Research project supported by the Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung extended by one year

The research project Conversion in English: The interaction of generic knowledge, contextual information, and syntactic constructions’ headed by Prof. Dr. Gert Webelhuth (research assistant: Dr. Heike Baeskow) will be supported for a further year, till April 2023.

The aim of this project is to develop a usage-based model for English conversion which efficiently describes this highly dynamic yet non-arbitrary process. The focus of the analyses is on (1) the linguistic and extra-linguistic factors which determine the non-overt shift from one (conceptual) category to another, (2) the way non-derived denominal verbs acquire their argument structures, (3) the interaction of context-free and context-dependent interpretations, and (4) the identification of communicative-pragmatic functions of conversion. The main database comprises 507 innovative converted verbs from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The analyses proceed from a cognitive approach according to which (noun-verb) conversion is an instance of metonymy. Treating conversion as a basically mental process elegantly accounts for the huge number of converted verbs in English and reduces the technical apparatus to a minimum. Moreover, it is assumed that the metonymic event construal is distributed over three levels of abstraction which comprise (a) encyclopaedic knowledge as to individuals, entities, and situations, (b) sensorimotor experience, and (c) grammatically relevant knowledge. These interacting levels constitute the theoretical framework for the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic analyses.

From a semantic perspective, the relative salience of metonymically highlighted participants that interact in an event and the interpretation of events that lack a referent of the base noun are of particular interest. Syntactically, the question how non-derived denominal verbs build their argument structures, which cannot be provided by the nominal bases, will be addressed. From a pragmatic point of view, communicative functions of conversion will be identified and discussed. The functional analyses will be systematized on the basis of the three interacting metafunctions identified by M.A.K. Halliday for language, namely ‘ideational’, ‘interpersonal’, and ‘textual’.

The recently granted project continuation is devoted to contrastive analyses English – German with respect to conversion and to the controversially discussed question whether and to what extent metonymy also plays a role in overt derivation.