MIT topics in semantics seminar (spring 2022)
Discourse referents inside and out


Figure 1: Zen garden of the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, Japan 1951 (Werner Bischof)

Last updated: "[2022-05-09 Mon 09:51]"

1. Course description

"Consider a device designed to read a text in some natural language, interpret it, and store the content in some manner, say, for the purpose of being able to answer questions about it. To accomplish this task, the machine will have to fulfill at least the following basic requirement. It has to be able to build a file that consists of records of all the individuals, that is, events, objects, etc., mentioned in the text and, for each individual, record whatever is said about it. Of course, for the time being at least, it seems that such a text interpreter is not a practical idea, but this should not discourage us from studying in abstract what kind of capabilities the machine would have to possess, provided that our study provides us with some insight into natural language in general." (Karttunen 1976)

The notion of a discourse referent emerged from the work of Lauri Karttunen and David Lewis (Karttunen 1976; Lewis 1979), during a time of general optimism concerning connections between linguistic theory and artificial intelligence research. The central idea is that discourse participants introduce and manipulate variables corresponding to individuals mentioned over the course of a conversation. This powerful idea subsequently informed dynamic approaches to meaning, which essentially model anaphora as a kind of cross-referencing device (Heim 1982; Groenendijk and Stokhof 1991). Frank Veltman crystalizes the 'slogan' of dynamic approaches to meaning as follows: "You know the meaning of a sentence if you know the change it brings about in the information state of anyone who accepts the news conveyed by it" (Veltman 1996). Irene Heim's foundational work on file change semantics in the 80s lead to an explosion of insightful research applying this central idea to an impressive variety of empirical domains. At the same time, dynamic semantics incorporates powerful proprietary mechanisms for manipulating contexts in an apparently arbitrary fashion, and even precompiles these mechanisms into the meanings of logical vocabulary such as "or". In this seminar we'll track developments in dynamic approaches to anaphora, starting from classical theories of (singular) pronouns and their indefinite antecedents, and eventually progressing to intricate theories of modality, plurality, and quantification. In parallel, we'll consider what exactly dynamic semantics commits us to, both as a theory of content, and as a theory of how semantic composition proceeds. A central goal will be a re-assessment of Veltman's slogan, in light of recent work that fine-tunes the division of labor between dynamic semantics and pragmatics (Elliott 2020; Mandelkern 2020).

One of the themes of the seminar will be linguistic motivations for a rich notion of contexts, which goes beyond a "flat" model of information (Stalnaker 1976) and incorporates a notion of aboutness. Mid-way through the semester, we'll take a break from anaphora and consider a set of empirical phenomena which motivate a different kind of enrichment. Thanks to Amir Anvari for providing the following summary:

"We will rehearse a host of puzzles that have been discussed in the literature on oddness (Singh 2008, Katzir & Singh 2014, Mayr & Romoli 2016, Mandelkern & Romoli 2018, Marty & Romoli 2021). The ambition is to provide a unified analysis for all these cases. We begin with the classical insight, as formulated by Katzir & Singh (2015), that “a good assertion is one that provides a good answer to a good question”: a good sentence is one that is about something. We explore the idea that the question that a sentence addresses in a given context is one that must be constructed in a principled fashion from sentence itself and its formal alternatives (Katzir 2007, Fox & Katzir 2011). If such a “formal background question” cannot be constructed, the sentence is not about anything and predicted to be odd. We will explore one implementation of this idea in the context of the puzzles mentioned."

2. Schedule

Seminar takes place Mondays 10:00-13:00, in 32-D461.

date topic
Mon Jan 31 file change semantics
Mon Feb 7 dynamic predicate logic
Mon Feb 14 subsentential dynamics
Mon Feb 21 holiday - president's day
Tue Feb 22 externally-dynamic dynamic semantics
Mon Feb 28 Amir Anvari on oddness
Mon Mar 7 Amir Anvari on oddness
Mon Mar 14 Amir Anvari on oddness
Mon Mar 21 holiday - spring break
Mon Mar 28 modality and modal subordination
Mon Apr 4 Cancelled - attend TLLM
Mon Apr 11 inquisitive dynamic semantics
Mon Apr 18 holiday - patriot's day
Mon Apr 25 cancelled
Mon May 2 Filipe Hisao Kobayashi on postsuppositions
Mon May 9 Student presentations

