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Talking about the Weather: Two Construals of Precipitation Events in English

Beth Levin and Bonnie Krejci
Stanford University
January 12, 2018 - 1:30pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (460-126)

Weather expressions such as It is raining have proven challenging for researchers; languages show considerable variation in how they encode such events (Eriksen et al., 2012). In Romance languages in particular, there has been controversy over whether verbs denoting weather events are unergative or unaccusative (Benincà & Cinque, 1992; Bleotu, 2013; Meulleman & Stockman, 2013; Ruwet, 1991). We show that verbs denoting precipitation events in English (rain, snow, hail) pose the same challenge, and we offer an analysis that explains their apparent hybrid nature. We argue that the unergative/unaccusative behaviors of these English verbs arise from the availability of two distinct event structures, which in turn reflect the availability of two different construals (in the sense of Levin & Rappaport Hovav (2005)) of precipitation happenings. English precipitation events may be construed as substance emission events (1) or directed motion events (2), leading to their variable unergative/unaccusative behaviors. 

(1)  Substance emission event
a.   The well gushed (oil).
b.   It rained (a light rain/sulfuric acid).

(2)  Directed motion event
a.   An apple fell on the ground.
b.   A light rain rained on my head.

Our analysis of English precipitation events helps resolve the controversy over the status of weather verbs in Romance languages: when precipitation verbs show unaccusative behavior, they show the hallmarks of a directed motion event structure, and when they show unergative behavior, they pattern as activities (Benincà & Cinque, 1992). More broadly, precipitation verbs further support the association of activities with unergative behavior and of directed motion (or scalar change in general) with unaccusative behavior.
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