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New Frontiers of Formal Semantics

Final Report Summary - FRONTSEM (New Frontiers of Formal Semantics)

While formal semantics has been a success story of contemporary linguistics, it has mostly been narrowly focused on spoken language. Systematic extensions of its research program have been explored in the ERC project 'New Frontiers of Formal Semantics': beyond spoken language, beyond human language, and beyond language proper.

First, the project contributed to the development of the field of 'sign language semantics'. It has long been uncontroversial among linguists that sign languages are full-fledged and grammatically very sophisticated languages, which are essential to the communication of Deaf people. But as the project showed, they also have unique insights to offer on how meaning works in language in general. In several cases, they make visible a logical structure that must be inferred indirectly in spoken language. In addition, sign languages make systematic use of iconic means that are mostly absent from speech. As a result, sign languages are along some dimensions more expressive than spoken language because they combine the same kind of logical resources with far richer iconic means. They are, in a sense, 'super languages' – and they have a unique contribution to make to our understanding of human meaning.

Second, the project ventured beyond spoken language and investigated meaning in various species of non-human primates. In collaboration with primatologists, detailed datasets were investigated and led to highly explicit models of the meaning of primate calls. While the resulting systems are entirely different from human grammar, they are very interesting in their own right, and have been illuminated by general methods and sometimes specific ideas from formal linguistics.

Third, the project ventured beyond language in an investigation of meaning in music. Musicians and music lovers intuitively know that music can convey information about an extra-musical reality. The project developed a theory of how music achieves this, by way of abstract musical animations that are reminiscent of iconic components of meaning that can be found in pictures, in gestures and in some signs. A proof of concept was developed to show how an explicit music semantics can be developed, one that explains the inferences music can trigger while respecting their relatively abstract character.

These results contribute to an emerging movement of 'Super Linguistics', the application of tools from formal linguistics to non-traditional objects of study.