Seminar für Sprachwissenschaft


The Oberseminar features talks by invited speakers or colleagues from the department. Speakers present current research on any area relevant to general and theoretical linguistics. Everybody is welcome to attend. Students are especially encouraged to attend in order to experience research related talks by specialists first-hand.


This semester the Oberseminar takes place at 16:15 on Mondays at the Seminar für Sprachwissenschaft at Wilhelmstrasse 19, room 1.13.

Summersemester 2019

29th April

Slawomir Wacewicz

Title: Linguistic politeness as strategic behavior: (some) costs and benefits of polite language use

Abstract: Behavioral ecology explains the behavior of animals by treating them as rational agents driven by a maximisation of their benefit-cost differentials. On the uncontroversial assumptions that humans are animals, and that speaking is a type of behavior, this overall approach should - at least in principle - generalise to language use: it should be possible to understand speakers as “rational decision-makers who make tradeoffs between costs and benefits”. 
Despite the obvious difficulties involved in determining both the relevant types behavior (language use) and the relevant costs and benefits, there has been some success in applying this reasoning to “pockets” of linguistic behavior such as indirect speech (Pinker, Nowak & Lee 2006) or politeness (Quinley 2012). Most recently, the Responsibility Exchange Theory (RET; Chaudhry and Loewenstein 2019) effectively provides a proof of concept of this general approach for a narrow class of dyadic interactions (assignment of responsibility for a positive/negative outcome): it establishes functional classes of linguistic behavior (apologising, thanking) and works out a compelling theory of the associated social costs/benefits. In my talk, I build on the conceptual foundation proposed by Chaudhry and Loewenstein (2019) and look into ways of extending their approach.

6th May

Judith Tonhauser

Title: Factive presuppositions? An empirical challenge

Abstract: A long-standing and widely-held assumption is that the content of the complement of factive predicates like “know” is presupposed whereas that of non-factive predicates like “think” is not. There is, however, disagreement in the literature about which properties define factive predicates and whether the contents of the complements of particular predicates exhibit the properties attributed to factive predicates. The resulting disagreement about which predicates are factive is troublesome because the distinction between factive and non-factive predicates has played a central role in the study of presuppositions. This talk, which is based on joint work with Judith Degen (Stanford University), investigates properties of the contents of the complements of clause-embedding predicates with the goal of understanding how such predicates can be classified. We argue that predicates presumed factive are more heterogeneous than previously assumed and that there is little empirical support for the assumed categorical distinction between factive and non-factive predicates. We conclude by discussion the implications for future research on and analyses of presuppositions and other projective content.

20th May

Uta Reinöhl

Title: Why do we have to say certain things? On the obligatorification of dependents

Abstract: A common feature of the grammaticalization of function words is that they develop the requirement for obligatory dependents. For instance, English the does not occur except when followed by a nominal construction. This talk offers an account of the historical development of obligatorification - how dependents develop from optional extras to required accompaniments. I will show how the process leading to obligatorification is driven by universal communicative requirements. In this sense, the development in question sets in before grammaticalization “proper”, rather than being a result of grammaticalization as has been widely (if only implicitly) assumed. In fact, specific semantic structures create the need for overt hosts at every synchronic stage of every language. Only rarely does this requirement for an overt dependent develop into a syntactic requirement as a result of grammaticalization. I illustrate this with both diachronic and synchronic examples from diverse parts of speech that stem from several languages.

27th May

Hans Kamp

Title: Pronouns, Descriptions, Bridging

Abstract: Recent work on coreference and non-coreference anaphora makes no clear distinctions between different kinds of non-coreference anaphora and also seems to imply that coreference anaphora is a special kind of non-coreference anaphora. In this talk I take a closer look at the interpretation processes for anaphoric pronouns and definite descriptions from an interpretation-theoretic perspective. I identify three strategies for the interpretation of pronouns and descriptions. The first strategy always leads to coreference, the second can produce coreference effects and the third normally does not, although it may involve coreference in certain special cases. None of these three strategies can be reduced to either of the two others.

The formal framework in which the investigation is conducted is a version of DRT in which definite noun phrases (definite descriptions and pronouns among them) are treated as triggers of ‘identification presuppositions’ – presuppositions whose resolution identifies the referents of their triggers. The framework makes it possible to describe the strategies in precise and unambiguous terms and to ask precise questions about the ways they are related. A good part of the talk will be devoted to discussing this approach to the semantics and pragmatics of definite noun phrases and to showing how it works for anaphoric pronouns and descriptions.

