LINGUIST List 13.2687

Thu Oct 17 2002

Confs: Modified 13.2667: Cross-Ling Data

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  1. Martina.Faller, Modified 13.2667: Cross-Ling Data & Theories of Meaning, Netherlands

Message 1: Modified 13.2667: Cross-Ling Data & Theories of Meaning, Netherlands

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 17:15:55 +0000
From: Martina.Faller <>
Subject: Modified 13.2667: Cross-Ling Data & Theories of Meaning, Netherlands

Cross-Linguistic Data and Theories of Meaning

May 18-20th, 2003

Linguistics Department, University of Nijmegen, and MPI for
Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Invited Speakers:

Emmon Bach
Stephen Crain
Dirk Geeraerts
David Gil
Manfred Krifka
Stephen Levinson
Lisa Matthewson
Anna Wierzbicka

Committee: Pieter Muysken (Chair), Jorgen Bohnemeyer, Martina Faller,
Veerle Van Geenhoven, Cliff Goddard, Simon Musgrave, Rob van der Sandt

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 conditions.

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)?

ALL enquiries should be directed to:

Martina Faller (
Simon Musgrave (



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(1995). Quantification in Natural Languages, 2 vols. Dordrecht: Kluwer
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