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Reference to individuals in natural language. Henri ëtte de Swart Barcelona, May 2005. What is this course about? . Reference to individuals in natural language What is reference? Why study reference to individuals in natural language? Across languages?

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reference to individuals in natural language

Reference to individuals in natural language

Henriëtte de Swart

Barcelona, May 2005

what is this course about
What is this course about?
  • Reference to individuals in natural language
  • What is reference?
  • Why study reference to individuals in natural language? Across languages?
  • Relevance for linguistics? For cognitive science?
  • Semantics: study of meaning expressed by elements of a language or combinations thereof.
  • What is meaning?
  • What is language?
what is meaning
What is meaning?
  • The red light means that you cannot go in.
  • {a,b,c} means ‘the set consisting of the elements a, b, and c.’
  • The French word “chien” means ‘dog.’
  • Do you know the meaning of the word hypochondriac?
  • To denote, to be described or defined as, sense, significance, acceptation, denotation.
not our job
Not our job..
  • No deeper meaning or inner significance.
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • No intentions, purposes, etc.
  • What do you mean by that look?
  • No natural meaning.
  • Those clouds mean rain.
semantics in linguistic theory
Semantics in linguistic theory
  • Natural language as a system of communication.
  • Function: transfer of information.
  • Communication implies speaker and hearer.
speaker hearer









Speech sound

language cognition world




concepts and denotations
Concepts and denotations






truth conditional and conceptual semantics
Truth conditional and conceptual semantics




Truth-conditional semantics

Conceptual semantics

beyond words
Beyond words…
  • Lexical semantics: meaning of words.
  • Beyond words: meaning of constituents, sentences, even discourses.
  • Relevance of structure:
  • ‘John hit Peter’  ‘Peter hit John’
  • Word order  Subject-Object relation  Agent-Patient relation.
  • Principle of Compositionality of meaning: the meaning of a complex whole is a function of the meaning of the composing parts, and the way in which they are put together.
  • Lexical and structural information jointly determine the meaning of constituents and sentences.
variation across languages
Variation across languages
  • Natural languages vary: lexicon, sounds, syntactic structure.
  • Generative linguistics: universal grammar (innate) and parametrisation.
  • Optimality theory (OT): universal constraints (innate/learnt) and different orders of constraints.
pro drop
  • Some languages allow ‘empty’ subjects (e.g. Italian), others don’t (e.g. English).
  • Piove [Italiaans]
  • It is raining [English]
  • Pro-drop parameter: on or off (child has to learn the right setting). Assumes empty categories in linguistic representations.
competition in ot soft constraints
Competition in OT: ‘soft constraints’
  • Subject constraint: ‘Every sentence has a subject.’
  • Meaning constraint: ‘Every word in the sentence must be meaningful.’
  • Prince & Smolensky (1997): relative weight of constraints determines English vs. Italian.
  • English: Subject C >> Meaning C
  • Italian : Meaning C >> Subject C.
typology in ot

Typology in OT


no pro-drop

variation in meaning
Variation in meaning
  • Basic assumption: human cognition is universal.
  • Knowledge of first-order logic or equivalent leads to similar claims about entailments and other inference relations.
  • Prediction: semantics is always universal.
  • No variation in meaning?????
locus of semantic variation
Locus of semantic variation
  • Semantic variation arises:
  • (i) in the distribution of labor between forms and meanings.
  • (ii) at the syntax-semantics interface.
  • (iii) at the semantics-pragmatics interface.
semantic variation i
Semantic Variation I
  • Tense and aspect. E.g. English Progressive vs. French Simple Present tense.
  • John is eating an apple
  • #John eats an apple/ John bikes to school.
  • Jean est en train de manger une pomme.
  • Jean mange une pomme/Jean va à l’école en vélo.
perfect tenses
Perfect Tenses
  • ‘Universal’ Perfect; for or since
  • Mary has lived in London for three years (now).
  • Marie a vécu à Londres pendant trois ans (#maintenant).
  • Marie vit à Londres depuis trois ans.
  • Mary lives in London since three years.
perfect tenses in discourse
Perfect tenses in discourse
  • French uses Passé Composé to tell a story (e.g. Camus); English does not; Dutch does sometimes.
  • Aujourd’hui, maman est morte (PC). Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas (PR). J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile (PC) (…).

