Meredith Landman on Variables in Natural Language

Ever since Quine’s “On What There Is”, discussions of the types of variables in natural languages have occupied a special place in semantics. According to Quine, “to be assumed as an entity is, purely and simply, to be reckoned as the value of a variable.” After eleven years in the archives, Meredith Landman’s landmark 2006 dissertation on Variables in Natural Language has now been made publicly available on ScholarWorks. Landman’s dissertation argues for severe type restrictions for object language variables in natural languages, targeting pro-forms of various kinds, elided constituents, and traces of movement.

In his 1984 UMass dissertation Gennaro Chierchia had already proposed the ‘No Functor Anaphora Constraint’, which says that ‘functors’ (e.g. determiners, connectives, prepositions) do not enter anaphoric relationships. Landman’s dissertation goes further in arguing for a constraint that affects all object language variables and also rules out properties as possible values for them. Her ‘No Higher Types Variable Constraint’ (NHTV) restricts object language variables to the semantic type e of individuals.

Landman explores the consequences of the NHTV for the values of overt pro-forms like such or do so, as well as for gaps of A’-movement and for NP and VP ellipsis. Since the NHTV bars higher type variables in all of those cases, languages might have to use strategies like overt pro-forms or partial or total syntactic reconstruction of the antecedent to interpret certain types of movement gaps and elided constituents. The NHTV thus validates previous work arguing for syntactic reconstruction and against the use of higher-type variables (e.g. Romero 1998 and Fox 1999, 2000), as well as work arguing for treating ellipsis as involving deletion of syntactic structure.

The topic of the type of traces has most recently been taken up again in Ethan Poole’s 2017 UMass dissertation, which contributes important new evidence confirming that the type of traces should indeed be restricted to type e.

(This post was crafted in collaboration with Meredith Landman, who also provided the pictures).

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.”

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.

Steinthal 1871: Languages are not learned, they grow

steinthalAbriss der Sprachwissenschaft : Heymann Steinthal , Franz Misteli. Published in 1871. 

“Von der Sprache ist schon bemerkt, dass sie so wenig gelehrt und gelernt werden kann, wie Sehen und Hören. Wer hat wohl je bemerkt, dass man Kinder sprechen gelehrt hätte? Vielleicht aber hat Mancher schon beachtet, wie vergeblich das Bemühen ist, das man wohl zuweilen anstellt, das Kind zu lehren. Mit Gewissheit aber setze ich voraus, dass Jeder, wer Gelegenheit gehabt hat, ein Kind vom zweiten bis zum vierten Lebensjahre zu beobachten, oft genug darüber erstaunt war, wie urplötzlich das Kind ein Wort oder eine Wortform gebraucht hat. Selten weiss man, woher das Kind das hat. Es hat es ergriffen bei irgend einer Gelegenheit; und ergreifen heisst erzeugen. — Man sollte also gar nicht vom Lernen der Sprache bei Kindern reden. Denn wo keine Lehre, da ist kein Lernen. Nur was der Gärtner mit Samen tut, aus dem er Pflanzen ziehen will, nur das tun wir mit unsern Kindern, um sie zur Sprache zu bringen: wir bringen sie in die nötigen Bedingungen geistigen Wachstums, nämlich in die menschliche Gesellschaft. Aber so wenig der Gärtner wachsen macht, so wenig machen, lehren, wir das Kind sprechen; nach dem Gesetze, dort der Natur, hier des Geistes, entsteht dort die Blume, hier die Sprache im Bewusstsein des Kindes.”

My translation: “Language, as I remarked earlier, is like seeing and hearing in that it can’t be taught or learned. Who has ever seen anybody teach language to a child? Some of you may have experienced how hopeless it is to teach language to children, as has been tried occasionally. I am sure that anybody who has ever had the opportunity to observe a child between the age of two and four was surprised about the sudden use of a word or a word form. We rarely know where the child got it from. The child apprehended it on some occasion or other; and ‘apprehending’ means creating. – We thus shouldn’t talk about learning of language by children. If there isn’t any teaching, there isn’t any learning either. What we do with children to lead them towards language is exactly what a gardener does with a seed from which he wants to produce a plant: we provide them with the necessary conditions for growth, namely human society. The gardener doesn’t truly make plants grow. Likewise, we do not teach children how to speak. A flower grows following the laws of nature. In the same way, language is generated in the consciousness of a child following the laws of the mind.”

Robert Stalnaker


From MIT News Office

“While working in a famously esoteric field, MIT philosopher Robert Stalnaker has focused his career on thinking about real-world concerns — including the fundamental nature of speech, thought, and decision-making. In so doing, he has catalyzed and provided the underpinnings for new research in many other areas, such as game theory, linguistics, decision theory, and economics. In all these research areas, Stalnaker’s influence has been widespread and profound, but his impact on modern linguistics — a field that was just coming into its own in the 1970s — has been especially significant, providing the first clear understanding of what is going on in conditional sentences that are counterfactual.”

