I am on the record as being a cheerleader for crossdisciplinary research. One personal and perhaps not that interesting reason for that is that every time I stretch outside my comfort zone I learn something which excites, or titillates and which allows me new insights for my own local research project. But the more urgent reason in the case of semantics and ontology is that I believe there are scientific questions that simply cannot be answered satisfactorily without linguists and neuropsychologists comparing results and joining forces. The scientific question I am referring to of course is the question of creative meaning composition, and how human minds pull off the amazing trick of using symbols to create meaning/meanings in an open-ended way.
Currently it also seems to me, and to the members of the OASIS network, that there is simply not enough crosstalk between theorists of meaning (semanticists) and the fields of syntax on the one hand and psycholinguistics/neurolinguistics on the other. We care about different data and we ask different questions about it. So is this unavoidable, and if not, what can a conference like OASIS do to start to redress the situation? More on that at the end of this blog entry.
Here are my thoughts about what went down this week and what I learned, as a way of sharing information for all of you out there who were not able to be there. But bear in mind, that, as usual for this blog, this is a personal and highly opinionated riff on the contents of the conference mediated by my own idiosyncratic interests.
Is Syntax Real?
David Adger (Queen Mary University of London) kicked off the first day with a class/tutorial on What Syntacticians Think for the non-syntacticians in the room. Adger is an excellent speaker and is extremely engaging when presenting syntax for the non specialist. Adger’s remit was to convince the crowd that syntax is real, and that once the full range of data is acknowledged, one simply cannot make do with just sequence, memorized chunks, and transitional probabilities. But here our failure as OASIS became immediately obvious—- nearly everyone in the room was already familiar with syntax, and with Adger’s take on it. (We had utterly failed to reach out beyond our discipline. So poor Adger instead had to talk to a basically sympathetic, already clued-in crowd.) We tried to draw out some more contentious issues in the question period. Here’s one that provoked an interesting flurry: He was at pains to emphasize that the syntacticians `derivational talk’ refers to issues of logical dependency and is not intended to refer to real time operations. The statements describing the grammar are entirely logically separable from the heuristics that are employed to decode incoming speech and code our expressive output using that grammar. Ramchand intervened to remark that that was all very well and good, but then you still owe us a theory of the relationship between the two, otherwise you are in a prediction vacuum. One could argue that EVERY SINGLE piece of data that you might use as your evidence for theory building, is a piece of psycholinguistic behaviour, either of production or comprehension and that since there is no way of accessing competence directly except through performance manifestations in a variety of task sensitive contexts, we cannot proceed without a theory of how processing relates to the grammar, if we are to have any data at all. Ramchand then goaded the speaker by saying that many generativists claim that the grammar does not make direct claims about real brains in real time, but then in practice, they lapse, and use precisely these kinds of considerations in justifying the shape of their theories. A lively argument ensued. Which was inconclusive and had to be forcibly broken up by the chair of the session, much to the disappointment of the audience.
A Living Inter-disciple
The second talk/class was by Naama Friedmann who is a self-described neuropsychologist of language from Tel Aviv University. Friedmann had a rapt and captive audience of linguists who told us all the stuff we wanted to hear. For example, her studies on Specific Language Impairment (SLI) in Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic show a very particular profile of impairment for a sizeable percentage of those officially diagnosed with SLI (language impairment with otherwise normal intelligence). It turns out that they simply cannot handle sentences where the relative linearization of two DPs violates the standard positions expected from thematic role under normal word order conditions. In syntax jargon, they can’t do crossing movement and sentences like (1) and (2) below are simply impossible for them to comprehend and produce (and resumptive pronouns don’t help, and neither does prosody).
(1) Which girl did grandma kiss?
(2) The girl who grandma kissed is smiling.
It can also be shown that it is not working memory that is the problem, since subject relatives with long displacement do not cause the same kind of problem. The direction of the movement is also not relevant, since this work was also replicated for Israeli Sign Language where one of the movements was rightward. SLI exists for signers as well, and displacement of this type is the one specific thing that they cannot do. Wonderfully and heart-warmingly, Friedmann has developed teaching/intervention strategies that actually are successful and allow people with this diagnosis to achieve excellent functionality via explicit instruction. This is in and of itself an interesting fact, as well as being a useful one to know.
