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Compositionality: What is it and what is it good for?

Lecturer: Dag Westerståhl

(Stockholm University, Sweden)

Compositionality is usually seen as a desirable design principle for formal languages (though there are exceptions), but when applied to natural languages, it is still much debated in linguistics and philosophy of language, with views ranging from taking it to be trivial or empty, or simply false, to viewing it as a fundamental property of human languages. We start with a quick historical overview, leading up to a precise abstract formulation, or in fact two formulations using two distinct but related frameworks, both of which are due to Wilfrid Hodges. Within such a set-up, compositionality becomes a precise property of a language, or rather of a given syntax-semantics interface for a language, which is non-trivial in the sense that it may hold or fail to hold. We can then locate weaker and stronger forms of compositionality, discover several related properties, and ask precise questions about when they are available and about their interrelations.

During the course we will look at several cases, both in natural and formal languages, where compositionality-related issues have been discussed in the literature. We also consider how various forms of context dependence may affect the idea of compositionality, both extra-linguistic context dependence such as indexicals, demonstratives, or various kinds of pragmatic influence, and special linguistic contexts such as propositional attitude contexts or quotation contexts. We look at the extent to which ambiguity, or the occurrence of idioms, is a problem for compositionality. Finally, we briefly address some common arguments for, and against, the explanatory power of compositionality with respect to the human language faculty.

The course material will consist of the slides (beamer presentation), but as background reading the recent Oxford Handbook of Compositionality, edited by M. Werning, W. Hinzen, and E. Machery (Oxford University Press, 2012), is recommended, especially the chapters by Hodges and Westerståhl.

Course materials: Lec 1  Lec 2  Lec 3  Lec 4  Lec 5 (containing a list of references for the whole course)

On 27 Aug, the lecturer left a message to his students:

Dear students,
At the end of these notes there are four exercises. I will start on Tuesday by going through some of them. It is good if you try to solve them beforehand. Also, if some of you want to write down solutions and hand them (or send them) to, that is a very good idea (but not required), so please do!
See you tomorrow,
-Dag W.

Suggested reading   (Below are their pre-published version)