Research Talk

October 5, 16-17:30

Reinhard Blutner, Amsterdam & Berlin

The nature of systematicity in natural language

Abstract: For many semanticists, logicians and (generative) linguists the principle of compositionality of meaning has immediate appeal because it promises to explain the productivity and systematicity of our linguistic understanding. The idea of productivity refers to the assumption that the representational capacities of the system are unbounded under appropriate idealization. In contrast, the idea of systematicity refers to the claim that there are predictable patterns among the sentences we understand. If we understand some complex expressions we tend to understand others that can be obtained by recombining their constituents. Though we will take the view that compositionality entails productivity as a valid one, we do not believe the distinct view that compositionality entails systematicity.

After explaining the notion of systematicity (in terms of Fodor & Pylyshyn's systematicity clauses) I will substantiate this disbelief by discussing the pragmasemantics of adjectival modification in connection with so-called 'absolute' adjectives. The crucial point is that we cannot analyze these adjectives as 'intersective' as proposed by Fodor, Pylyshyn, Partee, and many others. However, we can follow a Montagovian strategy by taking the meaning of the adjective as a function that applies to the meaning of the noun. Though compositional in the formal sense, this operation fails to predict any kind of systematicity clauses for adjectival modification. In order to account for the expected regularities we have to pose restrictions on the set of possible functions that count as adjective meanings. I want to argue that these restrictions are statistical in nature and can be modeled using a connectionist network that respects the role of encyclopedic knowledge.