Modal Concepts and Compositionality: New Directions in Experimental Semantics

Gillian Ramchand’s new Research Council of Norway-funded project on Modality will start up this year with a workshop in June. The project is an innovative approach to exploring the meaning of natural language as manifested in cognition. From the proposal: “The innovative aspect of the research is that we intend to build up a framework for the semantic composition of modal meaning that goes beyond the description of sentential truth conditions, aiming in addition to distinguish competing semantic descriptions on the basis of psychological evidence.”

The project will include two new positions, probably one post-doctoral and one PhD position.

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Most influential works in Linguistics?

What do you think are the most influential works in linguistics? Peter Svenonius has compiled a list here of the most cited works, according to Google Scholar. Near the top are general works by Saussure, Sapir, and Jespersen, Lakoff’s work on metaphor, Searle on speech acts, Grice on pragmatics, Halliday on functional linguistics, Brown and Levinson on politeness, and a whole bunch of Chomsky.

Other oldies include works by Jakobson, Greenberg, Quine, Labov, and Lenneberg.

Classics in generative linguistics include Ross’ thesis on islands, Heim’s thesis on indefinites, Abney’s thesis on DP structure, Baker’s book on incorporation, and Pollock’s paper on splitting Infl.

More recent entries (from the 90’s on) include Kayne’s antisymmetry book, Cinque’s 1999 book, Rizzi’s left periphery paper, and several of Chomsky’s Minimalist papers.

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Bidialectalists gather in UB

The conference on Structural and Developmental Aspects of Bidialectalism is nigh! Get ready for ten hours of structured talks and discussion, including international stars and proud local contributions, amply punctuated by breaks for refreshments and meals and informal discussion, preferably performed in alternating dialects.


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The joys of minimizing description length

This week we will be treated to two presentations by Roni Katzir on compression-based learning.

In the LAVA lunch session on Thursday (high noon), he will discuss “an adequate simplicity metric for learning grammars,” going over three alternatives and arguing that compression-based simplicity (roughly, aiming for minimal description length) is the best for induction.

Then, in the colloquium slot (a quarter past two), he will present a talk entitled “Comparing theories of UG using compression-based learning,” in which he will go into more depth on the qualities of compression-based learning. He will discuss two case studies, one from phonology (concerning the Richness of the Base hypothesis) and one from semantics (concerning quantificational determiners).

For abstracts, location details, and more, see the CASTL events page.



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The emergence of semantically interpretable features

On Monday and Tuesday, our international workshop on the emergence of semantically interpretable features will take place, starting at nine sharp in the newly renovated UB auditorium with Anna Papafragrou from the University of Delaware. She’ll be speaking on “Semantics and cognition: The case of evidentiality.” The workshop is a collaboration with the OASIS network. Follow the link for the whole program.

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Friday Colloquium on Machine Language Acquisition, and Why Speech Technology Needs More Linguists

CASTL is proud to present the following Friday Colloquium talk on October 6th at 14.15 in E0105:

Roksolana Mykhaylyk, Amazon and Harvard University

Machine Language Acquisition, and Why Speech Technology Needs More Linguists.


It is hard to imagine our life before the advent of speech technology.  We now take for granted getting directions from the GPS voice in our cars, searching for information by talking to our smartphones, or communicating with personal smart home assistants. This presentation will focus on the role of linguistic and language knowledge in Natural Language Understanding, Automated Speech Recognition, and Text-to-Speech product development. As an example, I will demonstrate how Google Translate and Amazon Echo are able to “speak” and explain in the most basic terms how machines “learn” various languages. I will also suggest some ways through which linguists can enter the IT job market.

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Grammatical Gender project at CAS

Big news: Marit and Terje have just landed a big and prestigious grant to spend a year (2019-2020) at the Center for Advanced Study in Oslo to work on grammatical gender with lots of international collaborators. Congratulations to everybody who was involved in the application process!

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CASTL strongly represented at CGSW at NTNU this week

People have just trickled back in to Tromsø from GALA, the LAGB, and other far-flung events, but many of them will barely have time to repack before heading back off, this time to Trondheim, where the 32nd Comparative Germanic Syntax Workshop starts on Wednesday. I count eight CASTL-affiliated names on the program: Kristine Bentzen, Merete Anderssen, Björn Lundquist, Øystein A. Vangsnes, Marit Westergaard, Peter Svenonius (yours truly), and professors II Tanja Kupisch and Terje Lohndal (appearing twice, once with Marit and once with Dave Kush). It’s great to see CASTL so solidly represented at this high quality event!

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Alex Pfaff to UiO

Alexander Pfaff, who defended his University of Tromsø thesis on Icelandic Noun phrases a little while back, will be starting in a Post-doc position at the University of Oslo in September, working with Kristin Bech among other people.The project is ‘Constraints on syntactic variation: Noun phrases in early Germanic languages’ — a perfect match for Alex’s research interests!

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A very positive external evaluation of CASTL research groups

The Research Council of Norway assembled a big group of external teams to evaluate the humanities at all the Norwegian institutions of higher learning. A panel consisting of linguists with a wide range of specialties evaluated, among other things, 11 research groups   across Norway in linguistics and the Nordic languages, including both AcqVA and CASTL-Fish. They looked at the record for the past five years.

You can read the reports yourself here. The Panel 2 report is the one I discuss most here.

Both AcqVA and CASTL-FISH were given stellar reviews and a top score of 5 for research productivity and quality — only one other linguistics research group in all of Norway was awarded a 5 for research productivity and quality in this evaluation, and that was MultiLing, a Center of Excellence! There was also an “overall” score, and here AcqVA received a 4, despite the structural challenges of being the only research group in the study spread across two institutions, while CASTL-FISH got a perfect score of 5.

There is much praise for both groups. AcqVA is singled out on page 16 as a model of cross-institutional collaboration to be emulated by others. CASTL-FISH is mentioned on the same page as a “star group” with international prominence.

In general, Tromsø comes out of this evaluation quite well (overall evaluation on pp. 29-32 of the Panel 2 report) — it is noted, for example, that UiT produced more publication points in linguistics during the evaluation period than any other institution in Norway (p. 65: 27% of the national total), even UiO with a much bigger department and a CoE.

The eleven groups, in order of numerical ratings, were:

CASTL-FISH (UiT) and MultiLing (UiO), both with a perfect score of 5-5

AcqVA (UiT/NTNU) and Interdisciplinary Writing (NTNU), 4-5 and 5-4

Giellatekno (UiT), Syntax & Semantics (UiO), LaMoRe (computational, UiB), and Historical Sociolinguistics (UiA), 4-4

LALP (Acquisition & Processing, NTNU), 3-4

Multimodality & Learning (UiA) and Norwegian as a second language (Hedmark), 3-3

The numbers should obviously be taken with a grain of salt, as always. The written evaluation is much more informative. Smaller research groups like the sociolinguistic group LAIDUA and projects like ScanDiaSyn/NORMS were evaluated differently (and partly in a different document).

In case you’re curious, the Panel 2 members were: Jasone Cenoz and Karin van der Worp (chair and secretary, respectively; University of the Basque Country), Rogier Blokland (Uppsala), Gunnlög Josefsson (Lund), Paul Kerswill (York), Johan van der Auwera (Antwerp), Martin Volk (Zurich), and Bencie Woll (UCL) (buried on page 77 of the report).

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