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Linguistic side effects

Dr. Chung-chieh Shan

Tuesday, January 25, 2005, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Harvard University, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

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How do expressions manage to both denote meanings and perform actions?
Researchers of programming languages have developed formalisms and
intuition to address this question. I apply the same tools to the
syntax and semantics of natural languages.

For example, pronouns in natural languages and variable references in
programming languages can both be thought to retrieve a value from a
storage cell in memory, and thus analyzed analogously. More generally,
_computational side effects_ in programming languages (like input and
control) are analogous to _apparently noncompositional phenomena_ in
natural languages (like questions and quantifiers). Both sides of this
analogy can be treated by giving expressions access to their contexts.

Just as the order in which a computer executes parts of a program can be
modeled in the same way for all computational side effects, the order
in which a human processes parts of an utterance can be modeled in the
same way for all apparently noncompositional phenomena. This notion of
processing uniformly explains such diverse phenomena as crossover in
anaphora, superiority in questions, and ordering effects in polarity
licensing and quantifier scope.

This application of programming-language theory to linguistics thus
unifies an unprecedented variety of empirical observations. In the
opposite direction, I will also mention how linguistics can contribute
to programming-language theory, for example by helping Web programmers
understand how to manage the interaction between browsers and servers.

Dr. Chung-chieh Shan