25 years of Natural Language Semantics

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Natural Language Semantics. Irene Heim and I have been the editors since then. We still meet – at a table, not on a screen – to discuss the papers that have been submitted. Natural Language Semantics was the brain child of Martin Scrivener, the Linguistics editor of what was then Kluwer Academic Publishers. Martin thought that the time had come for a journal to bring together syntactic work in the generative tradition and formal semantics work in the tradition of David Lewis and Richard Montague. From the very start, the journal attracted work on cross-linguistic semantics and the syntax-semantics interface. Early highlights include Mats Rooth’s and Roger Schwarzschild’s papers on focus interpretation and givenness, Veneeta Dayal’s paper on scope marking, Sigrid Beck’s paper on what is now called the “Beck Effect”, Lisa Matthewson’s seminal papers on wide-scope indefinites and on cross-linguistic variation in the expression of quantification, Polly Jacobson’s paper on paycheck pronouns, Lisa Green’s paper on aspectual “be” in African American English, Gennaro Chierchia’s and Sandra Chung’s papers on reference to kinds across languages, Dorit Abusch’s paper on the de re interpretation of the present tense, Mona Singh’s paper on non-culminating accomplishments, and Jo-Wang Lin’s paper on distributivity in Chinese, among many others.

How we distinguish fact and fiction

From Science News, August 10, 2017: “More than 300 years ago, the philosopher René Descartes asked a disturbing question: If our senses can’t always be trusted, how can we separate illusion from reality? We’re able to do so, a new study suggests, because our brain keeps tabs on reality by constantly questioning its own past expectations and beliefs. Hallucinations occur when this internal fact-checking fails, a finding that could point toward better treatments for schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.”

How do natural languages distinguish between fact and fiction? They don’t really. But they provide many tools for reality checking. I probed into this topic in my 2015 contribution to the Rome Science Festival. Here is the abstract for the talk: “Languages do not care all that much about the difference between fact and fiction. Stories tend to be told as if they were reports of known fact. You may have read somewhere that Mr. Palomar was standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Was it in a newspaper? Well, no, it’s from a story by Calvino. [Il signor Palomar è in piedi sulla riva e guarda un’onda.] Calvino’s story doesn’t tell you that it is a piece of fiction. There are no grammatical categories to indicate the merely fictional. There are no fictional declensions or conjugations in natural languages. Every sentence in every language describes a wide range of possibilities. When Calvino writes that Mr. Palomar was standing on the shore, he evokes a set of possibilities. When Wikipedia tells me that Calvino was born in Cuba, it, too, evokes a set of possibilities. But it does more. It also implies that the world we live in is one of them. When it comes to how to approach reality, languages do care. They have countless ways to modulate, fine-tune, and calibrate claims about reality. In a quarter of all the world’s languages, you can’t say that a man was standing on the shore without mentioning your evidence. Was it just hearsay? Did you see it with your own eyes? Did you infer the man’s presence from the footprints in the sand? In those languages, grammar forces speakers to be upfront about their evidence, just as Italian or English forces us to use tenses to locate events in time. Once the evidence is on the table, we may want to say something about the strength of the conclusions we can draw from it. Might there be an iguana in the reptile house? Is it certain? Or is there only a slim chance? Is there a better chance for there to be an iguana than a python? What means do languages have to indicate the strength of a conclusion from a piece of evidence? How do they compare possibilities? How do they talk about degrees of possibilities? Most importantly, how does grammar dip into this jungle of concepts and map them onto hierarchically structured sequences of words that we can use to reason about uncertainty in science and in daily life?”

Maryam Mirzakhani and the universe of all possible billiard tables

Maryam Mirzakhani has died today. She was 40 years old. From Stanford News: “A self-professed “slow” mathematician, Mirzakhani’s colleagues describe her as ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle. She denied herself the easy path, choosing instead to tackle thornier issues. Her preferred method of working on a problem was to doodle on large sheets of white paper, scribbling formulas on the periphery of her drawings. Her young daughter described her mother at work as “painting.” “You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” she told one reporter. In another interview, she said of her process: “I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs] … It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

In her honor, I am reposting a 2014 post from this blog. Sources: Wikepedia. Article on Maryam Mirzakhani in the Guardian. Article and video in Quanta Magazine.

