Picture by Herman Cappelen: At Arché in St. Andrews with Thony Gillies & Jason Stanley, October 2009.
This website will no longer get updated. Please consult my Selected Works page.
I wasn't born to become a professor. The town I grew up in didn't have a high-school for girls. Girls went to a Middle School run by nuns, learned cooking and bookkeeping, and got married. The next town over did have a high school for girls, but it only had a Modern Language track. The boys' high school there had Modern Languages, too, but there also was a Science and a Classics branch. For reasons that nobody could remember any longer, the Classics track took in a few girls every year. Thanks to my parents, I was one of them, and nine years of Latin and six years of Greek - six days a week - must have turned me into a linguist. I discovered modern linguistics when I tried to find a way to combine my love for the shape of languages and mathematics, and discovered the close-to-Utopian Linguistics Department in Konstanz after getting lost at the traditional University of Munich and taking a year off as an assistant teacher at the Lycée Jean Dautet in La Rochelle (France). I cobbled a graduate education together for myself via research assistantships and scholarships that took me to the University of Heidelberg and to Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Before coming to Amherst, I was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen and taught at the Technical University in Berlin. I have also taught classes in other places around the world, including Brazil, Spain, Holland, the Czech Republic, Germany and at LSA Summer Institutes at UC Santa Cruz, Cornell University, MIT/Harvard, and the University of Michigan. In September 2005, I taught at the Fall School in Linguistics of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. The Paris lectures can be watched on video. In the Fall of 2009, I was in Paris again, as an invited professor at the École Normale Supérieure and an invited researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod. During that time, I delivered the 2009 Context and Content Lectures at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). During the 2012/13 academic year, I was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University. While being there, I delivered a public lecture explaining what we do as formal semanticists for a general audience. Here is the link to a video of the lecture. During the 2018/19 academic year, I am a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Philosophy Department at University College London (UCL).
My area of specialization is formal semantics, a thriving subdiscipline of linguistics with close ties to philosophy of language, logic, and cognitive psychology. As a field, formal semantics is characterized by an unusual degree of collegiality, and by intense interdisciplinary, interdepartmental, and international cooperation. I am on the international advisory boards of the Berlin School of Mind and Brain and the Institute for Logic, Language, and Computation (ILLC) in Amsterdam. I am co-editing Natural Language Semantics (with Irene Heim), and am on the editorial boards of the Journal of Semantics, the Journal of Philosophical Logic, Linguistics and Philosophy, and Semantics and Pragmatics.
Most links to my more recent work on this website lead to electronic preprint versions in the Semantics Archive. My Selected Works page is gradually surplanting this homepage, though, and has mostly links leading to the original publications. Please consult my CV for publication details, and my Google Scholar Profile for more resources.
From the time I started my dissertation work in New Zealand with the help of Max Cresswell, George Hughes, John Bigelow, and David Lewis, I have been interested in context dependent semantic phenomena, in particular tense, modals, conditionals, quantifiers, and attitude ascriptions. One way of looking at this old interest from a more contemporary perspective is to see it as an interest in how the human language faculty interacts with non-linguistic cognitive modules, some of which we may share with other species. The guiding idea behind this research is that most lexical items come with pointers to particular kinds of information that they request to be recruited from other cognitive components. The question is how those pointers are realized in natural languages, what kind of information they recruit, and how that information is ultimately integrated into the computation of meanings. My Radcliffe Lecture and my keynote address for the 2013 International Congress of Linguists both address this topic.
Modals and conditionals
My dissertation Semantik der Rede (Semantics of Discourse. Context Theory, Modals, Conditionals) dates from 1978, but the questions I struggled with then are still very much alive these days, and I keep returning to them. A collection of updated and, in some cases, completely rewritten, versions of my papers on modals and conditionals is available from Oxford University Press.My current interests center around epistemic modals, sublexical modality, and the role of modal operators in attitude ascriptions.
Since the late eighties I have been exploiting the resources of situation semantics for the semantics of counterfactuals, knowledge ascriptions, and questions. For the 2003 Milan workshop on implicatures and the 2004 Gargnano conference on Covert Variables, I applied a situation-based semantics to some tough puzzles in the area of pragmatics, the projection of conversational implicatures, and the determination of quantifier domains. In 2006, I wrote an overview of the role of situations in natural language semantics for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Prosody and Meaning
In 2004, 2009, and 2013 (at the LSA Summer Institute at the University of Michigan) I co-taught seminars on Prosody and Meaning with Lisa Selkirk, which led to an ongoing collaboration on Givenness and Focus and two papers: one on Phases and Default Phrase Stress, and one on Deconstructing Information Structure.
