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Super Linguistics

Super linguistics is an emerging sub-field of linguistics that applies formal linguistic methodology to objects of study beyond language, such as gestures, music, dance, and non-verbal pictorial representations.

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About the Group

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of what we may call ‘super linguistics’ (using the term ‘super’ in its original latinate meaning ‘beyond’, as in ‘supersonic’),  which we (Philippe Schlenker & Pritty Patel-Grosz), define as the application of formal linguistic methodology and methodology inspired by formal linguistics (especially from the perspective of syntax, semantics and phonology) to diverse non-standard objects.

Over the years, researchers have sought to apply such methodology to gestures (Giorgolo 2010, Ebert and Ebert 2014, Tieu et al. 2017, Tieu et al. to appear, Schlenker 2018), music (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983, Rohrmeier 2011, Katz and Pesetsky 2011, Katz 2017, Schlenker 2017), dance (Napoli & Kraus 2015, Charnavel 2016, Patel-Grosz et al. 2018), non-verbal pictorial representations (Greenberg 2011, Abusch 2015), animal calls (Fitch and Hauser 2004, Yip 2006, Berwick et al. 2011, Schlenker et al. 2016), and even to systems without a directly observable syntax (Piantadosi et al. 2010, Koralus and Mascarenhas 2013).

Such novel investigations build on the synthesis of two insights from which contemporary formal linguistics was born: first, natural languages (and, by extension, the above-mentioned objects of study) can be analyzed as formal languages with an explicit syntax and semantics (e.g., Chomsky 1957, Montague 1970); second, they can simultaneously be approached as cognitive systems amenable to the methods of experimental psychology (see Rebuschat et al. 2011).

The members of this group are researchers who are interested in linguistic investigations beyond language, as fall under the umbrella term of ‘super linguistics’. Relevant research touches on one or more of the areas of super linguistics, such as speech-accompanying gestures, or linguistic approaches to dance and music.

Current Research Interests and Explorations

  • Semantic analysis of body movement
  • Super Linguistic - Sign language interface
  • Cross-cultural typology of speech-accompanying gestures
  • Linguistic (syntactic) approaches to the immune system and to genetic code
  • Comparison between sign languages and dance
  • Geometry and spatial language
  • Cross-species comparison of gestural inventories between humans and non-human primates
  • Music and language as related cognitive modules
  • Monkey alarm calls

International Activities and Cooperation

The super linguistics research group fosters international collaborations both through the colloquium series and through joint research projects.

See the events page for a list of local and international Super Linguistics activities.

The Super Linguistics Research Group, together with LINGUAE, established an international super linguistics network which connects researchers from Linguistics, Anthropology, Biology, Cognitive Science, Musicology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Primatology and Psychology, working on Super Linguistics research.


Abusch, Dorit. (2015). Possible worlds semantics for pictures. Manuscript, December 2015, Cornell University. []

Berwick, Robert C., Kazuo Okanoya, Gabriel J. L. Beckers, and Johan J. Bolhuis. (2011). Songs to syntax: the linguistics of birdsong. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15, 113-121.

Charnavel, Isabelle. (2016). Steps towards a Generative Theory of Dance Cognition. Manuscript, June 2016, Harvard University. []

Ebert, Cornelia and Christian Ebert. (2014), Gestures, Demonstratives, and the Attributive/Referential Distinction. Handout of a talk given at Semantics and Philosophy in Europe (SPE 7), Berlin, June 28, 2014.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh, and Marc D. Hauser. (2004). Computational constraints on syntactic processing in a nonhuman primate. Science 303, 377-380.

Giorgolo, Gianluca. (2010). Space and Time in Our Hands. PhD Dissertation, Utrecht University.

Greenberg, Gabriel. (2011). The semiotic spectrum. PhD dissertation, Dept. of Philosophy, Rutgers University.

Katz, Jonah, and David Pesetsky. (2011). The Identity Thesis for Language and Music. Manuscript, January 2011, Institut Jean Nicod / MIT. []

Katz, Jonah. (2017). Harmonic syntax of the 12-bar blues: a corpus study. Music Perception 35, 165-192.

Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. (1983). A generative theory of tonal music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Koralus, Philipp, and Mascarenhas, Salvador. (2013). The Erotetic Theory of Reasoning: Bridges Between Formal Semantics and the Psychology of Deductive Inference. Philosophical Perspectives 27, 312-365. [doi:10.1111/phpe.12029]

Piantadosi, Steven T., Joshua B. Tenenbaum, and Noah D. Goodman. (2010). Beyond boolean logic: exploring representation languages for learning complex concepts. In Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 859-864.

Patel-Grosz, Pritty, Patrick Georg Grosz, Tejaswinee Kelkar, and Alexander Refsum Jensenius. (2018). Coreference and disjoint reference in the semantics of narrative dance. Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 22.

Rebuschat, Patrick, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross (eds.). (2011). Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rohrmeier, Martin. (2011). Towards a generative syntax of tonal harmony. Journal of Mathematics and Music 5, 35-53.

Schlenker, Philippe. (2018). Gesture Projection and Cosuppositions. Linguistics & Philosophy 41, 3:295–365.

Schlenker, Philippe. (2017). Outline of Music Semantics. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 35, 3-37. [doi:10.1525/mp.2017.35.1.3]

Schlenker, Philippe, Emmanuel Chemla, Anne Schel, James Fuller, Jean-Pierre Gautier, Jeremy Kuhn, Dunja Veselinovic, Kate Arnold, Cristiane Cäsar, Sumir Keenan, Alban Lemasson, Karim Ouattara, Robin Ryder, Klaus Zuberbühler. (2016). Formal Monkey Linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 42, 1-90. [doi:10.1515/tl-2016-0001]

Tieu, Lyn, Robert Pasternak, Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla. (2017). Co-speech gesture projection: Evidence from truth-value judgment and picture selection tasks. Glossa 2(1).

Tieu, Lyn, Robert Pasternak, Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla. (to appear). Co-speech gesture projection: Evidence from inferential judgments. Glossa.

Yip, Moira. (2006). The search for phonology in other species. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10, 442-445.

Tags: gestures, music, dance, animation, non-verbal pictorial representations, animal calls and gestures, embodiment cognition
Published Aug. 16, 2018 12:37 PM - Last modified June 6, 2019 11:16 AM