Super Semantics Spring 2018


(LINGUAE, Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS; DEC, Ecole Normale Supérieure)

Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris - March-May 2018


Emmanuel Cheml(LINGUAE, LSCP CNRS) Email: chemla at
Salvador Mascarenhas (LINGUAE, Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS; DEC, Ecole Normale Supérieure) Email:
Philippe Schlenker (LINGUAE, Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS; New York University) Email:


While formal semantics has been a success story of contemporary linguistics, it has been narrowly focused on spoken language. Systematic extensions of its research program have recently been explored: beyond spoken language, beyond human language, beyond language proper, and even beyond systems with an overt syntax. First, the development of sign language semantics calls for systems that integrate logical semantics with a rich iconic component. This semantics-with-iconicity is also crucial to understand the interaction between co-speech gestures and logical operators, an important point of comparison for sign languages. Second, several recent articles have proposed analyses of the semantics/pragmatics of primate alarm calls, an important topical extension of semantics. Third, recent research has developed a semantics/pragmatics for music, based in part on insights from iconic semantics. Finally, the methods of formal semantics have newly been applied to reasoning and to concepts, which do not have a syntax that can be directly observed. The overall result is a far broader typology of meaning operations in nature than was available a few years ago. The course will offer a survey of some of these results, with topics that will change from year to year.

Time and place

Wednesday, 2-3:30pm (see below for details), Salle Théodule Ribot, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d'Ulm.


Students should have an ability to follow formal analyses, and they should thus have taken a serious introduction to formal logic or to formal semantics, or have significant experience with mathematical theories. If in doubt, please check with the instructors.


Participants will be invited to work on small projects (e.g. literature reviews, formal analyses of a set of phenomena, proposals for experiments ). Specifically:
(i) a 2-page squib [= short discussion] will be due early in the semester;
(ii) a mini-term paper (at most 10 pages) will be due at the end of the semester.

Tentative squib deadline: May 16th [by email to chemla at,,], BUT students writing squibs 'Super Semantics in Communication' should do everything possible to submit their squib by April 18 or earlier (so as to get maximum feedback).

Please register online if you wish to attend the course (whether for credit or not) by filling out this ( short!) form. This way we'll have your email address!

Relevant as well: Stanislas Dehaene's course on 'Origines du langage et singularité de l'espèce humaine', starting January 8, 2018

Course structure

Material for the class (readings, slides) will either (i) be linked to the sessions below, or (ii) be made available in this Dropbox folder.
(If you have difficulties accessing the folder, please contact the instructors).

Part A. Super Semantics in communication (Schlenker)
1. Sign language semantics
2. Signs vs. gestures
3. Gesture semantics
4. Primate semantics
5. Music semantics

Part B. Super Semantics in thought (Chemla - Mascarenhas)

Sessions (still tentative; to be adapted as we go)

Part A. Super Semantics in communication (Schlenker)

[The results described below are new and/or summarized with a new perspective, hence numerous self-citations - with apologies.]

 March 7:  Sign language semantics I

Optional background: Zucchi: Formal semantics of sign languages

Main reading: Schlenker, Philippe: to appear,  Visible Meaning: Sign Language and the Foundations of Semantics. Final version to appear as a target article (with peer commentaries) in Theoretical Linguistics.

Shorter version available as:  Schlenker, Philippe: 2016. Logical Visibility and Iconicity in Sign Language Semantics: Theoretical Perspectives [Handbook Article]. Manuscript, Institut Jean-Nicod and New York University
 March 14:  Sign language semantics II 
 March 21: Sign language semantics III

 March 28: Gesture semantics I
Main reading: Schlenker, Philippe: 2017, Iconic Pragmatics. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 
 April 4: Gesture Semantics II
Optional background: Abner et al. 2015: Gestures for linguists. [pdf]

Main reading: Schlenker, Philippe: 2017, Gestural Semantics. [LingBuzz]

Optional reading: Schlenker, Philippe: 2017, Gestural Grammar. [LingBuzz]
 April 11: Primate semantics [Campbell's monkeys and Titi monkeys]
Optional background: Zuberbühler 2009, Survivor Signals.

Main reading: Schlenker, Philippe; Chemla, Emmanuel; Zuberbühler, Klaus: 2017,  Semantics and Pragmatics of Monkey Communication. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. [pdf] 

Longer version: Schlenker, Philippe; Chemla, Emmanuel; Schel, Anne; Fuller, James; Gautier, Jean-Pierre; Kuhn, Jeremy; Veselinović, Dunja; Arnold, Kate; Cäsar, Cristiane; Keenan, Sumir; Lemasson, Alban; Ouattara, Karim; Ryder, Robin; Zuberbühler, Klaus: 2016, Formal Monkey Linguistics. Target article in Theoretical Linguistics.     Preprint version 
Shorter version:  Schlenker, Philippe; Chemla, Emmanuel; Zuberbühler, Klaus: 2016, What do Monkey Calls Mean? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 12, 894–904. Penultimate version [pdf] 
 April 18: Music semantics

Optional background: Jackendoff and Lerdahl 2006, The Capacity for Music. 

Main reading: Schlenker, Philippe: 2017, Outline of Music Semantics.  Music Perception.  [LingBuzz]  
[This is a summary of Prolegomena to Music Semantics, which discusses several issues that are omitted here]  

Longer version: Schlenker, Philippe: 2016, Prolegomena to Music Semantics. [LingBuzz]


Part B. Super Semantics in thought (Chemla - Mascarenhas)

May 2
May 9
May 16 Deadline for the squib
May 23
May 30