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PERSNAL Report Summary

Project ID: 618871
Funded under: FP7-PEOPLE
Country: Germany

Periodic Report Summary 1 - PERSNAL (Perspective and the Self in Natural Language)

This project investigates the encoding of perspective in natural language, with particular emphasis on the semantics of attitude reports (eg 'John thinks that it is raining', 'Mary said that she was smart'). For example, if I say, ‘This chocolate is tasty’, I seem to be expressing my own subjective opinion, or point of view. On the other hand, if I say, ‘Sue thinks that this chocolate is tasty’, I report from Sue’s perspective, not my own. One of the tasks for linguistics is to capture this difference in meaning produced by the use of an attitude verb such as ‘think’. This will in turn contribute to our understanding of ‘theory of mind’ – the human capacity to reason about the thoughts or perspectives of other individuals. The project represents a contribution towards this goal.

In the project, data are employed from fieldwork on understudied languages, and experiments undertaken in the psycholinguistic lab and online. The topic is closely connected to attitudes ‘de se’ - thoughts, expectations, hopes and the like that are inherently first personal: if I say, 'John claims to be a good linguist', then I report that John said ‘I am a good linguist’. The hypothesis investigated is that linguistic reports of attitudes de se are a special case of perspectival language. I investigate to what extent the formal tools that have already been developed for the analysis of attitudes de se can be applied to other perspectival phenomena.

One of the areas where this approach has been fruitful is in the study of sentences that report that someone ‘puts herself in the shoes’ of someone else, as in ‘Sophia imagined that she was Michelle Obama and she lived in the White House’. Previous research has identified a connection between these types of cases and de se reports, however until now, a number of open questions have remained about the exact nature of this connection. In the project, I have used new empirical evidence to sharpen our understanding of these issues. I argue that this data can only be analyzed correctly by assuming a particular analysis of de se reports. The work thus sheds light on a longstanding debate about the proper treatment of de se. The data collected in service of this inquiry include cross-linguistic data from the West African language Ewe, and experiments carried out via the internet.

The results of this work have been published in several high quality linguistics journals, and presented at conferences in Europe and the US. The pursuit of this project has thus enabled me to establish a profile as an expert on attitude reports and perspective within my specialist sub-field of formal and experimental semantics. This has in turn contributed to my being offered a permanent position as a Lecturer in Linguistics (Formal Semantics) at Queen Mary University of London, starting in September 2016. In this role, I look forward to further developing links with researchers in linguistics and philosophy in the UK and throughout Europe.

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