Linguistics Public Lectures with Professor David Adger

When:29 Mar 2016, 2pm - 4pm
30 Mar 2016, 11am - 1pm
Venue:Morven Brown 310 (map ref C20)
Who:Professor David Adger (Queen Mary University)
David Adger

The School of Humanities and Languages invites you to a series of lectures in our Linguistics seminar series. The presenter is Professor David Adger from Queen Mary University of London

About David Adger

David Adger is Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London, and is the current President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain. He did his PhD at the Centre for Cognitive Science in Edinburgh, before moving to York and then finally to London. He is the author of Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach (OUP), and A Syntax of Substance (MIT Press), and coauthor of Mirrors and Microparameters (CUP). He has also published articles on syntactic theory, comparative syntax and the interfaces of syntax with prosody, morphology and semantics in a wide range of major journals. His work focuses on syntactic theory, the syntax of endangered languages (especially Scottish Gaelic) and the interface between syntax and sociolinguistics.

Lecture I: 29 March, 2pm – 4pm, Morven Brown 310


Structure in Babel

Jorge Luis Borges, in his story `The Library of Babel’ imagines a library of books so vast that even were every book reduced to the size of an atom, the Library as a whole could contain many trillions of our universe. The books in the library are all uniform in the number of pages they have, in the number of lines in a page, the number of symbols in a line, and the actual symbols used. But they contain every possible permutation, which means they contain every possible book of a certain size and every sentence of English, and many other languages that will fit in a book. If we expand the symbols Borges allowed to today’s Unicode symbols, the library would contain every sentence (of a certain size) in every language known to humankind, from the sentences in this abstract to the lost tomes of Alexandria, Shakespeare’s Cardenio, Confucius’s Book of Music and the burned codexes of the Aztecs. Now imagine I take a random sequence of symbols from a random book from the library and present it to you and ask you: is this English? Without a doubt you’ll be able to yes or no, and your judgment will be shared by people who grew up in the same community as you. How is it possible for you to make this judgment over a domain so vast that’s it’s practically infinite, given you have a finite resource, your brain?

I outline the classical answer to this problem, that of generative grammar, and show how the current generative model is necessary as a basic part of the explanation, but is too loose. I sketch how this model might be restricted, by tying together grammar and meaning in a way that matches the empirical data we know of from work in linguistic typology. I argue that this model makes an inescapable prediction about the centrality of hierarchical structure in human language. With this in hand, I then report on experimental work, using artificial language learning, that shows that people store their linguistic knowledge in the way predicted by the generative approach. Other approaches to modelling grammatical knowledge can incorporate these kinds of structures, but they don’t need to, so they don’t provide a real explanation, deriving from deeper principles, as to why linguistic knowledge is structured. This is what makes the generative approach more attractive as a scientific theory of the fundamental nature of our grammatical abilities

Lecture II: 30 March, 11am- 1pm, Morven Brown 310


How specialised is syntax?

A currently controversial issue in cognitive science is whether explaining linguistic phenomena requires appeal to properties of human cognition that are specialised to language. I argue in this talk that investigating this issue requires taking linguistic research results seriously, and evaluating these for domain-specificity. I present a particular empirical phenomenon, bound variable interpretations of pronouns dependent on a quantifier phrase, and argue for a theory of this empirical domain that is couched at a level of theoretical depth which allows its principles to be evaluated for domain-specialisation. I argue that the relevant principles are specialised when they apply in the domain of language, even if analogues of them are plausibly at work elsewhere in cognition or the natural world more generally. So certain principles may be specialised to language, though not, ultimately, unique to it. Specialisation itself is underpinned by ultimately biological factors.

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