Arts & Culture

Looking for language’s universal logic

5 min read

Chierchia searches out common underlying structure in languages

To Gennaro Chierchia, language’s innumerable combinations and subtle changes of structure and meaning are a window onto the human mind.

Chierchia, Haas Foundations Professor of Linguistics, is a leading expert in semantics, the study of the meaning of words, and of syntax, the study of sentence structure. Chierchia’s work extends far beyond the understanding that “table” is that thing in your dining room, however. Chierchia examines word meaning, use, and construction in different languages, seeking to understand their universal logic.

“The great mystery is to understand how matter can be intelligent. Clearly language is the most tangible manifestation of intelligence,” Chierchia said. “By studying language we can get a grip on thought and human intelligence. Language is the overt manifestation of intellectual life.”

Chierchia’s work has led him to interesting collaborations, including work with Harvard’s Mind, Brain, Behavior Interfaculty Initiative. In spring 2008, Chierchia plans to co-teach a class on psychosemantics.

“Chierchia is a brilliant and influential semanticist whose work focuses on the interface between semantics — the study of meaning — and syntax, the study of sentence structure. His most recent work studies implicatures, a topic that has long resisted formal treatment,” said Linguistics Department Chair Jay Jasanoff.

Chierchia came to Harvard in July 2006 from the University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy, where he was a professor of linguistics and director of undergraduate studies for the degree in communication. Chierchia is familiar with the Boston area. He received a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts in 1984 and was an assistant professor at Brown University and an assistant and associate professor at Cornell University.

In 1992, he returned to Italy to teach at the University of Milano, where he taught until 2000. During the 2005-06 academic year, Chierchia served as a visiting professor of linguistics at Harvard and as a Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative faculty fellow.

Jasanoff described Chierchia as deeply cultured, warm, and empathetic. He’s generous with his time and a bridge-builder, Jasanoff said, and can play a major role in building the department. With Chierchia’s appointment, Jasanoff said, the department has added expertise in semantics for the first time.

“The Department of Linguistics has for the first time added the key field of semantics to its areas of coverage. Chierchia’s wider interests in the cognitive science domain strengthen ties between Linguistics and other departments, especially Psychology and Philosophy, that participate in the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative.”

Chierchia is the author of six books, including the textbook “Meaning and Grammar: An Introduction to Semantics,” published in 1990, and “Dynamics of Meaning: Anaphora, Presupposition, and the Theory of Grammar” (1995).

Chierchia said he has long been interested in the link between language and logic, which has been the focus of his work in different areas of linguistics. He said he became interested in linguistics after first being attracted to philosophy. His life, he said, seems to demand change every 13 years. For 13 years he learned and taught in the United States. Then he returned to Italy, had to learn to negotiate a new academic system, and now, 13 years later, he’s back in the States.

“Going back [to Italy] was nice at a personal level, tricky at the academic level,” Chierchia said.

Chierchia has studied how different languages stem from a common underlying semantic structure. One area focuses on the use of classifiers in different languages such as Chinese and English. On their faces, the two languages are starkly different, Chierchia said. One difference, he said, is that in English there are two kinds of nouns, those for substances, such as blood, and those for objects, such as a table. Chinese, however, doesn’t have nouns for individual objects.

That difference might strike one as an indication that the languages represent two very different ways of thinking, Chierchia said. But on closer inspection, one finds commonalities that negate the differences, such as the English words for groups of single objects, such as “furniture,” which have attributes of both substances and objects. Similarly, the Chinese language has a “unit” modifier that goes before some words, indicating a single table or other object.

Chierchia’s studies extend to language and logic as well. He offered the complex logic behind the English word “any” as an example. While native-speaking children learn to use “any” correctly, the word is very difficult for adult learners of English, Chierchia said. Consider the ungrammatical sentence “I know that there are any cookies left.” It sounds quite unnatural. Yet the same string of words “there are any cookies left” embedded in other constructions becomes perfect: “I wonder whether there are any cookies left,” or “I doubt that there are any cookies left.” As it turns out, the behavior of “any” is one of the keys to understanding the relation between logic and language, Chierchia said.

“What is the origin of logic? Is it linked to language or is it autonomous from language? Is it inborn, or acquired through learning? Is it natural or an historical artifact?” Chierchia asked. “These are questions that I find fascinating.”