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Friday, April 15, 2016 - 12:00pm

IRCS Conference Room

Barbara Partee
Department of Linguistics
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The Starring Role of Quantifiers in the History of Formal Semantics

The history of formal semantics is a history of evolving ideas about logical form, linguistic form, and the nature of semantics. This talk emphasizes parts of the history of semantics where quantifiers played a major role, including the “Linguistic Wars” of the late 1960’s and the conflicts in the philosophy of language between the Ordinary Language philosophers and the Formal Language philosophers. Both conflicts resulted in part from the mismatch between first-order logic and natural language syntax.

Montague’s work, applying his higher-order typed intensional logic to the analysis of natural language, helped lead to resolution or dissolution of both conflicts. Montague’s treatment of noun phrases as generalized quantifiers undermined some of the most important presuppositions behind philosophers’ assertions that “natural language has no logic” and behind Chomsky’s 1955 assertion that the methods of logicians were highly unlikely to be of any relevance to the study of natural language.

One puzzling question that is beginning to be cleared up is what led Montague, a Tarski-trained logician, to devote so much of his attention in his last years to natural language. I can partly answer that question now, and I can also pinpoint when and why he decided to treat NPs as generalized quantifiers, a move that arose out of his work on intensionality.

In subsequent developments, generalized quantifier theory led to the first substantive ideas in formal semantics about semantic universals (Barwise and Cooper, Keenan). And the failure in turn of Barwise and Cooper’s proposed universal that all natural languages have noun phrases interpreted as generalized quantifiers provoked some of the earliest work in formal semantic typology. And some of the most vexing problems concerning the syntax-semantics interface revolved and continue to revolve around semantic scope ambiguity in sentences that show no independent signs of syntactic ambiguity.


Partee, Barbara H. In Press. The starring role of quantifiers in the history of formal semantics. In The Logica Yearbook 2012, eds. Vit Punčochár and Petr Svarny. London: College Publications.

Partee, Barbara H. 2013. Montague’s “linguistic” work: Motivations, trajectory, attitudes. In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 17, September 8-10 2012, eds. Emmanuel Chemla, Vincent Homer and Grégoire Winterstein, 427-453. Paris: ENS.