Milica Denić & Wataru Uegaki – Semantic universals: Theories and experimental investigations

There is enormous diversity among human languages in the world. At the same time, linguists have observed a number of common properties holding across all (or a significant majority of) languages. Such common properties are called language universals. In this class we focus on language universals in the semantic domain. We study recent work investigating semantic universals in content and logical vocabulary, and discuss various explanations for what the source of semantic universals may be: pressures for communicative efficiency, ease of learning, and universal grammar, among others.  

Week 1:
Class 1: Introduction to language universals (Uegaki)
Classes 2 and 3: Kinship terms and complexity/informativeness trade-off explanation (Denić)
Class 4: Color terms and ease of learning explanation (Denić)
Class 5: Syntax and semantics of quantification (Uegaki)

Week 2:
Class 1: Universals in the domain of quantification: monotonicity (Denić)
Class 2: Universals in the domain of quantification: conservativity (Denić)
Class 3: Conservativity and universal grammar explanation (Uegaki)
Class 4: Semantic universals in other domains: connectives, indefinite pronouns, personal pronouns (Uegaki)
Class 5: Critical discussion and future research directions (Uegaki)

Ahn, Dorothy. & Sauerland, Uli. 2017. Measure constructions with relative measures: Towards a syntax of non-conservative construals. The Linguistic Review. 34(2).

Chemla, Emmanuel, Brian Buccola, and Isabelle Dautriche. “Connecting content and logical words.” Journal of Semantics 36.3 (2019): 531-547.

Denić, Milica, Shane Steinert-Threlkeld, and Jakub Szymanik. “Complexity/informativeness trade-off in the domain of indefinite pronouns.” Semantics and linguistic theory. Vol. 30. 2021.

Enguehard, Emile, and Benjamin Spector. “Explaining gaps in the logical lexicon of natural languages-A decision-theoretic perspective on the square of Aristotle.” Unpublished manuscript, ENS Paris.

Kemp, Charles & Terry Regier. 2012. Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles. Science 336(6084). 1049–1054. doi:10.1126/science.1218811.

Kemp, Charles, Yang Xu & Terry Regier. 2018. Semantic typology and efficient communication. Annual Review of Linguistics 4. 109–128. doi:10.1146/annurevlinguistics-011817-045406

Hunter, Tim, and Jeffrey Lidz. “Conservativity and learnability of determiners.” Journal of Semantics 30.3 (2013): 315-334.

Maldonado, Mora, and Jennifer Culbertson. “Person of interest: Experimental investigations into the learnability of person systems.” Linguistic Inquiry (2020): 1-71.

Regier, Terry, Charles Kemp & Paul Kay. 2015. Word meanings across languages support efficient communication. In Brian MacWhinney & William O’Grady (eds.), The Handbook of Language Emergence, vol. 87, 237–263. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781118346136.ch11.
Romero, Maribel. 2021. “The many readings of many: POS in the reverse proportional reading”. Linguistics and Philosophy 44: 281-321. 

Romoli, Jacopo. 2015. “A structural account of conservativity.” Semantics-Syntax Interface 2.1: 28-57.
Spenader, Jennifer and Jill de Villiers. 2019. “Are conservative quantifiers easier to learn? Evidence from novel quantifier experiments.” In  Amsterdam Colloquium 2019.

Steinert-Threlkeld, Shane. 2019. “Quantifiers in natural language optimize the simplicity/informativeness trade-off”. In Amsterdam Colloquium 2019.

Steinert-Threlkeld, Shane, and Jakub Szymanik. “Learnability and semantic universals.” Semantics and Pragmatics 12 (2019): 4.

Steinert-Threlkeld, Shane, and Jakub Szymanik. “Ease of learning explains semantic universals.” Cognition 195 (2020).
Xu Yang, Regier Terry, Malt BC. 2016. Historical semantic chaining and efficient communication: the case of container
names. Cognitive Science 40: 2081–94

Uegaki, Wataru. 2020. The informativeness/complexity trade-off in the domain of Boolean connectives. Unpublished manuscript, University of Edinburgh.

van de Pol, Iris, Shane Steinert-Threlkeld, and Jakub Szymanik. “Complexity and learnability in the explanation of semantic universals of quantifiers.” (2019).