Experiments in Linguistic Meaning ELM2

As the 2nd edition of Experiments in Linguistic Meaning wraps up, it is worthwhile thinking about the future of forum. What research strands and issues were prominent in the second edition of the conference, and what do we want from it in the future? Will there be future ELMs, and if so what will its remit and focus be?

First of all, thanks to Anna Papafragou and Florian Schwarz for the initiative and all the folks at UPenn for hosting one of the very first in person conferences (hybrid) in ages. Hybrid is more work than a digital and in person conference combined, but ELM2 was committed to making it work. There were many also committed to the idea of this new themed conference, who made the trip from across the US and even from Europe to attend in person. An equal number participated virtually.  I for one thoroughly enjoyed myself— all the papers were interesting to me, and I had many stimulating and fun conversations over the course of the 3 days.

There were 97 papers on show at the conference, of which 21 were main session long talks. There was one panel on computational semantics (3 talks) and three additional invited speakers.  The remaining 70 were short talks in parallel sessions. In terms of the topics covered, there was quite a spread ranging from quantifier scope to sarcasm and expressive words, to computational modeling (see here for a full list of presentations and abstracts).  Having said that, there were some clear clusters reflecting certain centres of gravity for research that was attracted to this conference: a full third of all papers mentioned implicature, presupposition or context in their titles or keywords; a further dozen or so made reference to discourse and/or logical connectives. This showed that, like non experimental specialist conferences in semantics, research seems to be most focused on intersentential meaning and inferencing.  A further mini area that was well represented at ELM was event cognition, telicity, causality and tense interpretation.  This broad area had about 15 hits (I’m not complaining!) and was most likely due to Anna Papafragou’s indirect influence on submissions at this conference.

In terms of methodologies used, the dominant experiments were behavioural, offline tasks,  albeit a wide range of those ranging from truth/felicity judgements to matching pictures with sentences, to language production. In a handful of cases, people’s behavioural measures were assessed against computational models. There were very few online measures (4 eye tracking papers of which 3 were visual world and one eye tracking while reading, one pupillometry study, and one EEG study). There was virtually no neurolinguistics, despite the N400 being the world’s most famous evoked potential within EEG.

When it came to diversity, the languages under the experimental spotlight were extremely restricted. Apart from one or two studies taking another European language  as their empirical ground (German, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian), and a couple looking at signed languages, the vast majority of the papers were based on data from English. Not only that, the research questions and claims themselves were most often broad and universalistic, by which I mean they did not depend in a deep way on the actual language being studied, as opposed to crosslinguistic or comparative (the exception was the sign language papers, which explicitly engaged with the question of different modalities of expression). It seemed to me that there was a lower rate of language diversity here than in either the standard kind of semantics conference or  the standard psycholinguistic conference (certainly the former).

So does the world need a conference on experiments in linguistic meaning? I think in principle the answer is Yes.  Experiments are still a minority at specialist semantics/pragmatics conferences,  and semantics/pragmatics is still in the minority at language processing conferences.  It strikes me that there are probably many people who are interested in overarching questions that pertain to meaning and human cognition, where we would all benefit from being able to share results and methodologies across paradigms.  It is worth being explicit about what the big picture questions that motivate the future potential ELM goer are:

  1. Investigating how linguistically specific semantic categories match up to the categories of domain general concepts, or are constrained by other properties of mind/brain.
  2. Understanding the logic and flow of human reasoning in context.
  3. Modeling detailed human judgements of truth, felicity and message conveyed by means of mathematical modeling or the training of neural nets, with a view to understanding the former.
  4. Understanding how semantics gets learned by both young humans and computers (again with a dominant interest in understanding the former).
  5. Investigating the  correlates of meaning and meaning composition in actual human brains.

The five categories above are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but represent a broad swathe of different kinds of research that do not always show up at the same conferences. The umbrella concern with meaning and meaning making is the major justification for having all of these kinds of papers being given under the same roof, allowing researchers in one of these speciality areas to benefit from the insights of the others, assumimg that there are  crossovers and synergies that are relevant here.

In order to make this work, I think the organizers of future ELMs need to continue their policy of inviting panels in specific areas, and invited speakers with varied kinds of expertise.  As we researchers get used to this particular umbrella, we need to get used to learning from adjacent methodologies and research questions when it comes to semantics.  What we do not want is just for various subsets of talks from other conferences to show up here year after year, but for the topic of meaning to grow interconnections across this web of research paradigms.  The hope is also that the conference will get more  diverse with respect to these parameters as it goes forward, and that we begin to see the payoffs from getting insight into each others’ work.

For me specifically, I would love to see ELM being a place where neurolinguistics also takes its seat at the table, and where crosslinguistic semantics is more systematically explored.

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