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New Frontiers of Formal Semantics

Advanced Grant Project, European Research Council, 2013-2018

PI: Philippe Schlenker


In the last 40 years, formal semantics has established itself as a sophisticated field with important scientific achievements: explicit logical models of meaning have been constructed to account for rich and subtle data; a detailed interface between syntax and semantics has been worked out; and cross-linguistic and psycholinguistic results have been increasingly incorporated into this research program. Yet the relevance of formal semantics to the broader enterprise of cognitive and social science is not always obvious. This is partly in part because the formal rigor that semanticists justifiably cherish can make their work hard to decipher. But there are substantive reasons as well. First, the lingua franca of cognitive science lies in part in the question of the modular decomposition of the mind; but if anything, semantics has moved away from issues of modular organization: phenomena of increasing subtlety have been captured by models of growing sophistication (e.g. with trivalent, dynamic and more recently multi-dimensional logics), but these models typically lump together all aspects of meaning in a big 'semantics-cum-pragmatics'. Second, formal semantics has to some extent remained parochial: even though formal semantic research does actively study studies under-represented languages, it almost never crosses the frontiers of spoken language – despite the fact that questions of obvious interest arise in sign language; and formal semantics has rarely addressed the question of the relation between linguistic meaning and other cognitive systems, be it in humans or in related species.

While strictly adhering to the three-pronged methodology of contemporary formal semantics (with a formal, a comparative, and when needed an experimental component), we will seek to expand the frontiers of the field, with one leading question: what is the modular organization of meaning?  (i) First, we  will help establish a new subfield of sign language formal semantics, with an initial focus on anaphora; we will ask whether the interaction between an abstract anaphoric module and the special geometric (and iconic) properties of sign language can account for the similarities and differences between sign and spoken language pronouns. (ii) Second, we will revisit issues of modular decomposition between semantics and pragmatics by trying to disentangle modules that have been lumped together in recent semantic theorizing, in particular in the domains of presupposition, anaphora and conventional implicatures.  (iii) Third, we will ask whether some semantic modules might have analogues or applications in other cognitive systems by investigating (a) possible precursors of semantics in primate vocalizations and gestures, and (b) possible reflexes of pragmatics, and in particular of focus, in music. These three goals interact: studying them in a unified project will make new questions and techniques available in each. (a) possible precursors of semantics in primate vocalizations, and (b) possible applications of focus in music.  These three goals interact: studying them from a unified project will make new techniques available in each.