3. Topics

3.1. Week 1: File change semantics

3.1.1. Recommended readings

3.2. Week 2: Dynamic predicate logic

3.2.1. Recommended readings

3.2.2. Optional readings

3.3. Week 3: Subsentential dynamics

3.3.1. Recommended readings

3.4. Week 4: Externally-dynamic dynamic semantics

3.4.1. Recommended readings

3.6. Week 8: Disjunction, possibility, and hypothetical discourse referents

3.6.1. Recommended readings

3.6.2. Optional readings

3.7. Week 9: Possible witnesses

3.8. Week 11: Dynamic inquisitive semantics

4. References

Charlow, Simon. 2014. “On the Semantics of Exceptional Scope.” PhD thesis, New Brunswick: Rutgers University.
———. 2020. “Static and Dynamic Exceptional Scope.” Accepted at journal of semantics: Unpublished manuscript.
Chierchia, Gennaro. 1995. Dynamics of Meaning - Anaphora, Presupposition, and the Theory of Grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dekker, Paul. 1996. “The Values of Variables in Dynamic Semantics.” Linguistics and Philosophy 19 (3): 211–57.
Dotlačil, Jakub, and Floris Roelofsen. 2019. “Dynamic Inquisitive Semantics: Anaphora and Questions.” Proceedings of Sinn Und Bedeutung, July, 365–82 Pages.
———. 2021. “A Dynamic Semantics of Single-Wh and Multiple-Wh Questions.” Semantics and Linguistic Theory 30 (0, 0): 376–95.
Elliott, Patrick D. 2020. “Towards a Principled Logic of Anaphora.” MIT: lingbuzz/005562.
Fox, Danny, and Roni Katzir. 2011. “On the Characterization of Alternatives.” Natural Language Semantics 19 (1): 87–107.
Gillies, Anthony S. 2019. “Re-Reading ‘Dynamic Predicate Logic’.” Rutgers University.
Gotham, Matthew. 2019. “Double Negation, Excluded Middle and Accessibility in Dynamic Semanttics.” In Proceedings of the 22nd Amsterdam Colloquium, edited by Julian J. Schlöder, Dean McHugh, and Floris Roelofsen, 142–51.
Groenendijk, Jeroen a. G., Martin J. B. Stokhof, and Frank J. M. M. Veltman. 1996. “Coreference and Modality.” In The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory, 176–216. Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Groenendijk, Jeroen, and Martin Stokhof. 1990. “Dynamic Montague Grammar.” Report.
———. 1991. “Dynamic Predicate Logic.” Linguistics and Philosophy 14 (1): 39–100.
Heim, Irene. 1982. “The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases.” PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts - Amherst.
———. 1983. “File Change Semantics and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness.” In File Change Semantics and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness, 164–89. De Gruyter.
Hofmann, Lisa. 2019. “The Anaphoric Potential of Indefinites under Negation and Disjunction.” In Proceedings of the 22nd Amsterdam Colloquium, edited by Julian J. Schlöder, Dean McHugh, and Floris Roelofsen, 181–90.
Karttunen, Lauri. 1976. “Discourse Referents.” In Syntax and Semantics Vol. 7, edited by J. D. McCawley, 363–86. Academic Press.
Katzir, Roni. 2008. “Structurally-Defined Alternatives” 30 (6): 669–90.
Katzir, Roni, and Raj Singh. 2014. “Hurford Disjunctions - Embedded Exhaustification and Structural Economy.” In Proceedings of Sinn Und Bedeutung 18, edited by Urtzi Etxeberria, Anamaria Fălăuş, Aritz Irurtzun, and Bryan Leferman, 201–16. University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU).
Kibble, Rodger. 1994. “Dynamics of Epistemic Modality and Anaphora.” In International Workshop on Computational Semantics, 121–30.
Krahmer, Emiel, and Reinhard Muskens. 1995. “Negation and Disjunction in Discourse Representation Theory.” Journal of Semantics 12 (4): 357–76.
Lewis, David. 1979. “Scorekeeping in a Language Game.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1): 339–59.
Mandelkern, Matthew. 2020. “Witnesses.” Oxford: Unpublished manuscript.
Mandelkern, Matthew, and Jacopo Romoli. 2018. “Hurford Conditionals.” Journal of Semantics 35 (2): 357–67.
Marty, Paul, and Jacopo Romoli. 2021. “Varieties of Hurford Disjunction.”
Mayr, Clemens, and Jacopo Romoli. 2016. “A Puzzle for Theories of Redundancy: Exhaustification, Incrementality, and the Notion of Local Context.” Semantics and Pragmatics 9 (0, 0): 7–1-48.
Muskens, Reinhard. 1996. “Combining Montague Semantics and Discourse Representation.” Linguistics and Philosophy 19 (2): 143–86.
Roberts, Craige. 1989. “Modal Subordination and Pronominal Anaphora in Discourse.” Linguistics and Philosophy 12 (6): 683–721.
Rothschild, Daniel, and Seth Yalcin. 2016. “Three Notions of Dynamicness in Language.” Linguistics and Philosophy 39 (4): 333–55.
Simons, Mandy. 1996. “Disjunction and Anaphora.” Semantics and Linguistic Theory 6 (0, 0): 245–60.
Stalnaker, Robert. 1976. “Propositions,” edited by A. F. MacKay and D. D. Merrill, 79–91. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Veltman, Frank. 1996. “Defaults in Update Semantics.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 25 (3): 221–61.

Author: Patrick D. Elliott

Created: 2022-05-09 Mon 09:51