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. All papers are free for anyone to read, share, and annotate.

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.

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.