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The Role of Documenting Semantics and Pragmatics in Understudied Languages

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Language grammars are becoming increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive. Every day new kinds of primary language data from understudied languages are brought to bear upon our current understanding of theories of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and the various interfaces between these. In turn, research in these domains has yielded many tools that can be used the probe the phonological, morphological, syntactic etc. properties of a language. However, even the best language grammars usually contain relatively little semantic or pragmatic information. This is a very active frontier, and in this talk I look at what is involved in documenting the semantic and pragmatic features of words and utterances in understudied languages. We have many highly articulated theories of meaning that not only make testable empirical predictions, but also provide the fieldworker with many diagnostic tools that can greatly expand and deepen the documentation of a language through adding a semantic component to a grammar. We are now in a position to undertake the task of testing these predictions and applying these tools. I use evidentiality and modality as a case study, but I also look at how semantic information from under-studied languages can reflect back on and contribute to what we know about areas fundamental to semantics and pragmatics, such as presupposition and metaphor.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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