What causes SLI? Not surprisingly, it appears to have some genetic sources. But it is also environmentally triggered and can be affected by events early in life that have profound effects on neural developmental. Staggeringly, due to a very specific baby formula disaster, a group of hundreds of babies in Israel suffered severe B1/thiamine deficiency in their first year of life and were hospitalized, treated, and subsequently followed throughout their lives. Ninety-seven percent of this cohort subsequently developed SLI. Thiamine plays a central role in cerebral metabolism and a structural role in membrane structure and synaptic transmission. It turns out that thiamine deficiency in the first year of life leads to this particular kind of syntactic SLI which persists into adulthood, even though thiamine levels were subsequently normalized. The 1styear of life window was also implicated in their study of deaf children of hearing parents. The kids who received hearing aids within the first year of life went on to develop normal syntax, but those for whom the discovery of the hearing problem was delayed, also developed this particular form of syntactic SLI. So, weirdly, for acquiring one’s first language, there are developmental events happening in the first year of life that are necessary conditions for acquiring the ability to acquire flexible linearization of certain complex syntactic representations. It is really interesting that the ability/deficiency is so specific and relates to complex syntactic processing and yet the seeds of it are necessarily sown early and affected by input as well as nutrition affecting brain development.
Here’s another cool thing. Suppose you were interested in whether the tendency to give an exhaustive answer to a Wh-question, versus a `mention one’ answer to a Wh-question is a matter of semantics/linguistic form or of pragmatics, you might set up an experiment to compare the responses of populations with documented deficits in theory of mind with populations that have no such deficit. The experiment that Friedmann and colleagues did involved both simple Wh-questions and multiple Wh-questions, together with pictures. So imagine a picture of different people holding different fruits (and some holding non-fruits). You are given the following questions and have to provide answers:
(3) Simple: Who is holding a fruit?
(4) Multiple: Who is holding what?
It turns out that Theory of Mind impaired people do not consistently give exhaustive answers to simple Wh-questions as in (3), unlike the controls who tend to do so. This suggests that the choice between giving an exhaustive answer or a mention one answer is pragmatic and involves reasoning about other people’s reasons for asking the question. But here comes the really interesting part: when it comes to multiple Wh questions, everyone, even the Theory-of-Mind impaired participants, gave exhaustive answers for the multiple Wh-question. So there has to be something about the syntactic/semantic/linguistic form for this type of question that demands exhaustivity.
Events, Event Types and Connecting Verb Names to the World
Sudha Arunachalam (New York University) reported on a series of experiments she has been doing on children’s acquisition of event concepts in the form of event nominals (where there is on the surface a mismatch between the nature of the referent and the canonical syntactic category that realises it). It turns out that kids’ beliefs about the meaning of event concepts differ from adults in a number of systematic ways. In an experiment in which George Giraffe wants to learn the word nap, children were instructed to point to the picture that would help George learn the new word. It turns out that children are perfectly cool with nouns like nap or party denoting events, but they also seem to have a more rigid criterial association between the event and the prototypical objects that the event usually involves. So in the case of nap children seemed to think that a nap was an event that required a bed, or it doesn’t count as a nap (although they were clear that a nap was not in fact a bed). In general, I think that the Gavagai problem for verbs is even more severe than it is for nouns. Are there cognitive tendencies for what situational properties are associated with the verb name kids are learning? It seems like identity conditions for events are harder to spell out than those for objects. Could it be that kids systematically latch on to object participant properties as a way of classifying and categorizing events for the purposes of verb word learning? Nicola Guardino (ISTC – CNR) talked in a rich detailed way about how events are distinguished and classifie. In truth, the world is extremely rich in the sensory detail it presents to us, and the common sense idea of an event in the world involves a host of contextual information in addition to the core and non core participants invoked by the predicate. The interesting linguistic question here is about names of events and what they get associated with, in particular the in which our attention is focused on certain aspects of the situation and not others for the purposes of categorization and naming. According to Guarino, there are different levels of involvement of event participants and a separation between focused vs. backgrounded subparts of events, but importantly there is a further separation between event and the context it is embedded in. Theorizing about cognitive classification is surely relevant for understanding the process of concept acquisition, and also for understanding b the pattern of verb types and verb alternations that are possible when it comes to naming events in language. This turns out to be relevant to the problem of how to define minimal situational exemplifiers for a particular proposition that can feed a coherent notion of content. Angelika Kratzer(UMass) participated via skype and launched the defence of her version of situational truth making in the face of Kit Fine’s version of truthmaker semantics. The debate between the two is relevant to the discussion about event classification and naming. The disagreement centres on whether it is possible to get a coherent notion of Contentfrom truthmaking, if one assumes that verification of a proposition by a situation is generally taken to be persistent — if any superset of a verifier is also a verifier. In other words, if a situation verifies a