakest D”, as it does not require a speaker to have personal knowledge of the individual. The theoretical implications of this analysis are twofold. First, existence Ds come in (at least) two guises, belief-of-existence versus assertion-of-existence. Second, existence Ds—in both Bantu and Salish—differ from “common ground” Ds of the type found in English, with the latter (but not the former) coding definiteness/specificity.

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Finding semantic building blocks: temporal and modal interpretation in Atayal (2018)

This dissertation investigates temporal and modal interpretation in Atayal, an endangered and understudied Austronesian language of northern Taiwan. The central questions concern the semantics of tense/aspect markers, the existence of a tense category, and the extent to which the temporality of modal sentences reduces to an independent temporal and modal system.The investigation of Atayal temporal interpretation presents strong support for decomposing temporal categories into a small set of basic semantic building blocks (von Fintel and Matthewson 2008). I propose that aspectually-unmarked sentences in Atayal encode a neutral aspect (Smith 1997), formulated as encoding an initial event stage within a reference time, following Altshuler (2014). The consequence of this proposal is separation of the mechanism of culmination of telic events from (im)perfectivity. Culminations in Atayal are instead bundled in a single morpheme that also has core ingredients for perfect aspect. These results are fully expected given the decomposition idea but would be puzzling under the assumption of uniformity of temporal categories.In the area of tense, I show that an anteriority marker with dominant experiential readings has associated properties that all point to analyzing it as a tense, instead of an aspect, and as a genuine existential past tense. Moreover, the temporal reference of sentences without this overt tense is not reducible to any tenseless analyses (Smith and Erbaugh 2005, Tonhauser 2011a, Mucha 2013, a.o.); such sentences are best analyzed as possessing a semantic tense (cf. Matthewson 2006). This result not only demonstrates variation in the semantics of tense but also the co-occurrence of both quantificational and pronominal tense. In support of the proposed tense/aspect system, I further show that the same set of patterns recurs in the context of modality: Temporality in modal sentences only varies with relative scope of the modal and temporal operators (Chen et al. 2017a, Rullmann and Matthewson 2018). A detailed description of the Atayal modal system is provided before this discussion.Overall, this work provides a reassessment of the semantics/syntax of temporal categories in Atayal grammar, and presents a case study of exploring semantic building blocks in tense, aspect, and modality cross-linguistically.

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The semantics and pragmatics of English evidential expressions: the expression of evidentiality in police interviews (2016)

The goal of this dissertation is to examine how English speakers express their evidence in the context of police interviews. I show that speakers use discourse markers, in particular, actually, apparently and supposedly, to explain their evidence in a criminal investigation. The data for this research was collected exclusively from transcripts of police interviews of lay witnesses in the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Caylee Anthony that occurred in Orange County, Florida, between 2008 and 2011. I show that actually marks evidence strength and is felicitous where the speaker has the ‘best’ evidence for their proposition. Actually’s evidential contribution largely parallels the best possible grounds evidential -mi in Cuzco Quechua, and contrasts with that observed for English must. Apparently marks that the speaker’s evidence for the proposition is indirect and supposedly marks that the speaker has reported evidence for the proposition and that they distrust the report. In addition to what evidentials mean, this dissertation considers what speakers use evidentials to do. I show that speakers use evidentials to negotiate the common ground (cg) of discourse. While a bare assertion proposes its propositional content for inclusion in the cg, speakers use actually-assertions both to propose the propositional content for inclusion and to advocate for its inclusion by marking that the speaker has best evidence for that content. Because actually highlights the strength of the speaker’s evidence, it can be used to achieve delicate discourse actions like correcting, challenging and disagreeing. In questions, actually puts the addressee on notice that the information proposed in a bare assertion cannot be included in the cg without more information; actually-questions encourage the addressee to justify their evidence either by disclosing the source of their evidence or by expressly aligning as author and/or principal of that information. Speakers use apparently and supposedly to proffer information that may be relevant to the investigation but without proposing it for inclusion in the cg, because they are either agnostic about its reliability or know it to be untrustworthy.