My interest in cross-linguistic quantification started with a joint NSF grant with Emmon Bach and Barbara Partee, and has been nurtured by having Lisa Matthewson and Seth Cable as colleagues. Most of my work in this area is on indefinites. The first paper, which started circulating in the late eighties, was about the interaction of indefinites with Individual-Level/Stage-Level Predicates. In the nineties, I became interested in wide-scope indefinites. My most recent work on quantification is comparative and typological. In joint work with Junko Shimoyama, I explored an understudied German indefinite series from the point of view of the much better understood Japanese indeterminate pronouns, which Shimoyama had investigated in her dissertation. More recently, I pursued the hypothesis that all quantificational force for noun phrases might ultimately reside with verbal functional morphology, and the main locus of variation within the nominal domain might be reducible to a well-defined class of domain shifting operations (Indefinites and the Operators they Depend on: From Japanese to Salish).
One of the great opportunities for me in Amherst has been the interactions with my colleagues in syntax. Kyle Johnson, Rajesh Bhatt and I have taught graduate introductions to semantics or syntax together. My ongoing research on the verbal projection spine is firmly located at the syntax-semantics interface. Originally, I was mainly interested in deriving a theory of voice alternations from slight variations in the way a verb's external argument associates with its head. Over the years, the project became bigger, as it was moving - step by step - towards a theory that eliminated all morphological argument structure changing operations. There is now a largish manuscript on verb semantics (The Event Argument) that has been generating papers on telicity, adjectival passives, resultatives, plurals, and tense. The manuscript has finally grown into something that might be considered a book, and might still be published by MIT Press one day. In the meantime, my main interest has shifted to the higher regions of the verbal projection spine and the syntax and semantics of embedded sentences. The beginnings of this research were presented for a cognitive science audience in my keynote address for ICL19 in Geneva. Here is the link to the video.
During my last sabbatical, I returned to work on pronouns that I started in 1998 (More Structural Analogies Between Pronouns and Tenses). The project was to eliminate stipulations about binding domains for pronouns, and explore how much of a pronoun's behavior can be derived from the meanings of its features and general principles for structure building and morphophonological spellout.
I love being a teacher. I wished my students, both graduates and undergraduates, knew how much I learn from them. The graduate students push me to do the research I do. They force me to go further into a topic than I would possibly manage on my own. I wished they were paid as well as I am. My undergraduates teach me what linguistics and semantics is all about: They insist on clear answers to the big questions. One of the greatest joys of my career has been to work with others on how to teach semantics. Semantics in Generative Grammar came out of lecture notes that traveled back and forth between Irene Heim's and my departments for many years. I still use this book in graduate introductions to semantics, but it remains in the background, and the courses themselves (Ling 610: Semantics and Generative Grammar) try to go beyond the book into areas that are closer to where the action is these days. I often collaborate with graduate students on teaching and developing innovative classes for the next generation. An undergraduate Introduction to Semantics and an experimental undergraduate class on the Dream of a Perfect Language came out of such a collaboration. A new General Education class on Language and Mind with Lyn Frazier and a crew of graduate students was mapped out a couple of years ago. Team work of this kind comes close to a dream of a community of scholars that I myself was part of as a young student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Konstanz, where Arnim von Stechow and Peter (Eberhard) Pause took me in as a colleague and friend, and where I first met Irene Heim, (Thomas) Ede Zimmermann, and my thesis advisor Urs Egli. Other academic teachers whose lectures and seminars left a mark on me include Peter Glotz (film and communication), Wolfgang Braunfels (history of art), Hans Rheinfelder (Dante), and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, who was a guest professor at Konstanz for a semester.
In a Konstanz seminar with Bar-Hillel, I was introduced to David Lewis' General Semantics (Synthese 22, 1970), which turned me into a formal semanticist. I still consider General Semantics the major milestone in the history of formal semantics for natural languages. In that paper, Lewis teaches us how to connect formal semantics to Chomsky's Aspects model, for example: "I have foremost in mind a sort of simplified Aspects-model grammar (Chomsky, 1965), but I have said nothing to eliminate various alternatives." Lewis shows how an insightful theory of semantics and pragmatics can be brought together with an explanatory theory of syntax of the kind Chomsky pioneered. General Semantics is, I believe, the first work that presents a compositional theory of meaning that unifies the perspectives of generative syntax with those of formal logic and analytic philosophy. With Arnim von Stechow and Urs Egli, our Konstanz group also studied Montague's Universal Grammar (a German translation with an introduction and commentary by Helmut Schnelle appeared in 1972), and we worked through English as a Formal Language. We were surprised when we found out that, on the other side of the Atlantic, formal semantics seemed to be mostly equated with Montague Grammar, and sometimes even with just the framework of Montague's Proper Treatment of Quantification in English. The field of semantics within generative grammar developed with important contributions from both syntacticians and philosophers. Here is a list of the most quoted classics that have shaped the discipline.
The first international formal semantics conference I ever attended was the 1973 Colloquium on Formal Semantics of Natural Language organized by Ed Keenan at King's College in Cambridge. On the program were two papers that would soon find their place among the most quoted papers in linguistic semantics: David Lewis' Adverbs of Quantification and Hans Kamp's Two Theories about Adjectives.