Congratulations to Justin Royer, who successfully defended his dissertation, “Elements of (in)definteness and binding: A Mayan perspective”, supervised by Luis Alonso-Ovalle, Jessica Coon, and Aron Hirsch (full abstract below) in June.  Justin is heading to Berkeley this fall to take up a Banting post-doctoral fellowship with Peter Jenks. Congratulations Justin!

Justin and Jessica in post-defense photo-moving ceremony (not pictured: co-supervisors Luis Alonso-Ovalle and Aron Hirsch)


This thesis explores topics pertaining to the syntax and semantics of nominal expressions, with a focus on definite, indefinite, demonstrative, and pronominal elements. The data are drawn from original work on Mayan languages, especially Chuj, an under-documented language predominantly spoken in Guatemala and Mexico.

The first part zooms in on the elements that play a role in the syntactic composition of the extended nominal domain, and the semantic and pragmatic contributions that result from combining these elements together. By showcasing great complexity within the extended nominal domain, I argue that Chuj is particularly illuminating for topics which have been at the core of debates in the syntax and semantics of DPs, such as the encoding of definiteness versus indefiniteness, the internal syntax and semantics of demonstratives, the nature of pronouns, and the ways in which the contextual domain of nominal expressions is implicitly or explicitly delimited. A recurring theme will be that, by virtue of being radically decompositional, Chuj often challenges pre-existing assumptions about the primitivity of certain linguistic expressions. Instead, the Chuj data align with an increasing number of work that argue that traditional notions, such as definiteness, come in different guises (e.g., Schwarz 2009; Arkoh and Matthewson 2013; Jenks 2018; Jenks and Konate to appear), or that these different notions arise as a result of a decomposition of functional heads within the nominal domain (e.g., Déchaine and Wiltschko 2002; Leu 2008; Simonenko 2014; Coppock and Beaver 2015; Hanink 2018; Ahn 2019).

The second part of this thesis zooms out of the internal syntax of nominal expressions and into the distribution of covalued nominals within sentences. This part will also provide data on Ch’ol, another Mayan language. I show that while Ch’ol behaves entirely as expected with regards to the Binding Conditions, Chuj appears to consistently tolerate violations of Condition C, often privileging linear precedence as the determining factor in the distribution of R-expressions and pronouns. The Chuj data thus initially seem to cast doubt on a long tradition to treat the Binding Conditions as universal. I argue that the difference between Chuj and Ch’ol can be largely explained if, contrary to Ch’ol, Chuj exhibits “high-absolutive” syntax, independently proposed to account for a number of morphosyntactic phenomena in a subset of Mayan languages (Coon, Mateo Pedro, and Preminger 2014; Coon, Baier, and Levin 2021). High-absolutive syntax creates configura- tions in which the internal argument asymmetrically c-commands the external argument, bleeding otherwise expected binding relations from the external argument into the inter- nal argument. The violations of Condition C in Chuj are thus only apparent. The outcome is that despite initial evidence to doubt the universality of the Binding Conditions, a universalist approach can not only be maintained, but is supported by Chuj.