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.”

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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.

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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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Handbook of African American Language

The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Edited by Sonja Lanehart. Oxford University Press. 2015.

From the Publisher’s description: “The goal of The Oxford Handbook of African American Language is to provide readers with a wide range of analyses of both traditional and contemporary work on language use in African American communities in a broad collective. The Handbook offers a survey of language and its uses in African American communities from a wide range of contexts organized into seven sections: Origins and Historical Perspectives; Lects and Variation; Structure and Description; Child Language Acquisition and Development; Education; Language in Society; and Language and Identity. It is a handbook of research on African American Language (AAL) and, as such, provides a variety of scholarly perspectives that may not align with each other — as is indicative of most scholarly research. The chapters in this book “interact” with one another as contributors frequently refer the reader to further elaboration on and references to related issues and connect their own research to related topics in other chapters within their own sections and the handbook more generally to create dialogue about AAL, thus affirming the need for collaborative thinking about the issues in AAL research.” A selection of chapters: 

Syntax and Semantics: Lisa J. Green and Walter Sistrunk.

The Systematic Marking of Tense, Modality and Aspect in African American Language: Charles E. DeBose.

Dialect Switching and Mathematical Reasoning Tests: Implications for Early Educational AchievementJ. Michael Terry, Randall Hendrick, Evangelos Evangelou, and Richard L. Smith. Related article in Lingua.

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Methodologies in Semantic Fieldwork


Edited by Ryan Bochnak and Lisa Matthewson. Website with table of content.
“This volume discusses methodological issues in conducting elicitation on semantic topics in a fieldwork situation. In twelve chapters discussing 11 language families from four continents, authors draw on their own fieldwork experience, pairing explicit methodological proposals with concrete examples of their use in the field. Several chapters cover issues specific to semantic topics such as modality, comparison, tense and aspect, and definiteness, while others focus on elicitation techniques more generally, addressing methodological issues such as the creation of elicitation plans, the choice of language in which to conduct elicitation, and the status of translation tasks. Together, the chapters of this volume demonstrate that elicitation on semantic topics, when conducted following sound methodologies, can and does produce reliable results.”

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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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The Grammar of individuation and counting

Suzi Oliveira de Lima: The grammar of individuation and counting. 2014 UMass dissertation.


Suzi Oliveira de Lima: From personal website

Are there languages that do not draw a grammatical distinction between count nouns and mass nouns? Some scholars have said there aren’t. Others have claimed that there are languages where all non-referential nouns are mass nouns. Henry Davis and Lisa Matthewson (1999) argued that in the Salish language St’át’imcets, all non-referential nouns are count nouns. Suzi Lima has been investigating another language with this property: the Tupi language Yudja (Juruna family). Lima’s dissertation is a game changer in fieldwork methodology: her findings do not just rely on the by now standard elicitation tasks for semantic fieldwork, but use a wider range of experimental techniques, including quantity judgment tasks and production and comprehension studies with children and adults.

Related work from SULA 8: Andrea Wilhelm made a case that in Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan) all nouns are referential. Nouns either denote individuals or kinds, they do not have predicative denotations at all. Amy Rose Deal suggested that in Nez Perce (Niimiipuutímt, Sahaptian), all notional mass nouns can have both count and mass denotations. What is emerging from this cross-linguistic work, then, is that languages have options for construing noun denotations. The possible options seem to be: reference to individuals, reference to kinds, singular, plural, or number-neutral atomic properties, and non-atomic properties. There are repercussions of whatever option is chosen by a language. A language that has no mass nouns should not have measure phrases, for example, and this is so for Yudja, as Lima shows. A language where all nouns are referential should not have intersective adjectives or restrictive relative clauses, and this is so for Dëne Sųłiné, as Wilhelm shows.  

Most recent work on the count-mass distinction in natural languages responds in one way or other to Gennaro Chierchia’s influential Reference to Kinds Across Languages, which is one of the most downloaded papers for Natural Language Semantics. With over 1400 citations, it is also one of the most cited papers in semantics. 

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Odors are expressible in language

Asifa Majid & Niclas Burenhult: Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition 130(2), 2014.


Asifa Majid. Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

“From Plato to Pinker there has been the common belief that the experience of a smell is impossible to put into words. Decades of studies have confirmed this observation. But the studies to date have focused on participants from urbanized Western societies. Cross-cultural research suggests that there may be other cultures where odors play a larger role. The Jahai of the Malay Peninsula are one such group. … Our findings show that the long-held assumption that people are bad at naming smells is not universally true. Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.”

Also: Ewelina Wnuk & Asifa Majid: Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq. Cognition 131 (1), 2014.

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A village invents a language on its own

From Australian Geographic

Credit: Carmel O'Shannessy)

Credit: Carmel O’Shannessy

“Light Warlpiri is a newly-evolved language spoken by about 300 people in the Lajamanu Aboriginal community, located at the edge of the Tanami Desert, about 890 km south of Darwin. The language combines elements of English, Kriol (an English-based creole that emerged in the late nineteenth-century) and Warlpiri, an endangered traditional language that is spoken in central Australia by about 4000 people. The Australian linguist Dr Carmel O’Shannessy, who speaks Warlpiri, discovered the existence of Light Warlpiri while working as a teacher and linguist at Lajamanu in the late 1990s. In a paper published this month in the journal Language, Carmel documents for the first time the grammatical structure of the language and discusses the social context that led to its emergence.”

How could a group of children ‘agree’ on a language that is different from that spoken by the adults around them? In his work on conventions, the philosopher David Lewis developed an analysis of tacit agreements of this kind that was inspired by the economist Thomas Schelling.  

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Lisa Matthewson: Semantic variation

Lisa Matthewson.

LisaAug13smaller“I am interested in cross-linguistic variation in the semantics and pragmatics, and what variation (or the lack of it) tells us about Universal Grammar. I have been doing fieldwork on St’át’imcets (Lillooet Salish) since 1992, and on Gitksan (Tsimshianic) since 2010. I have worked on a range of areas in semantics and the syntax/semantics interface, including determiners, quantifiers, adverbs, tense, aspect, modals, evidentials, mood, discourse particles and presuppositions. I am also interested in the methodology of semantic fieldwork, and in native language preservation and oral history. I am involved in community language preservation initiatives, including contributing to the First Voices website for Northern St’át’imcets. Visit our website for storyboards for semantic elicitation! Totem Field Storyboards.”

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