Maryam_MirzakhaniJordan Ellenberg‘s popular explanation of what earned Mirzakhani the Fields Medal in 2014: “… [Her] work expertly blends dynamics with geometry. Among other things, she studies billiards. But now, in a move very characteristic of modern mathematics, it gets kind of meta: She considers not just one billiard table, but the universe of all possible billiard tables. And the kind of dynamics she studies doesn’t directly concern the motion of the billiards on the table, but instead a transformation of the billiard table itself, which is changing its shape in a rule-governed way; if you like, the table itself moves like a strange planet around the universe of all possible tables … This isn’t the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it’s the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal. And it’s what you need to do in order to expose the dynamics at the heart of geometry; for there’s no question that they’re there.”

One of 10 people who mattered this year in science: Nature, volume 516, issue 7531, 17 December 2014. 2017 obituary in the New Yorker.

Investigating meaning in the Kiowa Language

Andrew McKenzie (University of Kansas) has been awarded a 3-year NSF (National Science Foundation) grant for “Investigations in the Semantics of Kiowa, a Native American Language of Oklahoma.” The grant description explains how research in semantics can have a big impact on Native American communities. Andrew McKenzie is a linguist specializing in formal semantics and linguistic fieldwork, with a focus on Native American languages, especially Kiowa.

Photo: Marianne McKenzie

From the grant description published by the NSF: “Led by a linguist who is also a tribal member, this project will conduct an in-depth investigation into Kiowa semantics. Semantics forms a crucial component of language, but linguists have not thoroughly documented any language’s semantics with depth and precision, because the theoretical framework to do so was only recently developed. This project will apply this framework of language documentation, in order to uncover the semantics of phenomena crucial to the Kiowa language. The investigators will elicit language judgments from native speakers of the language, which can tease apart subtle aspects of meaning that are often impossible for speakers to define with words. The project will also record and examine new texts that document naturalistic language use, especially in cultural domains under-represented by currently available Kiowa texts. Kiowa grammar includes multiple areas of interest to formal semantics, such as evidentiality, modality, incorporation, quantification, and degree, all of which are also important areas for learners to acquire. This project will result in a reference grammar and teaching materials that will greatly aid these programs by covering the areas in semantics that remain poorly understood by teachers and researchers. This reference grammar will also serve as a manual for researchers of other Native American languages, especially those who are not trained in this research framework. This study will offer new insight for researchers on dozens of phenomena that occur in many languages besides Kiowa. In doing so, it will re-emphasize the longstanding contribution of Native American languages to linguistics, a scientific understanding of what is possible in human language, and thus a deeper understanding of what is possible in the human mind.”

Not all languages are equal

The 2017 Report on America’s Languages by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is silent about non-standard varieties of American English, in particular African American English (AAE). Also, sign languages are only mentioned very briefly. There is no discussion of American Sign Language (ASL) in the body of the report apart from an initial statement (on p.1), which affirms that ASL is a language. The demonstration that sign languages (like ASL) and non-standard vernaculars (like AAE) are legitimate and fully systematic languages might be among the most important achievements of modern linguistics. 

The report was written as a response to questions by a bipartisan group of members of Congress: “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans? What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?”

The way the report is organized suggests that different members of the team of authors responsible for this report might have had different ideas about what their congressional charge was. Parts of the report suggest that this is a report about foreign language teaching in the US, in particular the teaching of big ‘world’ languages like Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, etc. That’s not what the title of the report suggests, though, or the attention given to the preservation and revitalization of Native American languages and heritage languages. If this is a report about America’s languages, then AAE or ASL cannot be excluded.

One of the key findings of the report is that “the United States needs more people to speak languages other than English in order to provide social and legal services for a changing population.” Recent work by Sharese King and John Rickford on the testimony of Rachel Jeantel made clear that knowledge of AAE may also be needed to provide adequate social and legal services. Another key finding of the report is that mastery of a second language might have a variety of cognitive benefits. Here, too, it would be important to recognize that a speaker of both African American English and Standard American English might be as bilingual as someone who masters both Dutch and German.

