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Chierchia named Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics

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Gennaro Chierchia, one of the world’s leading formal semanticists, has been named Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1.

Chierchia, 52, is professor of linguistics at the University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy, where he is also director of undergraduate studies for the degree in communication. He is currently a visiting professor of linguistics at Harvard and the 2005-06 Mind, Brain, Behavior Faculty Fellow.

William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “In addition to being a brilliant and influential semanticist, Professor Chierchia is a wide-ranging general linguist who has made important contributions in phonology, syntax, and language acquisition. He also brings a reputation as a warm and empathetic colleague and mentor.”

Chierchia’s scholarly reputation was first established by his 1984 dissertation on the syntax and semantics of infinitives and gerunds, widely viewed as a breakthrough in the study of the processes that map meaning onto syntactic structure. Several years later he began developing his theory of “dynamic semantics,” with consequences for the understanding of the rules governing interpretation of pronouns, question-quantifier interactions, and similar phenomena. The mature theory of dynamic semantics was the foundation for “Dynamics of Meaning: Anaphora, Presupposition, and the Theory of Grammar” (University of Chicago Press, 1995), the fourth of Chierchia’s six books.

In 1998, Chierchia proposed a “nominal mapping parameter” to understand how languages like Chinese, which make extensive use of classifiers, and languages like English, German, and Italian, which do not, may come from a common underlying semantic structure. This theory has had major repercussions for cognitive science, because it makes important predictions about how humans categorize the world and understand cognitive contrasts such as the difference between nouns of substances (like “water” and “gold”) and nouns of objects (like “table” and “tree”). Chierchia’s recent focus on pragmatics and implicatures has substantially extended the scope of his work beyond formal semantics and linguistics to fields dealing with the experimental study of reasoning, such as cognitive psychology.

Together with Sally McConnell-Ginet, Chierchia co-authored “Meaning and Grammar: An Introduction to Semantics” (MIT Press, 1990), the first textbook devoted to modern natural language semantics, and one that remains widely used. Now in its second edition (MIT Press, 2000), the book has also been translated into Italian and Korean.

Chierchia holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the Università di Roma, awarded in 1977, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts, awarded in 1984. He was an assistant professor of linguistics at Brown University from 1983 to 1985, and an assistant and associate professor of modern languages and linguistics at Cornell University from 1985 to 1992. He taught at the University of Milano from 1992 to 2000, with a year in 1994-95 at the University of Salerno.