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NWO grant for research on semantic universals in the modal domain

Linguist Wataru Uegaki received an NWO Grant of 58400 Euro for his research project 'In search of semantic universals in the modal domain'. With this money Wataru can compile a database and organise workshops. An interview with Wataru:

Wataru Uegaki

Congratulations! Can you give us bit of background about the research question behind the project?

Wataru: 'If you have any knowledge of multiple languages, then it is probably evident to you that languages across the world have a wide range of variations in their grammatical properties. But, is there any limit to such variations? Do languages share any significant common properties? The search for properties holding across languages, or ​language universals​, ​is a fundamental goal in linguistics, as it offers a window into our shared linguistic ability as a human kind.

Meanings of ​single ​words​ is one area in which the research on language universals has been highly successful. Although, at first glance, words in different languages appear to express unlimited varieties of meanings, linguistic research has revealed robust similarities in word meanings across languages. For example, although many languages have words corresponding to ​“every”​, ​“some” and "no"​, no language contains a single word with the meaning ​“not every”. However, the state of the art research is crucially limited in its scope; it is largely restricted to traditionally “​logical"​ words like “every” and “no".

This project extends the research on word-meaning universals into an uncultivated domain: ​modal words​. These words include modal auxiliaries (e.g., "​may"/”must”​), attitudinal verbs ("believe"/”know”​), and modal particles (e.g., ​"hoor”​ and ​”wel”​ in Dutch). In this project, we will entertain and evaluate hypotheses about the universals in modal word meanings in view of language samples including Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Ngamo, Romanian, Turkish, and Zapotec.' 

The result of the research will be compiled as a publicly available online database.' 

What could this mean for the public, research and education?

'Modal words have high frequencies in daily conversations. Thus, acquiring their meanings is crucial for ​second-language learners​, as well as for computer-processing of human conversations. However, the intricacy of their meanings present difficulty for second-language education and computational applications. The proposed project will reveal systematic semantic similarities between modal words across languages, which will help improve second-language education strategies. The cross-linguistic database of modal word meanings resulting from the project can be used to train computer systems for e.g., question-answering and automated translation.'

Who will be participating and how long will this project take?

This is a 3-year collaborative project that involves research teams from:

  • Institute of Logic, Language and Information, University of Amsterdam 
  • University of Konstanz
  • University of Potsdam
  • Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (Berlin)
  • University of California, Santa Cruz 

NWO has awarded eight researchers funding from the programme Internationalisation in the Humanities. These are projects in which a Dutch humanities research group collaborates with at least two foreign humanities research groups. The aim of this programme is to facilitate collaboration between Dutch humanities researchers and their foreign colleagues and to strengthen the formation of international networks. A total budget of 300,000 euros is available.
More information about the projects receiving funding

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