Schock prize for linguists

The 2024 Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy has been awarded jointly to Hans Kamp (University of Stuttgart, Germany) and Irene Heim (MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It as awarded ‘for (mutually independent) conception and early development of dynamic semantics for natural language.’

The laureates are selected by collaboration between three Swedish royal academies: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The final decision is made by The Schock Foundation. The other Schock laureates this year are Lai-Sang Young (mathematician), Steve McQueen (director, screenwriter and artist) and Oumou Sangaré (singer).

Citation for the prize

The awarders of the prize provide the following explanation at Science, art and music meet in the Rolf Schock Prizes 2024 (kva.se).

Natural languages are highly context-dependent—how a sentence is interpreted often depends on the situation, but also on what has been uttered before. In one type of case, a pronoun depends on an earlier phrase in a separate clause. In the mid-1970s, some constructions of this type posed a hard problem for formal semantic theory.

Around 1980, Hans Kamp and Irene Heim each separately developed very similar solutions to this problem. Their theories brought far-reaching changes in the field. Both introduced a new level of representation between the linguistic expression and its worldly interpretation. And in both this level has a new type of linguistic meaning. Instead of the traditional idea that a clause describes a worldly condition, meaning at this level consists in the way it contributes to updating information. Based on these fundamentally new ideas, the theories provide adequate interpretations of the problematic constructions.

Hans Kamp

I summarise below some description of Hans Kamp’s work from:

  • a brief summary at his page at the University of Texas in Austin;
  • a statement by Barbara Partee; and
  • a longer summary of his work on his page at the University of Stuttgart.

University of Texas at Austin

The following short description is from Hans Kamp’s page as a visiting professor at the [University of Texas in Austin] Hans Kamp | Liberal Arts | UT – Austin (utexas.edu)

Professor Kamp’s work focuses on the question how human beings represent meaning and how those representations enable them to do the various things that they do with information. The founder of Discourse Representation Theory, and a leading figure in logic, linguistics, and the philosophy of language, Professor Kamp has written articles on tense logic, adjectives, vagueness, free choice permission, attitudes, and semantic representation that are considered classics in their areas. He is the author of From Discourse to Logic (with Uwe Reyle) and Thinking and Talking about Things.

Stamen by Barbara Partee

A collection of Hans Kamp’s writings appears as Meaning and the Dynamics of Interpretation: Selected Writings of Hans Kamp, edited by Klaus von Heusinger and Alice ter Meulen (2013). (51) Meaning and the Dynamics of Interpretation | hans kamp – Academia.edu

On the publisher’s home page for the collection appears the following statement by Barbara Partee (professor, now emerita, of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst):

Ranking among the philosophers with great and lasting influence on formal semantics, Hans Kamp contributed early foundational research to core theoretical topics like temporal reference and vagueness, then pushed the boundaries of the discipline in new and productive directions. Showing the importance of non-truth-functional aspects of meaning, Discourse Representation Theory proved the value of a dynamic approach to interaction of text and context for our understanding of anaphora, word meaning and context-dependence.

This collection shows very clearly how Kamp has forged ground-breaking connections among semantics, computation, and mental representation, challenging the once dominant Fregean anti-psychologism, while demonstrating that the best theoretical research can simultaneously yield important computational applications and novel cognitive insights.
Meaning and the Dynamics of Interpretation – Selected Papers of Hans Kamp | Brill

University of Stuttgart

The following is summarised from Hans Kamp’s home page at the University of Stuttgart. Prof. Dr. h.c., PhD Hans Kamp | Institute for Natural Language Processing | University of Stuttgart (uni-stuttgart.de)

Over the years my research interests have converged ever more strongly on the question how human beings represent meaning and how those representations enable them to do the various things that people do with information. Those things include drawing inferences and making plans for action. The questions include how people obtain such representations from what they read or are told, and how people reconvert them into words when they want to communicate them to others.

Because of their linguistic dimension these interests subsume most of semantics and pragmatics, large parts of logic. In view of their language-transcendent dimension they include pretty much all that belongs within a general Theory of Information of the sort that is slowly but steadily taking shape.

A more specific concern question for more than two decades has been how natural language gets around the obstacle of our limited capacity for processing complex sentences. When a sentence gets very long, no-one can understand it. Therefore , when narrating an intricate story or explaining a complex state of affairs, we cannot produce one single sentence which would say all if anyone could figure out what it said. Instead, we must produce a discourse consisting of many sentences of reasonable size.

