Category Archives: semantics

Friday, November 17 at 3:30 PM: Fieldwork Recap (Part 1)

The Language Variation and Change workshop will host its first fieldwork recap session this Friday, November 17th at 3:30 PM in Rosenwald 301. Come learn where students are doing their fieldwork, their methods, and the challenges they face. This week we’ll hear from Hilary McMahan, Cherry Meyer, Kat Montemurro, and Adam Singerman! A small reception will follow everyone’s presentations.

Friday, January 13 at 3:30 PM: Lilia Rissman (UChicago)

Welcome back to another exciting quarter of talks from the LVC workshop! We’re kicking things off with a talk from postdoc Lilia Rissman. So come join us in Rosenwald 301 this Friday, January 13th, at 3:30 PM. A light reception will follow the talk.

Consistency and variability in the mapping from event concepts to event semantics”

Lilia Rissman
University of Chicago

Developing language requires constructing mappings between concepts and linguistic forms. This talk addresses the structure of this interface across languages: whether event concepts map to semantic structures in similar ways, and whether some concepts are more likely to be expressed in language than others. I focus in particular on verbal meaning, causation, instrumentality and voice, integrating evidence from English, Spanish, Mandarin, child homesign and Nicaraguan Sign Language. Taken together, these studies point toward a conceptual/semantic interface in which conceptual knowledge drives cross-linguistic similarities, but some concepts are expressed more variably than others.

9th June: Andrea Beltrama (UChicago)

Monday, June 9th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

From semantic to social meaning. The case study of intensifiers.

The phenomenon of intensification is pervasive in natural language. Examples of such expressions, in English, include very, really, so, extremely. Linguists have addressed intensification with respect to two specific areas: intensifiers’ semantics, and intensifiers’ usage in the social landscape. Yet, an actual integration between these two approaches is currently missing. Exploring this relationship
represents the main goal of this talk.

The presence of a principled connection between semantic and sociolinguistic facts stems from the following observation. While the use of an intensifier with a gradable predicate comes across as fairly neutral (in (1)), the occurrences in (2) normally index a richer constellation of indexical information. First, these expressions are intuitively labeled as informal, colloquial, fit for spoken registers. Moreover, they normally suggest an association with readily identifiable and specific social and psychological traits, or even full-fledged social types (“Valley girl”, “Generation X”, and others)

(1a) The tank is totally full (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of fullness)
(1b) The house is very big (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of size)
(1c) The building is so tall that planes almost touch it (Gradable. Source: scale of height)

(2a) Your attitude is very UChicago. (Non-gradable. Source: stereotypical traits of Uchicago)
(2b) I totally left this at home (Non-gradable. Source: certainty about the proposition)
(2c) I’m so next in line! (Non-gradable. Source: eagerness/enthusiasm about being next)

My leading hypothesis is that speakers, when making use of intensifiers, are exploiting the semantic notion of gradability as a stylistic resource to construct social meaning and social evaluations. In particular, I suggest that intensifiers that semantically target non-lexical scales create a marked linguistic environment, which emerges as a suitable attachment site for social meaning and the related social evaluations.

28 April: Laura Staum Casasanto (UChicago)

Monday, April 28th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Processing Difficulty and the Envelope of Variation

A longstanding problem in the study of syntactic variation is determining the envelope of variation. That is, what are the variants that speakers choose among when they speak? This problem is usually thought of in terms of semantic equivalency: are the variants in question really “different ways of saying the same thing,” or is their selection at least partly based on semantic or pragmatic differences among the variants? But there is another problem facing an analyst of syntactic variation before the work of determining the constraints on variation can begin. To the extent that we consider the statistical tendencies of speakers to use one variant or another part of grammar, we have to ask: Which utterances are things that should be explained via a competence grammar, and which are things that should be explained away via performance factors?
This problem is brought into focus when we study the effect of processing difficulty on variant selection. If one variant is more likely under difficult processing conditions, and another more likely under easy processing conditions, this could be a sign that one variant is an error, more likely to be made under pressure. For example, Staum Casasanto & Sag (2009) found that extra complementizers are more likely to be inserted when the distance between the complement-taking verb and the subject of the complement clause is long. It’s possible to describe this type of pattern in the same terms that we describe other effects on syntactic variant selection, such as style, register, social, semantic, or lexical effects. But to do so misses a critical point: there may be a non-arbitrary, functional relationship between the conditioning factor and the measured outcome. Not only that, but the variant that occurs in the difficult conditions may not be part of any speaker’s idiolect, in terms of grammaticality. If a variant is produced only under conditions of processing difficulty, what aspect of a speaker’s knowledge are we describing when we describe its distribution?
In this talk, I’ll present data from experiments investigating putatively processing-based syntactic variation, propose some ways of distinguishing between grammar and processing, and discuss the limitations of these methods. I’ll argue that although there are strategies we can use to classify variables as inside or outside the purview of grammar, we can only use these once we acknowledge that we need to have different notions of the envelope of variation for different types of analysis of variation.

