[RG #69] Semantics

August 1997 - February 1998


Edit Doron (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Fred Landman (Tel Aviv University)

Semantics, the study of semantic competence, is that part of linguistic theory that deals with the interpretation of natural language expressions. Semantics is a theory of the faculty of native speakers to interpret their language.

Semantic competence is a highly structured system, and research in semantics over the last twenty years has made progress in trying to uncover this structure and its general principles. The foundational principles of semantic theory, first formulated a century ago by the German mathematician and philosopher of language Frege, are aboutness and compositionality. Aboutness means that semantics studies the relations between linguistics expressions and the world as structured by our cognitive system, and, as part of this, the context of use for each expression. Compositionality means that the semantic interpretation of a complex expression – for example, a sentence – is determined by interpretation of its parts and by the operations that put those parts together. While semantics is popularly thought of as the study of the meanings of words, in fact semantic theory mostly focuses on the semantic operations that combine words into sentences and sentences into discourse.

In the last fifteen years, five areas of research have been exceptionally prominent. First, with the advent of the theory of discourse representation (initiated by Hans Kamp and Irene Heim), much work has been done on quantificational and anaphoric phenomena beyond the sentence level. Simultaneously, Mats Rooth initiated the systematic study of the semantic effects of the discourse notion of focus, and Martin Stokhof and Jeroen Groenendijk developed the study of the semantics of questions. Second, the theory of generalized quantifiers (initiated by Jon Barwise, Robin Cooper and Edward Keenan) has uncovered a wealth of systematic constraints in the determiner system of natural language. Third, the theory of singular and plural individuals (initiated by Godehard Link) has considerably deepened our understanding of the semantics of plurality, in particular with respect to distributive, collective and cumulative interpretations of noun phrases. The theory of kinds developed by Gregory Carlson has contributed to the understanding of the semantics of mass terms and other kind-denoting expressions. Fourth, the theory of events (originating in the work of Donald Davidson in the sixties) has simulated research on a variety of topics, in particular in the study of aspect, such as the semantics of the progressive and perfective. Fifth, theory of Logical Form, initiated by the work of Noam Chomsky, has contributed to research on the syntax-semantics interface.

Most importantly, these areas do not develop in isolation from each other: cross-fertilization between them has been, and continues to be highly successful and promising. Our group will concentrate precisely on the areas of cross-fertilization.