The spontaneous logicality of language: how grammar creates meaning

September 16, 2016
04:30 PM - 05:30 PM
Morey 321

Dr. Gennaro Chierchia
Harvard University
Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics

Humans communicate through language: verbal languages, or sign languages. How do words and sentences or gestures acquire meaning? One way to think about it is to view language as a labeling device: nouns are used as conventional labels for things (e.g., the English noun ‘table’ is a label for, well, tables) and verbs are labels for actions (e.g. ‘to break’ labels actions like demolishing, shattering, and the like); and in virtue of these conventional associations, sequences of words can be used to convey facts about the world, or to tell stories (e.g. “One day, John broke his beautiful table”). 

I am going to argue for a different view. There are two main types of words in language. Words like table or break, which are known as “content words”, indeed have primarily a labeling/referential function. But then there are words like or, if, no, even, any,… often called “function words”. I think that meaning stems primarily from the latter. It is in function words that a sort “spontaneous logic” hides, through which we give shape to our thoughts. So the path is from grammar to meaning via logic. I will illustrate this point by showing how many sentences that are perceived as “ill formed” or “agrammatical” owe their marginal status to being logical contradictions (albeit, subconscious ones). This leads to a fairly radical re-thinking of how grammar works.

This event is sponsored by the Department of Linguistics and the Humanities Project, a program of the Humanities Center.

About the presenter:

Gennaro Chierchia, Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics, Harvard University

Ph.D., Linguistics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.

Dissertation title: Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of Infinitives and Gerunds Committee: Barbara H. Partee (chair), Emmon Bach, F. Roger Higgins, Edmund Gettier

1977 Laurea cum laude, Philosophy, University of Rome

Thesis title: Da Carnap a Montague. Rilevanza Linguistica della Semantica dei Mondi Possibili (‘From Carnap to Montague. Linguistic relevance of possible worlds semantics’). Advisors: Tullio De Mauro, Carlo Cellucci

Gennaro Chierchia studies how meaning takes shape in language. A common thread in his work is the idea that logic (a way of drawing inferences) spontaneously grows and latches on to the syntactic structures produced by our capacity for recursive computation. This ‘natural logic’ gives a special power to our ability to use language to communicate and refer, a power not found in other species.Some more specific recurring themes are properties and predication (control/raising/ de se attributions), Noun Phrase structure (quantified vs. ‘bare’ nominals, mass vs. count), anaphora and presuppositions, implicatures and polarity phenomena. He is also very interested in pursuing these topics by experimental means.

Category: Humanities Project Events