Time permitting, we will have a look at a potential problem for the analysis: English descriptions with head nouns that denote ‘inalienable relations’, like the mouth, the father, the weight. Given the definition of bridging I will be using these descriptions ought to be perfect bridging descriptions. But in fact they are not. For instance, in normal contexts the sentence ‘No one mentioned the weight’ can’t be understood as meaning that no one mentioned his or her own weight. Nor can in most contexts: ‘Susan grew up like an orphan. She never even met the father’ be used felicitously to say that Susan never met her own father). The solution of this puzzle has to do with the different processes that are available for reinterpreting relational nouns as non-relational and non-relational nouns as relational.

17th June

Matthias Pache
Title: Linguistic diversity within Chibchan
Chibchan languages are spoken at the very heart of the Americas, on the isthmus connecting both continents and in adjacent regions (Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia). Among the language families of Central and South America, the Chibchan family is particularly diverse in typological terms (Adelaar 2007). For instance, the Rama language of Nicaragua has only three phonemic vowels, /a/, /i/, /u/ (Craig 1989: 37), whereas Bribri (Costa Rica) has fourteen (Chevrier 2017: 56). In the domain of verbal person marking, some Chibchan languages use unbound elements, whereas others use prefixes, suffixes, or both (Pache 2015). This talk aims to discuss the following questions: (1) which are the domains of particular variability/relative uniformity within Chibchan? (2) What could have been factors triggering family-internal variability?

Wintersemester 2018/2019

12th November

George Walkden (Konstanz)

Title: Proto-Indo-European: a language without Merge?

Abstract: here

3rd December

Ekaterina Rakhilina, Tatiana Reznikova (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow)

Title: Lexical typology: an introduction to the frame approach

17th December

Jakub Szymanik (University of Amsterdam)

Title: Ease of learning explains semantic universals

Abstract: Despite extraordinary differences between natural languageslinguists have identified

many semantic universals – shared properties of meaning – that are yet to receive a unified

explanation. We analyze universals in a domain of content words (color terms) and a domain of 

function words (quantifiers). Using tools from machine learning, we show that meanings

satisfying attested universals are easier to learn than those that are not. Thus, ease of learning

can explain the presence of semantic universals in many different linguistic domains.

Paper: Steinert-Threlkeld & Szymanik - Learnability and semantic universals  

             Steinert-Threlkeld & Szymanik - Ease of Learning Explains Semantic Universals


14th January

Ramon Ferrer i Cancho (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya)

Title: An emerging theory of word order

Word order is a fascinating phenomenon. During decades, researchers have been collecting many word order regularities that have fed theory. Some of these regularities are the Greenbergian universals of word order, consistent branching or the low number of dependency crossings in the syntactic dependency structures of sentences. Here we will argue these regularities can be regarded as adaptations to the limited resources of the human brain with the help of an emergent theory of word order that provides a unified explanation to word variation and word order change. We will discuss the negative consequences of denying or neglecting the role of functional pressures for the construction of a parsimonious theory of language. 
An apetizer: here

18th January

Torgrim Solstad (ZAS Berlin)

Title: tba

Summer Semester 2018

18th June

Katja Jasinskaja (Cologne)

Title: Attachment in syntax and discourse: Towards an explanation of the variable scope of non-restrictive relatives

Abstract: here

2nd July

Susanne Dietrich (Tübingen)

Title: Processing of presuppositions during speech perception: a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study

Abstract: Discourse structure enables us to generate expectations based upon linguistic materials that has already been introduced. The present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study addresses auditory perception of test-sentences in which discourse coherence was manipulated by using presuppositions (PSP) that either correspond or fail to correspond to items in preceding context-sentences. Thereby, in- and definite determiners referring to either (non-) uniqueness or (not) existence of an item were used as PSP triggers. Discourse violation within the (non-) uniqueness subset yielded hemodynamic activation within the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA) and bilateral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Considering the existence subset, these regions occurred only, if subjects accommodated the discourse. These findings indicate involvement of (i) the working memory (IFG) referring the PSP to contextual information and (ii) a regulator (pre-SMA) managing the process of comprehension by signaling detected errors to the system. This enables the system to continue the process of comprehension, for example, by up-dating the context or tolerating slight errors.

9th July

Shirley-Ann Rueschemeyer (York)

Title: Perspective taking during language comprehension

Abstract: Humans are constantly engaged in social interactions, and many of these interactions are supported by language. In this talk I will be presenting a series of studies investigating how language and social cognitive mechanisms interact in order to facilitate communication. I will start by showing that embodied lexical-semantic representations are activated by words in a flexible manner that reflects both linguistic and pragmatic constraints. Secondly, I will show the results of studies that suggest that when pragmatic constraints affect semantic processing, this is supported by interactions between neural language and mentalizing systems. Lastly, I will suggest that language comprehension is affected by assumptions we hold about other co-listeners as well as speakers. One key mechanism supporting perspective taking between co-listeners may be simulation. Together the studies presented in this talk provide insight into how high level language and social cognitive processes work in concert during successful communicative acts.