The sentences in such a discourse must hang together in recognizable ways. This allows the interpreter to reconstruct the complex course of events or state of affairs they describe by integrating their individual contributions into a single coherent picture, or representation. Natural languages use many kinds of intersentential prongs and sockets to make this possible. As a result, natural languages differ quite crucially from the predicate calculus and similar artificial languages of formal logic. And understanding how the intersentential prongs and sockets fit together is a challenge—not just for the student of language but for anyone who wants to develop a better sense of how human beings mange to process information generally.

Each sentence in a text (or utterance in a dialogue) gets interpreted in the context of what came before it. It also contributes to the context for what comes after it. This context dependence of meaning gives interpretation a dynamic character. Context dependence and dynamic interpretation are an intriguing and essential feature of how natural languages work.

We now understand much more how context dependence in language works, and how central it is to expressing meaning verbally. But other equally important aspects of meaning have proved frustratingly recalcitrant to formal analysis, and further advance is needed:

  • first, virtually all natural language concepts are vague, or can be vague – there always will be or could be borderline cases.
  • secondly, we often use words in ways that are non-literal, metonymic or metaphorical.

Irene Heim

The following summary is a précis of parts of Introduction: Irene Heim–Biographical Notes, written by Luka Crnič, David Pesetsky and Uli Sauerland. This apears in The Art and Craft of Semantics: A Festschrift for Irene Heim, edited by Crnič and Sauerland (2014). CrnicPesetskySauerland.pdf (semanticsarchive.net) 

Dissertation

Irene Heim wrote a famous dissertation The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases in 1982. The dissertation marked a turning point in the role of semantic theory within generative grammar. It integrating formal semantics tightly with srecent developments in syntactic theory. That development that was to transform the landscape of linguistics over the next three decades. Google Scholar suggests that Heim’s dissertation is the second most cited dissertation in theoretical linguistics.

The dissertation combined formal tools for semantic analysis with recent proposals on syntax to solve some of the most intractable and long-standing problems in linguistics. The opening chapter lays out severe problems in the interpretation of pronouns and other anaphoric expressions. Traditional analyses of the most basic semantic concepts of quantification and variable binding had been unable to solve those problems.

In the 2nd and 3rd chapters, the dissertation solved these problems in two quite different (albeit related) ways. Heim proposed to treat indefinite noun phrases not as existential quantifiers but as predicates:

  • in the 2nd chapter, she integrated this proposal with the model of syntax-semantics interaction being developed then within Chomskyan generative syntax. This was one of the first sustained demonstrations of doing formal semantics in tight integration with formal generative syntax.
  • in the 3rd chapter, she presented an entirely different approach to the same set of ideas: File Change Semantics. That approach analyses meanings as context-change potentials (file change potentials) (see also Heim 1983a). In this framework, sentences affect the context. The framework enriches the standard notion of context by introducing discourse referents, tracking them and associating specific information with them. This accounts for the interpretation of indefinites and pronouns. It does so without recourse to a special level of representation—in contrast to some other, contemporaneous, closely related approaches such as Kamp’s Discourse Representation Theory.

The Heim/Kamp model set the stage for most work conducted in the field in the 80s and early 90s. Within a year or two, innumerable books, dissertations and journal articles presupposed the Heim/Kamp model. They used it to understand additional phenomena. To this day, the core concepts of the theory—existential closure, unselective binding, quantificational variability—form part of the basic tool kit in semantics.  

Later work

Since her dissertation, Irene Heim has contributed to many areas of semantics, including:

  • the theory of presupposition and the theory of indefinites and anaphora—setting the agenda for what is today known as dynamic semantics.
  • definite articles—creating a new domain of inquiry related to presupposition. Heim formulated ‘Maximize Presupposition’. This principles dictates that when choosing among contextually-equivalent alternative expressions, one chooses the one that triggers the strongest presuppositions. The principle applies widely and can explain various apparently unrelated phenomena.
  • a pragmatic approach to concealed questions.
  • other aspects of questions. Her work includes a definitive analysis of embedded questions. She also developed a new analysis of functional readings of questions. The analysis, ingeniously combines a presuppositional treatment of wh-words with independently motivated insights from syntax.
  • the syntax and semantics of comparatives, superlatives, and antonyms.
  • Binding Theory, showing how semantics could take intuitions that syntacticians struggled with and make them precise.
  • using the lambda-calculus to produce better understanding of work by Tanya Reinhart on coreference and binding.
  • temporal semantics, reformulating influential work by Dorit Abusch on tense. Heim clarified the connections between tense and variable binding by investigating feature deletion. In later work, she investigated the same issue in more depth for bound variable pronouns.

In 1998 she wrote Semantics in Generative Grammar with Angelika Kratzer. This is the standard textbook introduction to formal semantics for students of generative syntax.

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