Mother died today (SP). Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know (PR). I had a telegram from the home (SP): (...).

Vandaag is moeder gestorven (VTT). Of misschien gisteren, ik weet het niet (OTT). Ik ontving een telegram uit het gesticht (OVT): (...)

questions about tense aspect
Questions about tense/aspect
  • Questions about tense and aspect in cross-linguistic semantics.
  • What forms are available in a language?
  • How are truth-conditional meanings distributed over available forms?
  • Are certain meanings only available as ‘hidden’ aspectual shifts (coercion)?
  • How are the forms used in discourse (dynamic semantics, pragmatics)?
semantic variation ii
Semantic variation II
  • Meaning of determiners. E.g. Dutch Sommige vs. English some.
  • Some flowers grew behind the shed.
  • #Sommige bloemen groeiden achter de schuur.
  • ‘Some do, others don’t’
bare plurals
Bare plurals
  • English bare plurals: existential or generic.
  • Dogs were playing in the garden. 
  • Dogs like to play. Gen
  • Bare plurals in Romance: existential, not generic.
  • Elefanti di colore bianco hanno creato in passato grande curiosità.
  • Elephants of color white have raised in the past great curiosity.
  • *Ucelli di zone paludose sono intelligenti.
  • Birds of the marshlands are intelligent.
  • Gli ucelli di zone paludose sono intelligenti.
  • No bare plurals, but indefinite plurals.
  • Only existential, not generic (like Italian).
  • Des enfants jouaient dans la rue.
  • Indef-pl children were playing in the street.
  • *Des enfants aiment le chocolat.
  • Indef-pl children like chocolate.
  • Les enfants aiment le chocolat.
  • Incorporation in West Greenlandic, Hindi, Hungarian, etc, not in English, Romance: direct relation between verb and object.
  • Arnajarq eqalut-tur-p-u-q. [WG]

A.abs salmon-eat-Ind-[-tr]-3sg.

‘Arnajaraq eats salmon/is a salmon-eater.’

questions about bare plurals
Questions about bare plurals
  • How are bare plurals related to other NPs/DPs (scope, anaphora, quantificational force, referential force, incorporation).
  • How are bare plurals related to bare singulars? To bare mass nouns? To indefinite plurals as in French?
  • If generic reference is strongly related to ‘bareness’, why do Romance bare plurals not allow generic readings?
semantic variation iii
Semantic Variation III
  • “Despite the simplicity of the one-place connective of propositional logic (p is true if and only if p is not true) and of the laws of inference in which it participates (e.g. the Law of Double Negation: from p infer p, and vice versa), the form and function of negative statements in ordinary language are far from simple and transparent.” Horn (1989)
negative quantifiers
Negative quantifiers
  • ‘Split’ scope in Germanic languages.
  • Iedereen is geen genie. Dutch
  • Everyone is no genius (split: )
  • Jeder Arzt hat kein Auto.
  • Every doctor has no car.
split scope with modals
‘Split’ scope with modals.
  • Ze hoeven geen verpleegkundigen te ontslaan.
  • They need no nurses to fire 
  • Hanna sucht kein Buch
    • De re: there is no book that Hanna is looking for.
    • De dicto: the object of H’s quest is not a book.
    • ‘split’: it is not the case that what H. is looking for is a book.
double negation and negative concord
Double Negation and Negative Concord
  • Multiple negations: DN and NC
  • Nobody said nothing. (Eng) xy
  • Niemand zei niets. (Dutch) xy
  • Nadie miraba a nadie. (Spa) xy
  • Nessuno ha parlato con nessuno. (Ital) xy
  • Personne n’a rien dit. (Fr) ambiguous
questions about dn and nc
Questions about DN and NC
  • Negative Concord raises problems for the principle of compositionality of meaning: two negative expressions, but only one semantic negation.
  • How are double negation and negative concord languages related? (typology of negation).
aims of this course
Aims of this course
  • Learn semantic tools to address reference to individuals in natural language: type theory, lambda abstraction, type shift, DRT.
  • Learn to use these tools to address questions about reference to individuals in a particular language/ in a cross-linguistic perspective.
  • Enjoy doing natural language semantics!