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Forests and Trees: the Formal Semantics of Collective Categorization

Forests and Trees: the Formal Semantics of Collective Categorization

Objective

Languages have various ways of referring to collections like families, herds and forests. The grammatical properties of collective expressions critically determine how we understand them. The sentences “this forest is old” and “these trees are old” categorize an arboreal collection using a concept (“old”), while conveying different meanings. This semantic difference correlates with the difference in grammatical number between the sentences: singular vs. plural. Such effects of collective categorization in language are crucial for understanding the connections between grammar and the mind, as well as for artificial intelligence. However, currently little is known about the mechanisms underlying our linguistic ability to conceptualize collections. This project aims to develop a novel linguistic theory of this ability, applied to a wide range of empirical phenomena and interdisciplinary challenges in computational semantics and comparative linguistics, benefiting from the recent synergy between linguistics and the psychology of concepts. The idea is that when classifying a collection, speakers rely on two inferential principles with mental concepts: (i) geometric inferences: a forest is considered “far away” if all of its trees are far; (ii) symmetric inferences: two trees are “similar” if each of them is similar to the other. The leading hypothesis is that uniform interactions between these inferential principles and the grammar of collective expressions account for collective categorization in language. This hypothesis is explored in three work packages, each of which develops the semantic theory and evaluates it on a different interdisciplinary domain: human interaction with geographic information systems, behavioral linguistic experiments, and comparative linguistics. Together, the three components of the project are expected to lead to a theoretical breakthrough in semantic theory and to enrich its interdisciplinary connections with neighboring disciplines.
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Host institution

UNIVERSITEIT UTRECHT

Address

Heidelberglaan 8
3584 Cs Utrecht

Netherlands

Activity type

Higher or Secondary Education Establishments

EU Contribution

€ 2 342 875

Beneficiaries (2)

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UNIVERSITEIT UTRECHT

Netherlands

EU Contribution

€ 2 342 875

CITY UNIVERSITY OF LONDON

United Kingdom

EU Contribution

€ 151 403,75

Project information

Grant agreement ID: 742204

Status

Ongoing project

  • Start date

    1 November 2017

  • End date

    31 October 2022

Funded under:

H2020-EU.1.1.

  • Overall budget:

    € 2 494 278,75

  • EU contribution

    € 2 494 278,75

Hosted by:

UNIVERSITEIT UTRECHT

Netherlands