7 October: Ed King (Stanford University)

Monday, October 7th @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Voice-specific lexicons: acoustic variation and semantic association

Over the past twenty years, evidence has accumulated that listeners store phonetically- rich memories of spoken words (Goldinger 1996, Johnson 1997; Schacter & Church, 1992). These memorized episodes are linked to various speaker characteristics, including gender (Strand & Johnson 1996, Strand 1999), nationality (Hay & Drager 2010), and age (Walker & Hay 2011). Generally, listeners are faster and more accurate at recognizing spoken words when the acoustic patterns match speaker characteristics indexed by acoustic variation. Research has overwhelmingly focused on the match between acoustic patterns and lexical memories, predicting that speaker characteristics are only relevant in the initial lexical access stage of spoken word recognition. We investigate the effect of speaker-specific variation on semantic activation; if acoustic variation influences semantic activation, then effects of indexical variation are more pervasive than typically thought.

We first investigated this issue with a word association task: listeners heard a male or female voice producing words (probes) one at a time. Listeners provided the first word that came to mind for each word. Of 262 probe words, 59 (22%) resulted in different strongest associates across speakers, as determined for each probe-response pair by the frequency of that response to that probe for each voice (e.g., the most frequent response to the prompt ACADEMY_male was “school”, while for ACADEMY_female the strongest associate was “Awards”).

We subsequently tested the effects of these speaker-specific semantic associations in spoken word recognition with a semantic priming experiment, using 30 words whose strongest associates differed between speakers. Listeners heard a word produced by one speaker (the “prime”; e.g., ACADEMY_male or ACADEMY_female), then saw a printed word (the “target”; e.g., ”school” or ”awards”), and indicated whether the printed word was a real word. We expect faster responses when the speaker matches the semantic association (“awards” should be recognized more quickly when preceded by ACADEMY_female than by ACADEMY_male).

Listeners responded more quickly to semantically-associated words when the semantic association strength was strong and speaker-specific (p = 0.016). These results indicate that speaker-specific acoustic cues mediate spoken word interpretation as well as recognition. We suggest that a speaker’s voice provides semantic context in spoken word recognition.

27 November: Andrea Beltrama (UChicago)

Tuesday, November 27th @3:30 PM, Harper 130

From “tall-issimo” to “game-issimo”: Subjectification and intensification in diachrony


Intensifiers are universally considered to be a productive field for investigating semantic change. However, diachronic work on such expressions mostly focuses on shifts from lexical words to functional ones (e.g., really/very) and treats intensification as a final stage of grammaticalization (Partington 1993, Lorenz 2002). Little has been said, however, on diachronic trajectories within the category of intensifiers, especially those involving words/morphemes that have never had an independent lexical meaning. We propose to fill this gap by discussing the diachrony of the suffixal intensifier  –issimo in Italian. In contemporary Italian -issimo has three distinct functions: (1) degree-modification, (2) slack-regulation, and (3) nominal intensification. Relying on evidence from written diachronic corpora, we show that Antique Latin only has the degree-modification usage, while Old Italian innovated the slack-regulation usage, and nominal intensification is exclusive to contemporary Italian. We argue that this diachronic pathway reflects a loss of truth-conditional meaning and a shift from the propositional content to speaker’s content. While it would be tempting to analyze this trajectory as a case of subjectification in Traugott’s (2003) sense, we suggest that the emergence of the new meanings of –issimo are better charaterized as the result of an independent re-analysis process. We follow Eckardt (2009) in proposing that such a process is triggered by the need to obviate the pragmatic disruption that is generated whenever the suffix is used in an innovative way.  Within this view, subjectification is no longer seen as a driving force of linguistic change, but as a consequence of the new, less constrained meanings recruited via re-analysis.


(1) In altissimam turrem ascendit animo (100a.D.,LatinLibraryText)

He climbed the tall-issimo (extremely tall) tower courageously.


(2) Nella apoplessía arrivare alla sanità è cosa impossibilissima (1300,

In apoplexy, healing is impossible-issimo (truly/absolutely impossible)


(3) E’la partitissima,la sfida cruciale come nel settimo incontro del baseball (1987, LaRepubblica)

It’s the game-issimo (huge/important/crucial/rivalry/exciting/…game), like the World

Series’ game 7.