Syntax, Semantics, & Philosophy of Language
Linguistic theory aims to specify the particular character of human grammars. Grammars pair sounds or gestures with meaning. A general theory of grammar must therefore answer several questions. What is the syntax, relative to which sound and meaning are paired? What are rules of syntactic composition, and what sorts of features do they refer to? What sorts of meanings do human grammars yield, and by what rules are these meanings assembled? How do the meanings of expressions relate to acts of using expressions, and to various aspects of cognition, especially those deployed immediately in communication? How does grammatical knowledge develop in children? And how do children come to be competent users of language? We view these interrelated questions as the shared province of researchers in syntax, semantics, and the philosophy of language. At Maryland we address them with theoretical and experimental research in a range of areas, including: islands, ellipsis, complex predicates, control, modality, tense, aspect, argument structure, causal constructions, event semantics, comparatives, attitude reports, implicature, reference, number, and quantification. Our work proceeds in close collaboration with colleagues in language acquisition and psycholinguistics. We have a special relation to the department of philosophy, with Professors Pietroski and Williams appointed in both departments.
Current Efforts of Collaborative Research
In the Maryland language science community, theoretical and experimental work are commonly pursued in tandem. And among the theoretical linguists themselves there is a culture of collaboration which weaves together research in syntax, semantics, and philosophy of language. We ask what sorts of meanings and structures are attested in natural language, amongst the logically possible ones, in conversation with each other, as well as with acquisitionists, psycholinguists, and psychologists. The following projects are examples of our collaborative work.
Norbert Hornstein, Howard Lasnik and Juan Uriagereka (Linguistics) lead an NSF-funded investigation into Islands (syntactic configurations that block long-distance grammatical dependencies), combining the perspectives of psycholinguistics and syntactic theory. The project studied four features of Island effects.
Studies of natural language quantification have played a prominent role in the development of syntactic and semantic theory. Paul Pietroski (Linguistics, Philosophy) and Jeff Lidz (Linguistics) (along with collaborators at Johns Hopkins and Yale) have been exploring the acquisition and processing of quantifiers in order to identify how quantificational meanings are mentally represented. A novel aspect of this work is that it draws upon constraints of visual cognition and theories of numerical cognition to inform the linguistic representation of quantifiers. Recent work comparing "more" and "most" finds that both adults and young children display differences in accuracy when evaluating synonymous sentences containing these words. These kinds of results point to aspects of the representation of meaning that go beyond simple truth-conditions.
Another active area of research is the language used to describe cognitive states. Valentine Hacquard (Linguistics) joins Erin Eaker (Philosophy) in a research project, supported by the university's NSF-sponsored ADVANCE grant, studying the semantics, logic, and implicit ontology of sentences about beliefs and desires. In parallel, Valentine Hacquard and Jeff Lidz lead an NSF-funded project investigating the acquisition of the semantics and pragmatics of attitude verbs: how do children come to master the language of cognitive states? And how does this relate to their developing understanding of these states?
Jeff Lidz is also working with Alexander Williams (Linguistics, Philosophy) on issues of argument structure. Building on their previous studies of Kannada, Igbo, Mandarin, this research takes a cross-linguistic perspective. Differences among languages raise questions of acquisition, since heuristics that help the child learn one language may impede learning of another. So are the child's heuristics general enough to avoid such problems? Or are some language-types actually harder to acquire? One way languages differ is in how the syntax of a verb correlates with its meaning. Our group asks whether young children are inclined to expect some correlations and not others, and if so, how they come to these biases. Presently we are studying whether toddlers expect a verb to occur in clauses that name every participant in its event, even in languages where this is not grammatically required.
Degree programs: PhD
Primary faculty: Valentine Hacquard, Erin Eaker, Norbert Hornstein, Jeffrey Lidz, Alexander Williams, Paul Pietroski, Howard Lasnik, Juan Uriagereka, Michael Israel
Related faculty: Jeff Horty, Michael Morreau, Peter Carruthers, Georges Rey, Colin Phillips
Links: Linguistics Department, Philosophy Department, PHLING, Syntax Lab