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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium Series

It is Greenish or it Wiggles: Engineering Aristotelian Meaning

Friday 20 September 2019
15.30 Tea and Coffee; 16.00 Lecture Drinks afterwards in LUCL Common Room, Wijkplaats 4 (top floor)
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 2
2311 BZ Leiden


The Aristotelian meaning of a sentence is what we – silently, paradoxically – converge upon before diverging in other dimensions of language-in-use. It covers the very backbone of language communication: you understand what she is saying, and therefore, you can agree or disagree or wonder and get angry, confused, impressed or flattered. Both in the science of grammar and in natural language processing, however, Aristotelian meaning is too often avoided or neglected, if not rejected.  As a consequence, the meaning of a sentence is ill-defined. At the same time, meaningful use of natural language has become a principle target of artificial intelligence. Outside linguistics, everybody seems to be working at it, and interpretation-free language processing is rather successful. Do we need Aristotelian semantics at all?
This talk addresses some insights in the mechanics of meaning which emerged during long term efforts to construct a cyclic (language-to-language, meaning-to-meaning) semantic parser-generator for Dutch. These insights boil down to the following conjectures, avoiding semantic, grammatical or algorithmic naivety.
(a) The meaning of a sentence is the outcome of an operation on that sentence, a computation, rather than a rigid attribute of it.
(b) In order to compute the meaning of a sentence and to verify that computation, we need an explicit formal, analytic, granular semantic algebra, covering almost classic semantic concepts by Montague, Wierzbicka, Van Benthem, Zwarts and others.
(c) The computation of meaning both exploits and disregards fine-graded syntactic analysis.
(d) Syntactic structure does not project semantic space, and propositional structure does not project a syntactic pattern. Syntax and semantics entertain different levels of entropy; therefore, meaningful parsing and meaningful generation are incongruent processes.

The interference of grammar, algorithms, data structures and the empirical cycle is demonstrated by the present state of the Delilah language automaton, with a focus on meaning-driven generation. Some of the limits and the challenges of algebraic approaches to semantic engineering – in particular issues of scale and sustainability - will be addressed and discussed. In summary, the talk advocates a grammar based, engineering approach to Aristotelian meaning.

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