VIDI Project FICTION (2016-2021)

The Language of Fiction and Imagination

When I tell you a wizard has been helping me write my grant proposal, you’ll think I’ve gone crazy. But when a novelist writes about a school for wizards in the English countryside, nobody bats an eye. In the context of a fiction, all the usual expectations of truth and reference are out the window, yet we can still interpret the text and even be emotionally involved with the characters described. The aim of the present project is to develop a formally explicit account of fiction interpretation that explains this fundamental difference between fiction and everyday communication.

The main hurdle is that formal semantics – the study of linguistic meaning in terms of truth and reference – starts to limp badly when it comes to, say, non-referring names or inconsistent plots. Hence, literary scholars turn to cognitive semantics – a growing movement in linguistics that seeks to replace logical formalism with a cognitively oriented view of meaning. Unfortunately, this entails giving up the benefits of formal semantics, like its successful interfaces with generative syntax, computational linguistics, and psycholinguistics. To overcome this dilemma, I build a bridge between the disjoint research traditions of cognitive and formal semantics. Leveraging recent advances in Discourse Representation Theory, I’ll develop a new, cognitively oriented formal semantic framework. In this framework, everyday communication involves dynamic belief updates, while fiction involves the reader "updating her imagination."

The project has three parts: (A) developing a formal model of mental states, including imagination and belief; (B) formalizing the idea of speech acts triggering imagination updates; and (C) figuring out what linguistic features distinguish fiction from other types of discourse. Putting these components together provides us with a cognitive/formal semantics of fiction that will shed new light on a wide variety of current debates about fiction, imagination, and narrative style.