LSA 203: Crosslinguistic compositional semantics

Maria Bittner | session 2 | MW 8:30 – 10:15, 101 Moffitt Hall

Natural languages vary widely in their morphology and syntax. For example, English is an isolating language with rigid word order and a grammatical system of tenses and modals. At the other extreme, Kalaallisut (Eskimo-Aleut: Greenland) is a polysynthetic language with "free" word order and a tense-less grammatical system that marks illocutionary mood and centering. Nevertheless, a discourse in one language can be accurately translated into any other language. An influential approach to crosslinguistic compositional semantics attributes this semantic convergence to an abstract syntactic level of "Logical Form" (LF), which on this view serves as the input to universal compositional rules. However, there is still no formally precise syntactic theory that would generate the requisite input LFs independently of the desired semantic output. In this course we will pursue an alternative approach, which interprets the surface form of each language directly, as is, by incremental update. This approach captures semantic convergence in semantic terms — such as universal discourse-initial defaults, universal ontology, discourse reference, and so on — which all natural languages agree on even when they accomplish their shared communicative goals by radically different grammatical means.

Reading: Selected materials available online.

Prerequisites: This course presupposes working knowledge of predicate logic, type theory, and some theory of compositional semantics (LF-based or direct, static or dynamic). Knowledge of some theory of discourse dynamics (e.g. DRT) will be helpful, but is not required.

Areas of linguistics: Syntax, semantics, and morphology

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