New blog on history and philosophy of language sciences

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There’s a new blog, “History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences”, edited by James McElvenny at the University of Sydney. I’m the invited author of the third post in it, ‘On the history of the question of whether natural language is “illogical”’, which came out on May 1. For now, new posts are planned weekly. Here’s the blog address:

Let any interested friends know about it, because there is a desire for good discussion of the entries and for interesting new posts.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    One of the problems I've always had with Russell et al (and most standard philosophy of language in the modern analytical tradition) is my impression that the question of whether "natural language" is illogical seems more or less a discussion of whether English (or at best the set of English/French/German/Latin/Greek) is illogical. It is similarly a common critique (whether fair or not) that the Chomskyan tradition in linguistics was at least in its earlier stages insufficiently attentive to the possibility that English was not a good stand-in for "natural language" more generally. I would be interested in hearing more (since it's not a subfield I've paid any attention to since circa 1985) about whether more recent work in formal semantics has spent a lot of time engaged with a broader range of languages to see how well various approaches hold up when dealing with radically-unlike-English languages.

  2. Barbara Partee said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    Yes, it certainly has. It was a fair critique in early Chomskyan syntax and early formal semantics, not in phonology or morphology, which have always had a typologically broader perspective. But by now there is much more active cooperation and mutual interest among typologists, field linguists, and theorists, sometimes with interesting repercussions on analyses of English. I recently learned that dependency grammar (Tesnière, Prague School, many Russian linguists) is now widely used in tree banks and other linguistic work because it's so much easier to apply than phrase structure grammar to the description of languages with rich morphology and relatively free word order. In semantics, there has been lots of work on tense and aspect in typologically diverse languages, including ones like Chinese which don't appear on the surface to express tense at all (see work by Jo-wang Lin, for instance.) My colleagues and I published in the mid-90's the results of a project looking at how quantification is expressed in different languages, the results of which overturned a famous hypothesis by Barwise and Cooper that every language has "generalized quantifiers" (illustrated in my blog post) expressed as Noun Phrases like "every man" as a means of expressing quantification. There's an annual conference devoted to "The Semantics of Under-Studied Languages", but relevant contributions are made in more general conferences and journals as well.

  3. Barbara Partee said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

    And I should have mentioned an early advance: the shift from set theory to mereology in the analysis of mass nouns, count nouns, and plurality. The tradition we inherited from 19th and 20th century set theory and logic made count nouns, predicates of individuals, seem 'normal' and mass nouns — predicates of what, 'quantities of stuff'? – mysterious. Link and others proposed mereological frameworks with part-whole relations as basic that made it possible to do justice to the many languages of the world that don't distinguish mass and count, and to the observation that mass nouns are in many ways more basic and count nouns have something "added", some additional principle of individuation.

  4. John Lawler said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

    Yes, as I mentioned in a paper once, it seems like the purpose of linguistic theory is to turn ill-behaved mass nouns into well-behaved count nouns. I believe lambdas were involved at some point.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    Thank you for the additional information. Barwise and Perry's then quite new Situations and Attitudes was one of the two books I had to buy for the Semantics class I took as an undergraduate way back when (maybe the other was whatever the relevant entry was at the time in that red-covered Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series?). I don't recall being particularly impressed by either (I can't swear that both books were completely devoid of non-English examples but I certainly don't remember any) but I was unusually distracted that particular semester by the non-academic pleasures of undergraduate life so it is possible that the fault was not entirely theirs (nor that of the instructor). On the other hand, I'm still pretty sure most of what I learned about interesting ways non-IE grammars carved up the world (with obvious implications for any general theory of semantics) I learned not there but in other classes on morphology, grammatical relations, sociolinguistics, etc. In any event I am glad to hear that progress in looking at a wider array of languages has been made since then within the formal semantics subfield. Maybe some of it will even leak over to the philosophy-of-language dudes housed in philosophy departments.

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  7. Barbara Partee said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    @John Lawler — thanks, nice, well put! Send me the reference?
    @J.W.Brewer — Barwise and Perry's book had nothing at all about generalized quantifiers in it (in that respect I considered it a step backwards); that was a collaboration of logician and philosopher. Barwise and Cooper was just an article, but filled with nuggets of gold – it has remained a classic. Cooper is a linguist, and they made a great team.

  8. Jason said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Chomskyan tradition in linguistics was at least in its earlier stages insufficiently attentive to the possibility that English was not a good stand-in for "natural language" more generally.

    My understanding of the "Chomskyan tradition" is that he considers semantics and the logical structure of language utterly unscientific and beyond the scope of linguistic enquiry (or indeed any enquiry.) There is syntax, and nothing else. So it's not so much using English as a "stand-in" to study the logical structure of language, as Chomsky didn't/doesn't believe (to the extent anyone can pin down Noam "Jelly on a Wall" Chomsky on anything) that there was anything to study — anything that English could be used as a model /for/.

    But I'm no expert on the incredibly convoluted history of this.

  9. Barbara Partee said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 3:32 am

    @John Lawler, got it, thanks!
    @Jason — Chomsky seems to have always been quite ambivalent about semantics, and I'm still struggling with that part of the history of formal semantics. (That part is not so directly about the history of formal semantics per se, but about responses to it. But since there are also responses to the responses, it's also relevant.) I'm beginning to think that his deepest skepticism concerns lexical semantics (where it's hard to avoid the foundational question of what meanings 'are') rather than compositional semantics, the semantics of syntax, which can be built on many different kinds of foundations, from model-theoretic to representational, and where to a considerable extent (not totally) you can treat meanings of lexical items as if they were atomic 'givens'.

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