proposition then any super-situation of that situation verifies that proposition. This means that if you want to understand the Content of John swimming one kilometre, you need something better than just the whole world which has this situation as a subpart. Intuitively, you want something more minimal, something that is justthe situation that verifies John’s swimming one kilometre without any extraneous unnecessary bits. And here is where the disagreement comes in. Kit Fine thinks that if you start with a notion of verification that is inherited upwards then the job of defining minimal verification in this sense is just too hard, and cannot be cashed out in terms of situational mereologies. He thus proposes to make verification exact (so that it doesn’t persist for supersets), and makes the fact of some situation being a truthmaker or falsitymaker for a proposition a primitive. Kratzer disagrees. She argues that her version of situational truthmaking does not require us to throw out forty years of formal semantic research on truth conditions. She just has a strong motivation for making the definition of minimal situation work. A large part of her talk consisted of working through a number of examples where the definition of minimal situation runs into problems and motivates some ways of getting around these problems. Kratzer’s slides and talks on this topic are available for viewing, since this material also formed part of the prestigious Leverhulme lectures that she gave earlier this year (Leverhulme lectures 2019). I asked Guarino what he thought about the debate because it seemed to me he was thinking precisely about what parts of situations were extraneous to verification and what parts were essential. Guarino was at first uncertain that he had anything to stake in an argument between a philosopher and a linguistic semanticist, and insisted that to the extent that he was a philosopher he was actually interested in metaphysics rather than in ontologies motivated by natural language. But in the end, he agreed that language mattered and that people talked about things at a particular granularity which was the granularity that he was interested in ultimately. Apparently this is called descriptive metaphysics. My question to myself was whether descriptive metaphysics might help Kratzer to define the minimal situation, without the paradoxes that mereologies over situational particulars give rise to. Or maybe descriptive metaphysics is relevant to unpacking Kit Fine’s primitive of exact verification. Guarino claimed not to have an axe to grind there, but it was fascinating as an example of people talking about the same thing who are clearly also not talking about the same thing. I was also the only person in the room who thought that Kratzer’s and Guarino’s talks were related (Except maybe for Orin Percus).
Louise McNally (University of Pompeu Fabra) presented her joint work with Scott Grimm on ing-nominals. One standard story in the literature is that while (5), the Poss-ofstructure, denotes a concrete event, (6), the Acc-ing nominal, denotes a fact or a proposition.
(5) Al’s raking of the leaves/The raking of the leaves. (Events?)
(6) Raking the leaves/Al’s raking the leaves/Al raking the leaves. (Facts?)
The former are good with predicates like took place at x time, while the latter are not. The former do not support negation, while the latter do. McNally and Grimm however argue that invoking a fact or propositional meaning for the forms in (6) is NOT correct. In fact, what McNally ends up proposing is that the of-ing nominals denote event tokens, while the accusative taking ones denote event types. Basically, what McNally assumes about the semantics is that the ontology includes a type/token distinction for events, just as for entities. Nominal (of-taking) forms and verbal (acc-taking forms) both lexically describe event types, but then grow to token interpretations in different ways: ing nouns through number morphology; ing VPs through temporal anchoring from a tensed verb.
The type vs. token distinction turns out to account for the data better than assuming that the forms in (6) denote propositions. Louise McNally is one of the few semanticists who is working on the idea of event types as primitive members of the semantic ontology. It’s really hard to spell out how this idea of ontologically primitive types works when it comes to (i) compositional operations over types and (ii) the conversion of type level information into token level information. However, I am excited about this work because it is vitally necessary and there isn’t anyone else really doing it. The problem of messy lexical content (polysemy, essential conceptual content etc.) is mostly ignored by formal semanticists. And yet we know that memorized concepts are a core ingredient of the creative meaning generation capacity. Ignoring this messy part and how it gets deployed to create propositions that ultimately bear a truthmaking relationship with the world, is abdicating our responsibilities for answering that Big Question. I think McNally’s work is an example of s the kind of work that the OASIS group is trying to support and create dialogue about.
Having said that, I think that ultimately we in the OASIS network have failed to be the place where the big interdisciplinary conversation is happening. What we just had was a wonderful `linguistics’ conference with lots of stimulation for us linguists from other fields. It is not clear to me that we have created a forum where linguistic expertise is being understood and internalized by psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics in building descriptively and explanatory models of meaning. It is mostly our fault as a field. When was the last time we made choices within our analytic frameworks in order to line up with the expertise and acquired knowledge from these other areas? So OASIS 2 was great (Thank you, Nantes team!), but I am not satisfied. I want more. When it comes to semantics there is a lot of hard work to be done and I really think that progress is not going to be made unless we get the big conversations going, pooling our knowledge across disciplines. I hear a rumour that the next OASIS meeting will take place in Tromsø, where we will have another shot at changing the world. My fantasy title for that conference is Compositionality and the Brain and I am already working on my fantasy football team for that event….