The 2017 David Lewis Lecture

david LewisI feel so honored and happy to be giving the 2017 David Lewis Lecture in Princeton. David Lewis was the most important influence on me as I was mapping out the path I wanted to take as a linguist and semanticist. Mysteriously, the handwriting on the poster is Lewis’s very own handwriting.

David Lewis’s General Semantics (Synthese 22, 1970) was the work that turned me into a semanticist. I was introduced to the article in a Konstanz seminar with Yehoshua Bar-Hillel. I still consider General Semantics the most important milestone in the history of formal semantics for natural languages. In that paper, Lewis teaches us how to connect formal semantics to Chomsky’s Aspects model, for example: “I have foremost in mind a sort of simplified Aspects-model grammar (Chomsky, 1965), but I have said nothing to eliminate various alternatives.” Lewis shows how an insightful theory of semantics and pragmatics can be brought together with an explanatory theory of syntax of the kind Chomsky pioneered. General Semantics is, I believe, the first work that presents a compositional theory of meaning that unifies the perspectives of generative syntax with those of formal logic and analytic philosophy. I think David Lewis’s work was a factor in putting an end to the ‘Linguistics Wars’. It made clear that formal semantics (and pragmatics) and syntactic theory in the spirit of Chomsky could travel together peacefully.

Lewis’s Adverbs of Quantification was a major inspiration for Irene Heim’s and my dissertations. It is the source of the idea that indefinites introduce variables that can be unselectively bound by independent sentential operators and contains the seeds of the restrictor view of if-clauses. Current pragmatic theory would not be what it is today without Convention and Scorekeeping in a Language Game: Contemporary game-theoretical pragmatics, theories of presupposition accommodation, the idea of scoreboards keeping track of salient features of discourse, and context-dependent theories of relative modality all have their roots in those two works. What made Lewis’s ideas so powerful was that they were launched in beautiful prose and with minimal technical machinery. This is why they could so easily cross disciplinary borders.

The transformation of Amherst College: Everyone of us could make a difference

The standard job ad for the standard department at a standard American university includes a standard phrase about Affirmative Action.  Amherst College (which is in Amherst, but is a distinct institution from UMass Amherst) is doing more. Their recent job ads for all fields tell prospective applicants that the student population at Amherst College has completely changed during the last ten years, and that any future faculty member will be expected to mentor and teach a broadly diverse student body. Is this a change that only rich private institutions can afford?

Carolyn ("Biddy") Martin, President of Amherst College

Carolyn (“Biddy”) Martin, President of Amherst College

Here is an excerpt from a current ad for two tenure-track positions in Chemistry.

“Amherst College is one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country.  Forty-four percent of our students identify as domestic students of color, and another 10 percent are international, with non-U.S. citizenship; 17 percent are the first members of their families to attend college.  Fifty-one percent of our students are women.  Amherst is committed to providing financial aid that meets 100 percent of every student’s demonstrated need, and 58 percent of our students receive financial aid.  Our expectation is that the successful candidate will excel at teaching and mentoring students who are broadly diverse with regard to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion.”

And here is an excerpt from their ad for two tenure-track positions in Computer Science:

“Within the last decade, Amherst College has profoundly transformed its student body in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Today, nearly one-quarter of Amherst’s students are Pell Grant recipients; 43 percent of our students are domestic students of color; and 10 percent of our students are international students. We seek candidates who will excel at teaching and mentoring students who are broadly diverse with regard to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion.”


The investigation of linguistic meaning: in the armchair, in the field, and in the lab

July 20 to 31, 2015, Berlin, Germany, Wissenschaftskolleg and ZAS
July 18 to 29, 2016, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina


The Summer Institute attracted 20 early-career researchers (PhD between 2009 and 2015) with one of three areas of specialization: (a) Theoretical Linguistics, especially Semantics and its interfaces, (b) Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, and (c) Linguistic Fieldwork. One goal of the Summer Institute was interdisciplinary team building, resulting in joint projects, presentations, and publications. A second goal was capacity building, especially exposure to methods in the neighboring fields.

Angelika Kratzer, Professor of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Manfred Krifka, Professor of General Linguistics at Humboldt Universität Berlin and Director of the Zentrum für Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin (ZAS).