Thomas Ede Zimmermann

From the Linguist List: “Becoming a semanticist back in the 1970s was quite different from what it is in the days of Heim & Kratzer (incidentally, two of my old Konstanz friends). The field had not been established as a sub-discipline of linguistics, and despite some serious integrative attempts (thanks to Barbara Partee), it was still perceived as an esoteric pastime of a small community of logicians, philosophers of language, and (few) linguists. In Germany, this community was particularly strong, with enough funding to have spectacular conferences bringing together some of the best researchers in the field. I attended quite a few of them, though rarely presenting anything, during the time I worked on my dissertation, which was supposed to be about the interface between logical and lexical semantics. I never finished that dissertation, for at least two reasons. The first was that I kept changing my mind over the very subject area: my original strategy had been to formulate model-theoretic constraints on meaning postulates to keep them from overgenerating (a serious issue at the time, and still), but the more I worked on it, the less confident I became that model theory is the right framework for natural language semantics. The other reason was that I was easily distracted, working on a lot of other problems at the same time, and with more success (in terms of publications). One of my favourite topics was Groenendijk’s and Stokhof’s fascinating partition semantics of interrogatives. When investigating its logical underpinnings, I found that one of Montague’s implicit hypotheses about semantic analysis – that his intensional type logic provides a restrictive framework of compositional semantics – was not quite right. I wrote a short article about this and showed it to my would-be supervisor Arnim von Stechow, who saw to it that I would submit it as my dissertation. In the event it was accepted by him (and the co-promoters) and also got published in a logic journal. Rather than being proud of these 13 pages in print, I have always felt a bit ashamed for never having written a proper dissertation; but in the meantime I got used to being introduced as the guy who must have written the shortest linguistics dissertation ever.”

The amazing University of Konstanz


In 1978, semanticists at the University of Konstanz organized a memorable interdisciplinary conference “Semantics from Different Points of View”, bringing together linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and computer scientists in a joint conference on the various ways of studying linguistic meaning. The photograph has Barbara Partee right in the middle (with unicorn shirt). Behind her are Ede Zimmermann and David Lewis. I am on the very left in the first row, next to Max Cresswell, who is next to Arnim von Stechow. In the last row, you see Irene Heim, who was then a graduate student at UMass Amherst, but had been a student of Arnim von Stechow’s in Konstanz before that. Next to Irene Heim is Hans Kamp. Among the other participants are Manfred Pinkal, Renate Bartsch, Dieter Wunderlich, Wolfgang Klein, Urs Egli, Josef Bayer, Rainer Bäuerle, Veronika Ehrich, Eckehard König, Joachim Ballweg, Roland Hausser, and Wolfgang Sternefeld.

I received all of my degrees from the University of Konstanz (MA and Dr. phil – there was no BA in Germany at the time). When I was a student and young researcher in Konstanz in the 1970s, this was an absolutely amazing place, and much of my success in my profession has its roots there. To mention just a few things: even though I was only in my 3rd year of university studies when I arrived in Konstanz (I would have been a mere undergraduate in the US), I was collaborating on a (long-forgotten) 2-volume book on mathematical linguistics after just one year there, and even became (undeservedly) the book’s first author. This wasn’t anything special about me: this was Konstanz in the 1970s. Roughly at the same time, I became one of three members of the Executive Committee running the Konstanz Linguistics department. I was the student member, but my voice had equal weight. I was also a member of the University’s Ausschuss für Lehrfragen (University Committee for Matters of Teaching) – half of the members of this committee were students, the other half were tenured and untenured faculty. The committee was in charge of all important issues relating to teaching. I have been grateful for the education I received in Konstanz ever since – it was pure Utopia – something that wasn’t available anywhere else in Germany (or in the world).  

Kai von Fintel: Decoding the Meaning of Language

kai Kai von Fintel: “Linguistics is basically the science of language. You use a scientific approach, but you get to apply it to something central to humanity. We put these signals in the world and others can read our mind to some extent. I find that a baffling phenomenon — why not try to figure that out?” Full story by SHASS Communications.

“What makes linguistics, the science of language, so fascinating is that it exists at the intersection of science and the humanities. You use a scientific approach, and you get to apply it to something central to humanity.”

“We’re trying to find patterns in data, making hypotheses, throwing more data at it and seeing how it holds up,” he says. “We look at facts to distinguish what we can understand versus what we can’t.”

Irene Heim

ireneFrom the introduction of The Art and Craft of Semantics: A Festschrift for Irene Heim, edited by Luka Crnič and Uli Sauerland: “For over thirty years, Irene Heim has been a star among stars in the field of semantics and in linguistics as a whole. Her published research alone would place her among the most brilliant contributors to the field, having played a key role in the establishment of semantic research as central to the enterprise of generative linguistics.” The Festschrift can be downloaded here. A printed version of the Festschrift can be ordered from MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.

Adrian Brasoveanu: Language, Logic & Cognition Lab

Adrian Brasoveanu.

“Capturing the particular ways in which natural language interpretation proceeds is usually taken to involve rich abstract representations and fairly complex operations over such representations. From this perspective, two general goals of formal semantics are to identify patterns of interpretation that seem to involve such abstract (non-overt / latent) representations and operations and to design logical systems in which the ‘right’ range of representations and operators can be defined and in which these representations and operators interact in the ‘right’ way.

At the same time, providing solid empirical foundations for increasingly sophisticated formal semantics theories requires increasingly sophisticated methods of empirical investigation and statistical analysis of the resulting data. In addition, semantic theories should be complemented and further constrained by cognitive theories of how such structured, abstract and compositionally assembled representations and operations can be learned / induced from ‘raw’ observed data and the kinds of mechanisms that underlie their processing in actual natural language usage.”