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Public Lecture - How grammar creates meaning

Professor Gennaro Chierchia

8 August 2018, Macquarie University, Sydney


2.00-3.30 pm followed by light refreshments


Australian Hearing Hub
Level 1 Lecture Theatre
Macquarie University


Humans communicate through language: verbal languages, or sign languages. How do words and sentences or gestures acquire meaning? One way to think about it is to view language as a labeling device: nouns are used as conventional labels for things (e.g., the English noun 'table' is a label for, well, tables) and verbs are labels for actions (e.g. 'to break' labels actions like demolishing, shattering, and the like); and in virtue of these conventional associations, sequences of words can be used to convey facts about the world, or to tell stories.

I am going to argue for a different view. There are two main types of words in language. Words like table or break, which are are known as "content words", indeed have primarily a labeling/referential function. But then there are words like or, if, no, even, any,... often called "function words". I think that meaning stems primarily from the latter. It is in function words that a sort "spontaneous logic" hides, through which we give shape to our thoughts. So the path is from grammar to meaning via logic. I will illustrate this point by showing how many sentences that are perceived as "ill formed" or "agrammatical" owe their marginal status to being logical contradictions (albeit, subconscious ones). This leads to a fairly radical re-thinking of how grammar works.


Gennaro Chierchia is an Italian linguist and Haas Foundation Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Harvard University, USA. He is considered one of the world's leading formal semanticists. His work and study focus on areas including semantics, pragmatics, philosophy of language, and language pathology.

Chierchia studies how meaning takes shape in language. A common thread in his work is the idea that logic (a way of drawing inferences) spontaneously grows and latches on to the syntactic structures produced by our capacity for recursive computation. This 'natural logic' gives a special power to our ability to use language to communicate and refer, a power not found in other species. Some more specific recurring themes are properties and predication (control/raising/ de se attributions), noun phrase structure (quantified vs. 'bare' nominals, mass vs. count), anaphora and presuppositions, implicatures and polarity phenomena. He is also very interested in pursuing these topics by experimental means.


Robin Blumfield
Tel: +612 9850 4127

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