Super Linguistics Colloquium Series
Spring 2021 Schedule
Note: If not indicated otherwise, talks will take place on Zoom. The time zone is Central European Time (Oslo local time). If you would like to attend the talk, please send an email to Pritty Patel-Grosz .
Despite their differences, human language and the vocal communication of nonhuman primates share many features. Both constitute forms of coordinated activity, rely on many shared neural mechanisms, and involve discrete, combinatorial cognition that includes rich pragmatic inference. These common features suggest that during evolution the ancestors of all modern primates faced similar social problems and responded with similar systems of communication and cognition. When language later evolved from this common foundation, many of its distinctive features were already present.
In a recent paper, we presented a Meaning-First approach (MFA) to grammar (Sauerland & Alexiadou 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.571295). In this talk, we discuss the potential this view might have to generate perspectives and research questions for super-linguistic phenomena. The three relevant assumptions of the MFA are the following: i) complex thought-structure generation is independent of language and occurs in species other than humans, ii) humans can communicate thoughts by compression into an articulateable form, and iii) cognitive systems other than logical thought can (and do) intrude in the compression / articulation process adding a socio-emotive dimension. After introducing the MFA, we argue that phenomena involving different communicative modalities can easily be accommodated in the MFA because language-independent representations are central to it. Two specific applications of the MFA, we then discuss are a) an account of multi-modal code-blending as parallel compression (Branchini & Donati 2016, 10.5334/gjgl.29) and b) the interaction between ellipsis and the intrusion of socio-emotive content.
Starting from there, we will formalize a notion of connectedness that applies to any type of word, not only content words. We will find that logical words (in particular quantifiers, such as 'all', 'some', 'none' in English), appear to also be connected across languages. We will provide evidence that non-human animals (specifically, baboons, papio papio) tend to form categories that are connected in the same sense, and argue that this tendency may reveal what are natural classes of objects (content word like) or natural classes of patterns (function word like).
Are gestures syntactically integrated? In recent years gestures have been a topic of much interest in formal linguistics, especially with respect to their semantic and pragmatic contribution (Ebert and Ebert 2014; Schlenker 2018; Esipova 2019; i.a.). A consistent observation within this literature is that the semantic content of gestures is integrated into the meaning of spoken utterances; hence, gesture can behave like speech, e.g. in presenting the same kind of semantic behaviour (taking scope, projecting, etc.).
One way to explain the semantic integration of gestures is to treat them as part of the grammar: namely, if gestures can participate in semantic relations, it is because they appear in syntactic representations. In particular, since gestures are performed with the same articulators as sign languages (e.g. hands, eyebrows), this would mean that syntactic features are externalised at the PF interface as gesture (visual-gestural modality) rather than as speech (auditory modality). From this we would expect syntax to be modality-blind, a result that appears to be correct.
In this talk, I will present preliminary results from an ongoing experiment on the status of a particular co-speech gesture, Mano a Borsa (MAB) or ‘pursed hand’, in Neapolitan (Italo-Romance). MAB arises frequently in interrogative contexts, but its precise syntactic, semantic, and lexical properties are unclear. This experiment pursues the following research questions: (A) what is the clause-type distribution of MAB? (B) where may it be aligned temporally within the spoken utterance? (C) is MAB an underspecified wh-item? Starting with the last question first, I will present early results suggesting that MAB appears to exhibit the same syntactic distribution as a wh-phrase, raising questions about its lexical status. While the simplest conclusion might be that MAB is a sort of underspecified wh-item, in the talk I will discuss whether MAB might instead be the realization of a particular flavour of interrogative C, consistent with its preference for interrogative environments (cf. question A), and its apparent ability to align with the beginning of the clause, even in wh-in-situ contexts (cf. question B).