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The Temporal Semantics of Actions and Circumstance in Blackfoot (2015)

In this dissertation, I look at interactions between circumstantial modals and temporality in Blackfoot. I present previously undocumented data based on original fieldwork and propose an action-dependent framework for circumstantial modality to analyze the generalisations. The generalisations include variation in the range of temporal interpretations that circumstantial modals allow, and correlating effects on the licensing and temporal interpretation of ”if”-clauses. The main empirical finding is that Blackfoot’s ability modal, ohkott-, patterns distinctly from the future modal áak- and the ”might” modal aahkama’p-: while áak- and aahkama’p- behave like stative predicates in Blackfoot, allowing both past and present interpretations, ohkott- behaves like an eventive predicate, only allowing a past interpretation.I propose the temporal restrictions associated with ohkott- are derived from an agentivity requirement on its complement; the main theoretical innovation of the dissertation is the presentation of a semantic model where this is possible: Instead of the standard approach to circumstantial modality, which involves quantification over worlds (cf. Kratzer (1977), Portner (2009)) I propose a system that involves two levels of quantification: one over actions, and one over worlds (cf. Brown (1988), Emerson & Clarke (1982), Alur et al. (2002)).The intuition behind the proposed system that inferences about the way the world unfolds are based not only on an agent’s circumstances, but also on the actions that an agent takes. Given this intuition, I propose that the way we grammatically express such inferences (i.e., circumstantial modal claims), should likewise refer to both circumstances and actions. To incorporate actions into a linguistic framework, I propose that the relationship between actions and events is parallel to the relationship between kinds and individuals (cf. Carlson (1977). Chierchia (1998)) - i.e., events are Instantiations of actions. Following Belnap (1991), Horty (2001), Belnap & Perloff (1988)’s modal- temporal approach to agentivity, I further propose that agentivity be temporally modelled in terms of an action-dependency. The contrast between ohkott- vs áak- and aahkama’p-, can then be derived from temporal restrictions on the kinds of actions that satisfy ohkott-’s agentive requirement.

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Aspects of the progressive in English and Icelandic (2011)

This dissertation presents a semantic analysis of the progressive of both English and Icelandic, the only two Germanic languages that generally are considered to have fully grammaticalized progressive constructions. The progressive is an aspectual category where the focus is on a single, dynamic event being in progress at a certain time – the reference time. It is generally considered to be a sub-category of the imperfective aspect, just like the habitual aspect, and one of the descriptions typically given for the progressive is that it cannot have a habitual reading. Similarly, stative predicates are categorized as imperfective but non-progressive. Nevertheless, both habitual sentences and stative predicates occur in the progressive; they then appear to have a slightly different meaning from the one they have when they occur in the simple past/present. I argue that the subtle meaning difference between progressive and non-progressive statives and habituals is in fact an implicature. Stative verbs are shifted to being events in order to take on one or more of the prototypical eventive properties, and as events they can occur in the progressive. In such cases they usually imply dynamicity, control and/or temporariness. Habituals are essentially stative so when they occur in the progressive they too have been shifted to events, resulting in the same implicature of prototypical eventive properties, particularly temporariness. We then get the reading that the habit is temporary and it contrasts with the simple past/present that picks out a more general habit.Additionally I investigate another way to indicate that a series of events is in progress, namely the present participle progressive in Icelandic, which is a progressive construction with a presupposition for pluractionality. It usually occurs with iterative adverbials, in particular adverbs of quantity, which give additional information on the frequency of the series of events.

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Epistemic modality and evidentiality in Gitksan at the semantics-pragmatics interface (2010)

This dissertation provides an empirically driven, theoretically informed investigation of how speakers of Gitksan, a Tsimshianic language spoken in the northwest coast of Canada, express knowledge about the world around them. There are three main goals that motivate this investigation: The first is to provide the first detailed description of the evidential and modal system in Gitksan. The second is to provide a formal semantic and pragmatic account of this system that adequately explains the meanings of the modals and evidentials, as well as how they are used in discourse. The third goal is to examine the specific properties the Gitksan evidential/modal system brings to bear on current theories of semantics and pragmatics, as well as the consequences this analysis has on the study of modality and evidentiality cross-linguistically. In addition to documenting the evidential and modal meanings in Gitksan, I work through a variety of theoretical tools designed to determine what level of meaning the individual evidentials in Gitksan operate on. The current state of research into the connection between evidentiality and epistemic modality has identified two different types of evidentials defined by the level of meaning they operate on: propositional and illocutionary evidentials. These two types correspond to a distinction between modal evidentials and non-modal evidentials respectively. I show that Gitksan has both modal and non-evidentials. This leads to an analysis where the Gitksan modal evidentials are treated as a specialized type of epistemic modals, and the non-modal evidentials are sentential force specifiers. I also identify various features of the evidential system that bring specific issues to bear upon current theories of the semantics and pragmatics of modality. This has four outcomes: first, I present a novel analysis of variable modal force in modals with fixed quantification. Secondly, I discuss the effect of modal evidentials in Conjectural Questions. Thirdly, I analyze how modal and non-modal evidentials interact in discourse contexts in implicating a speaker’s attitude towards the evidence they have for a proposition. And fourthly, I develop the first formal analysis of mirativity and non-literal uses of evidentials, analyzing them both as cases of conversational implicature.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Relative pronominal tense: evidence from Gitksan, Japanese, and English (2021)

