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.  

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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).  

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SULA: not just any conference

Sula bird (© Lynn Weinert)

Sula bird (© Lynn Weinert)

I just came back from SULA 8. There is no other conference where long-held beliefs about semantics get challenged in just about every talk. This is the conference where you see where our field is moving. Semantics of Under-Represented Languages in the Americas (SULA) 8 was held at the University of British Columbia this year. The conference was founded in 2001 to bring together researchers working on (spoken or signed) languages or dialects of the Americas which do not have an established tradition of formal semantic work. It solicits work that involves primary fieldwork or experimentation as well as formal analysis. SULA has several features that make it unique. There is always a session with members of the communities whose languages are being investigated. This is why SULA is usually held in the Americas. At SULA 1, one of the community representatives was Jessie Little Doe Baird from the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project. This year’s representative was Peter Jacobs of the Skwxwu7mesh Nation. There are always graduate students among the invited speakers of SULA. There are also invited commentators (like me) who are not themselves fieldworkers, and there often are invited speakers who are not primarily semanticists: SULA 1 had Ken Hale as one of the invited speakers, for example, and SULA 8 featured Karen Rice.

Here is the website for SULA 8, and here are links to the programs and proceedings of earlier SULAs: SULA 1 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (2001). SULA 2 at the University of British Columbia (2003). SULA 3 at the University at Buffalo (2005). SULA 4 at the Universidade de São Paulo (2007). SULA 5 at Harvard/MIT (2009). SULA 6 at the University of Manchester (2011). SULA 7 at Cornell University (2012). SULA 9 at UC Santa Cruz (2016). 

There have been a couple of descendants of SULA: SULA-bar at the University of Manchester (2011). TripleA 1 (The Semantics of African, Asian, and Austronesian Languages), Tübingen (2014).

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Proceedings | Amsterdam Colloquium 2013

 Amsterdam Colloquium 2013.

I didn’t submit a paper for the proceedings, but here are my slides: Modality and the semantics of embedding.

Kratzer: Semantics of Embedding

My talk was the last talk in a workshop on modality. I started out with an overview of some major changes in our understanding of the semantics of modality before moving on to my special topic, the semantics of embedding.

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Sinn und Bedeutung 18: Videos

Sinn und Bedeutung 18.

Benjamin Spector, Corien Bay & Emar Maier, Guillaume Thomas, Andreea Nicolae, Florian Schwarz & Jacopo Romoli, Maribel Romero, Berit Gehrke & Louise McNally, Lelia Glass, Moshe Levin & Daniel Margulis, Gregory Scontras, Cheng-Yu Edwin Tsai, Kenneth May, & Maria Polinsky, Yaron McNabb & Doris Penka, Kristina Liefke, Gennaro Chierchia, David Barner, Salvador Mascarenhas, Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine, Jeremy Kuhn, Karlos Arregi, Itamar Francez, & Martina Martinovic, Mythili Menon & Roumyana Pancheva.

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