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Kate Davidson, Harvard

Kate Davidson

Kathryn Davidson (Harvard) will present “What is the value of symbolic abstraction?” on Friday, October 14, 2022 at 3:30pm as part of the Linguistics colloquium series. The presentation will be both in-person and available through Zoom. The abstract can be found below. All are welcome!

What is the value of symbolic abstraction?
Although language is often taken to be a paradigmatic case of the use of arbitrary symbols to communicate ideas, it is also clear that linguistic interactions in both signed and spoken languages frequently incorporate elements of iconic depiction. How exactly these two aspects of language interact, and what, if anything, sets apart and motivates the development of symbolic vs. iconic language, is an area of active research on spoken and signed languages and gesture studies. I will briefly overview various approaches to formally modeling the contributions of iconic and symbolic meaning, and make the case that while both are pervasive in natural languages, only symbolic abstraction supports reasoning over alternatives, necessary for many domains in compositional semantics including negation and questions. In contrast to symbolic descriptions, iconic depictions must be reanalyzed as symbolic in order to participate in alternative building structures, providing a clearer motivation for both depictive and descriptive aspects of language, based on their separate compositional capacities.