LING-L 325 considers the elements of language and how they come together to facilitate communication, especially statements of truth. Using a multi-disciplinary lens, this course explores the opportunities of language and truth.
An interview with Dr. Thomas Grano, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics, is below.
How does this course fit the theme of this year’s Themester?
Dr. Grano: This course fits the “Truth” half of the “Light and Truth” theme. Truth is deeply intertwined with language, in that we routinely use language to express truths (and, for that matter, falsehoods). Fundamental to the meaning of a sentence is its truth conditions: What would the world have to be like for the sentence to be true? For example, if I tell you, “It rained in Bloomington on February 14, 2023,” you may not know whether what I said is true or false, but you do know that, in principle, what I said is either true or false, and you also have some idea of what would have to be the case in order for it to be true. This course introduces formal semantics, which borrow tools from mathematical logic to investigate how word meaning and sentence syntax interact to determine a sentence’s truth conditions. In this way, we can illuminate how a speaker of a language can understand a sentence, even if it’s a sentence that they have never encountered before.
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge or skills do you hope they gain?
Dr. Grano: I would say that the topic of this course is an important one because language is such a ubiquitous part of the everyday experience of most humans, and yet very rarely do we step back and reflect on the amazing ability that we as humans have to use language to communicate our thoughts with each other.
This course is intended to provide an opportunity for such reflection. I hope students come away from the course with a new-found appreciation for this distinctly human ability, as well as with some knowledge about how this ability works and some skills for building on that knowledge.
What, to you, is the most interesting aspect of this course? What do you learn from teaching it?
Dr. Grano For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this course is the interdisciplinary nature of the topic: One cannot do serious formal semantics without also engaging with three other areas of study: mathematical logic, natural language syntax, and natural language pragmatics (the study of how context interacts with and enriches sentence meaning).
This course does not presuppose background in any of these areas but instead introduces students to the needed concepts as our theory of semantics evolves over the course of the semester. In teaching this course, I learn how to better spot connections among these different areas of study and understand holistically how they fit together.
Are there any assignments that you are particularly excited about?
Dr. Grano: The course is structured in such a way that the first several weeks are spent learning symbolic logic and then there is a transition after which point the rest of the course is spent applying symbolic logic to semantic analysis of natural language.
I am most excited about the assignments that begin with that transition point, because this is where the main conceptual pieces of the course finally come together, and we see how it is possible to systematically relate language to logic and logic to truth.
What type of students would you encourage to take this course?
Dr. Grano: This course might be of particular interest to students who have a background in math, logic, or philosophy and are interested in applying such concepts to linguistic analysis, or vice versa, to students who have a background in linguistics and are interested in exploring mathematical, logical, and philosophical dimensions of linguistics.
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