Guest lecturers
Emmanuel Chemla, Research Scientist (CNRS), Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, École Normale Supérieure, Paris.
Lisa Matthewson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia.
Jesse Snedeker, Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Malte Zimmermann, Professor of Semantics and Theory of Grammar, Universität Potsdam.

The program
SIAS Summer Institutes are designed to support the development of scholarly networks and collaborative projects among young scholars from the United States and Europe. The institutes are open to scholars who have received a Ph.D. within the past five years and Ph.D. candidates who are now studying or teaching at a European or American institution of higher education. Each institute accommodates twenty participants and is built around two summer workshops, one held in the United States and another in Europe in consecutive years. More info about SIAS Summer Institutes. And more info about the 2015 – 2016 SIAS Summer Institute

Sponsors and administration
SIAS Summer Institute are sponsored by SIAS (Some Institutes for Advanced Study). In the United States the 2015/16 Summer Institute was administered by the National Humanities Center. In Europe it was administered by the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The program was made possible by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas: More than a Conference

sula-birdSULA is a biennial gathering on the Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas. It was founded 15 years ago at UMass Amherst. From the very start, one of the goals of SULA was to emphasize that doing theoretical work isn’t incompatible with being actively engaged in language documentation, community work, and revitalization. This is why SULA always includes at least one event where native speakers of indigenous languages give their very own perspective on linguistic research on their language.

In addition to several sessions on indigenous languages of the Americas, the first SULA also had two sessions on African American English (AAE), one session on Yiddish, and one or two sessions on ASL (American Sign Language). Those languages do not only share with native American languages the fate of being underrepresented in theoretical linguistic research, but also the predicament of being underrepresented in the way we teach linguistics to American students. For example, American students are most likely to hear about AAE in a sociolinguistic class, and they are most likely to be presented with samples of male youth language there. The reality is that AAE is spoken by men and women of all ages in all kinds of settings, including church settings. AAE has still to find its place in mainstream linguist research and teaching. ASL was in a similar situation some years ago, but has now taken off in a big way. Still, none of those languages feature prominently in run-of-the-mill introductions to linguistics, syntax, or semantics. There still isn’t enough theoretical research, and they are not included as American languages in standard curricula in this country.

To address the status of minority languages and non-standard dialects in the Americas, it’s also important NOT to leave research on those languages in their separate corners. This research should be as much part of the main stream as research on Standard English. To work towards that goal, the first SULA (and all subsequent SULAs, except the last one, I think), also included as commentators semanticists who were just armchair semanticists: Barbara Partee was there, also Irene Heim, and myself as co-organizer (with Lisa Matthewson). Those armchair semanticists were either local, or in later years, we would find our own funding to attend this conference, which was obviously highly relevant to our own work. We also helped with reviewing and commenting on abstracts. We wanted to be at this conference because we knew that a lot of original research in semantics came out of it and because we wanted our research and teaching to be informed by those results. 

To give research on the semantics of underrepresented languages a future, we knew that we needed to interest the youngest generation of linguists in this enterprise. We did this by including graduate students as invited speakers, alongside more senior scholars.  

Bias against fields: every single one of us could make a difference

I am trying to figure out what each of us – every single one of us – could do to make our field more diverse. My last posts focused on mechanisms that seem to be at work in personnel decisions and evaluations at every level: we exaggerate the achievements of some people, but not others, and we overlook the shortcomings of some people, but not others. That’s one way of shutting people out.

Here I want to reflect on biases that affect fields of investigation. Why is it that my own department only has a single person who is a specialist on variation? Why is it that we never tell ourselves that we might need a second specialist in that area? Could that ever be a priority? Why do we consider some areas essential, but not others? Why is it that SULA (Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas) has had so many participants from underrepresented groups from the very start? What’s wrong with a department, a conference, a journal, or an undergraduate or graduate program that puts its emphasis on the documentation and investigation of underrepresented languages and dialects (Swarthmore College does this, for example)? Is it true that you can’t do, or learn how to do, cutting edge theoretical work while working on an underrepresented language? Could we make the group of linguists more diverse by putting more emphasis on work on underrepresented languages? Placing low priority on a whole field of investigation is another way of shutting people out. That’s another area where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?