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Psycho-semantics: new data for formal semantics models, stronger frameworks for experimental studies

Final Report Summary - SEMEXP (Psycho-semantics: new data for formal semantics models, stronger frameworks for experimental studies)

We communicate with our native languages effortlessly. Yet, any proper model of this competence uses amazingly complex operations, be they statistical estimations or formal calculations. Making these calculations explicitly, it seems, would require an extraordinary amount of time and efforts, if it was at all possible. Yet, we seem to be going through these computations with ease in everyday conversation. To gain a complete understanding of this amazing competence, we need to not only offer a model that can describe what elementary operations this competence is made of (access to lexical semantics, compositionality to combine these lexical meanings, pragmatic enrichment, etc.), but also to document which of these various operations are effortful, which are acquired earlier in development, etc. In this project, we have documented the psycholinguistic aspects of various operations necessary to understand language. We have studied in this way phenomena that are ubiquitous in everyday language, but yet had not necessarily been studied from the dual perspective of (i) a formal model, (ii) a systematic psycholinguistic test of this model. For instance, we have studied not only the meaning of simple declarative sentences (often modeled by describing the conditions under which a sentence is true or false), but also the meaning of questions (which cannot simply be reduced to truth and falsity) or various sources of ambiguity (from homophony at the lexical level, to so-called scopal ambiguities at a more structural level).

The project offers methods to study semantic phenomena in a systematic theoretical and empirical fashion. Many linguistic phenomena seem to be complex, and it is tempting to conclude that they are the exclusive domain of natural languages, the prime vector of subtle and complex communication. Yet, in our efforts to characterize and document these phenomena well, we have also found that many of the hallmarks of complex semantics can be found in human non-linguistic communication, and even in non-human animal communication.