LINGUIST List 13.2667

Wed Oct 16 2002

Confs: Semantics/Cross-Linguistic Data

Editor for this issue: Lakshmi Narayanan <>

Please keep conferences announcement as short as you can; LINGUIST will not post conference announcements which in our opinion are excessively long.


  1. Martina.Faller, New Conference Announcement

Message 1: New Conference Announcement

Date: Mon, 14 Oct 2002 16:19:01 +0000
From: Martina.Faller <>
Subject: New Conference Announcement

Martina Faller has submitted Announcement information about the following 
conference: Cross-Linguistic Data and Theories of Meaning.
The success of recent endeavours such as the meetings on the theme of the 
Semantics of Under-represented Languages in the Americas (SULA at the 
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, April 2001) shows that there is 
considerable interest amongst semanticists, and indeed amongst linguists 
generally, in the problems which arise in confronting semantic theories with 
data from less-studied languages (Matthewson 2001). A central problem in this 
research programme is that, in most cases, the linguist will not be a native 
speaker of the language. We intend that this meeting will concentrate on the
conceptual and methodological problems of studying semantics under these 
It is generally accepted that languages have the same extensional
expressive power in the sense that any language can adequately describe the 
physical world. In studying cross-linguistic semantics, the question of 
interest is whether the extensional equivalence of languages also requires 
intensional equivalence. Some scholars take a universalist perspective and 
assume intensional equivalency (Barwise and Cooper 1981, Bittner 1994, Keenan
and Stavi 1986), whereas others take a relativist perspective and start from 
the assumption that languages are to a large degree not intensionally 
equivalent (e.g. Whorf 1941, Grace 1987). In both the universalist and the 
relativist research tradition, recent research indicates that there is genuine
 semantic variation across languages, but that this variation is constrained 
by universal principles (Bach et al. 1995, Bohnemeyer in press, Chierchia 
1998, Gumperz and Levinson 1996, Pederson et al. 1998, Wierzbicka 1996, 
Wilkins & Hill 1995). These findings are not only relevant for 
cross-linguistic semantics, but also for language acquisition research 
(Bowerman 1996).
One set of questions which we would like to see addressed arise from this: 
What sort of arguments can be made for either a universalist or a relativist 
position? If we take the perspective that this is an issue of 'more or less' 
rather than 'yes or no,' what aspects of meaning are universal, and what 
aspects are open to variation? Will the answers to these questions require a
reconceptualization of what semantics is and how it is structured? What are 
the consequences for the learnability of languages?

Further questions arise with respect to the nature of universals of meaning, 
if they exist. Are they conceptual units, a vocabulary, or a combinatory 
system, a syntax, or both? And where do they fit into the language system? Are
 universals of meaning situated in semantics alone (as Wierzbicka seems to 
argue), or are they situated in pragmatics (as argued by Levinson 1999), or in
 both sub-systems? Or are universals of meaning completely outside the 
linguistic system, a possibility at least acknowledged by Gil (1991).

Methodological questions must also be considered. Even the most ardent 
universalist would allow that some aspects of meaning cannot be transferred 
from one language to another, or can easily be distorted in the process. What 
techniques should the researcher therefore use in order to ensure that such 
distortion is minimized? Can the dependence of the data collection process on
language be reduced, either by using non-linguistic stimuli to elicit 
linguistic data (see e.g. Pederson et al. 1998), or by using linguistic data 
to elicit non-linguistic reponses. To what extent are techniques used in 
research on child language and large-scale corpora helpful for 
cross-linguistic semantic research? Is a metalanguage necessary for 
interpreting data, and if so, how should it be formulated: in a logical 
language, or in a natural language (Goddard and Wierzbicka (eds) 1994, 2002)?
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