Amsterdam Colloquium 2019


Workshop 1: Semantic Universals

Invited Speakers:

  • Terry Regier (Berkeley)
  • Suzi Lima (University of Toronto)

Susan Rothstein, who was to give one of the keynote lectures at the Semantic Universals workshop, passed away on the 30th of July 2019. She will be greatly missed at the workshop and in the field. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

Organizers: Floris Roelofsen (ILLC), Jakub Szymanik (ILLC) and Wataru Uegaki (Leiden)

In spite of extraordinary differences between languages, linguists have identified shared properties of all languages at many levels of linguistic analysis, e.g., phonology, syntax, and semantics. Linguistic universals are crucial for understanding human cognition. Because they are attested across different languages and communicative niches, they likely reflect general features of human cognitive makeup.

In formal semantics, research on linguistic universals has been highly successful, particularly within the domain of logical vocabulary (von Fintel & Matthewson 2008). Most notably, research has revealed that there are robust universals within the semantics of determiners across languages (e.g., Barwise & Cooper 1981; Keenan & Stavi 1986). Ongoing theoretical developments in formal semantics have provided new avenues for the investigation of semantic universals. The domains in which semantic universals have been explored in recent years include: the lexical encoding of modal meanings (e.g., Nauze 2008; Vander Klok 2013; Matthewson 2016), the semantics of clause-embedding predicates (e.g., Spector & Egré 2015; Theiler, Roelofsen & Aloni 2018; Uegaki 2019), the count-mass distinction and the semantics of measurement (e.g., Rothstein & Lima 2019) and the notion of connectedness as a general principle governing the lexical semantics of both content and logical words (Gärdenfors 2014; Chemla, Buccola & Dautriche 2019) among many others.

In addition to finding out what kind of universals hold across languages, an important question to address is why these universals hold. Explaining why a universal holds requires establishing a connection between language and a feature of the mind. Employing the methodologies of computational cognitive science, recent studies have investigated the cognitive basis underlying semantic universals (e.g., Kay and Regier 2003; Kemp and Regier 2012; Piantadosi, Tenenbaum, & Goodman 2016; Steinert-Threlkeld & Szymanik 2018; Steinert-Threlkeld 2019).

This workshop brings together semanticists working on cross-linguistic universals/variation and cognitive scientists investigating semantic universals from modelling and learning perspectives, and offers a platform for work that identifies new semantic universals or proposes new ways of explaining known universals.



Workshop 2: Super Linguistics

Invited speakers:

  • Cornelia Ebert (Frankfurt)
  • Gabriel Greenberg (UCLA)

Organizers: Philippe Schlenker (Paris) and Pritty Patel Grosz (Oslo)

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of what we may call “super linguistics”, which we define as the application of linguistic methodology and methodology inspired by linguistics (especially from the perspective of syntax and semantics) to diverse non- standard objects. Over the years, researchers have sought to apply such methodology to gestures (Giorgolo 2010, Ebert and Ebert 2014), music (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983, Rohrmeier 2011, Katz and Pesetsky 2011, Katz 2017, Schlenker 2017), dance (Napoli & Kraus 2015, Charnavel 2016, Patel-Grosz et al. 2018), non-verbal pictorial representations (Greenberg 2011, Abusch 2015), animal calls (Fitch and Hauser 2004, Yip 2006, Berwick et al. 2011, Schlenker et al. 2016), and even to systems without a directly observable syntax, such as reasoning (Mascarenhas and Koralus 2013, Sippel and Szymanik 2018) and concepts (Piantadosi et al. 2010, Buccola, Križ and Chemla 2017). Such novel investigations build on the synthesis of two insights from which contemporary formal linguistics was born: first, natural languages (and, by extension, the above-mentioned objects of study) can be analyzed as formal languages with an explicit syntax and semantics (e.g., Chomsky 1957, Montague 1970); second, they can simultaneously be approached as cognitive systems amenable to the methods of experimental psychology (see Rebuschat et al. 2011).

These investigations suggest that linguistics could profitably follow the lead of other major fields (such as physics or economics) in expanding its frontiers to new objects, ones that go beyond traditional aspects of human language. Some extensions of this sort are called for by language-internal considerations; for instance, the rich iconic components found in both sign language and co-speech gestures make it necessary to develop an explicit semantics for pictorial representations. Other extensions are insightful in that they highlight the differences between human language and other representational or communicative systems. Quite generally, by studying non-standard objects, it becomes possible for us to acquire new insights into what human language is and how it differs from other language-like systems. We thus achieve a much broader typology of syntactic and semantic systems in nature (and their relation to human language) than could be offered by standard formal linguistics. In so doing, this enterprise recaptures the old project of a general theory of signs or ‘semiotics’ (Morris 1938), but places it squarely within the framework of contemporary linguistics – with a unified methodology which is both formal and cognitive.

The workshop will feature invited and contributed talks (as well as posters) pertaining to this new but already diverse movement. To be considered, submissions should propose a clear formal analysis based on rich and detailed data pertaining to a non-standard object (such as those mentioned above).

Click here for some notes from the organizers regarding the reviewing process for the Super Linguistics Workshop