This thesis investigates properties of tenses in English, Japanese, and Gitksan (Tsimshianic) with regards to the two major dimensions along which tense denotations can differ: 1) pronominal (Partee 1973; Enç 1987; Heim 1994) vs. existential (Ogihara 1989; von Stechow 2009) and 2) relative (Smith 1991; Ogihara 1989; Kusumoto 1999) vs. absolute (Comrie 1976; Dowty 1982). The past tense in English, the past and non-past tenses in Japanese, and the covert non-future tense in Gitksan will all receive relative pronominal denotations. An alternative analysis of Gitksan without a tense operator is also developed but eventually discarded in light of novel data before/after clauses. Taking this investigation of the three languages as a case study, this thesis also tackles a larger theoretical question: what is the empirical evidence for pronominal vs. existential and relative vs. absolute tenses? Teasing apart these two dimensions from each other as well as from the sequence of tense (SOT) issue, this thesis re-examines the existing empirical diagnostics of each tense property; are they sufficient conditions or merely necessary conditions? Are there alternative explanations for the empirical phenomena? To answer these questions, within each language, behaviours of the tenses are investigated across matrix clauses, attitude complements, relative clauses, and before/after clauses. From a cross-linguistic perspective, the three languages present both distinct puzzles and similarities with each other: English and Japanese are both overtly tensed and have been treated as canonical examples of SOT (Comrie 1985; Enç 1987) and non-SOT (Ogihara 1989; Kusumoto 1999) languages, respectively. English and Gitksan both have a dedicated future marker (Jóhannsdóttir and Matthewson 2007), and SOT constructions in English and non-future sentences in Gitksan exhibit similar temporal flexibility. Japanese and Gitksan both have a two-way distinction: Japanese has an overt past-non-past system, and Gitksan has a future-non-future system with a covert non-future tense; both languages rely on the Bennett and Partee (1987) effect to resolve temporal interpretations, as do SOT constructions in English. The results call for similar investigations across syntactic contexts to obtain a comprehensive picture of the temporal system in any given language.

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Nsyilxcen Modality: Semantic Analysis of Epistemic Modality (2013)

The aim of this thesis is to describe and analyze the modal system of Nsyilxcen, an Interior Salish language spoken in south central British Columbia and northern Washington State. In particular, it focuses on the epistemic modals mat and cmay, which express necessity and possibility with respect to certain bodies of knowledge. Similar to modals in St'át'imcets (Rullmann et al. 2008) and Gitksan (Peterson 2010) these modals lexically encode an epistemic modal base and an indirect inferential evidential restriction. I propose that these two modals can be distinguished based on their modal force distinction, where mat has variable modal force and cmay a strictly encoded existential modal force. Based on these generalizations, I propose a formal semantic analysis for the epistemic modals drawing from Kratzer (1977, 1981, 1991, 2012), Rullmann et al. (2008), Peterson (2010), and Deal (2011). The analysis defines each modal in a way that accounts for the strictly encoded modal base and evidential restriction, as well as the variable modal force for mat and the strictly encoded existential modal force for cmay. In addition to the epistemic modals mat and cmay this thesis documents the reportative modal kʷukʷ as well as how Nsyilxcen encodes non-epistemic modality. It looks at the bouletic modal cakʷ and how Nsyilxcen encodes a deontic, circumstantial, ability, and teleological modal base which makes use of the irrealis marker ks-, imperative markers -x and -ikʷ, or the basic predicate, depending on the addressee and the context. This thesis will discuss how the Nsyilxcen system fits into a preliminary modal typology based on the semantics of these modals.

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Semantics of Akan bi and nu (2011)

This thesis investigates two post-nominal morphemes, bi and nʊ, in Akan (a Kwa language spoken mainly in Ghana). I analyze bi as an indefinite marker and nʊ as a definite marker.Bi occurs in different environments; the main two environments are the pronominal environment and the determiner environment where it follows the noun within a DP. These environments correlate with certain tonal variations. I argue that in the pronominal use, bi is a specific indefinite pronoun and is toneless. Its specificity status is achieved through a weak anaphoric relationship it shares with a previously-mentioned noun in the discourse or a deictic element. In its determiner use, bi is a specific indefinite which is interpreted via a choice function. It bears a high tone.The Akan morpheme nʊ is used for different functions. It is used as a third person singular pronoun, as a definite article, as a distal demonstrative marker and as a clausal marker. These uses correlate with some tonal alternations. I argue that when the morpheme is used as a pronoun, it is toneless; however when it is used as a determiner or a clause marker it is marked with a high tone. I also argue that the morpheme in all its different functions encodes one semantic value which is familiarity. I take familiarity to entail both hearer old and discourse old along the lines of Prince (1988).

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