Prof. Rothstein's Lab
Prof. Susan Rothstein is a Professor in the Department of English at the Faculty of Humanities.
Research Interests: What is Language?
Language is a system of signs which can be put together hierarchically in novel but rule-governed ways in order to communicate and express thought. In order for the system to be successful, there must be a pairing between the individual signals and the meaning attached to them, and a limited number of semantic operations that interpret the syntactic operations out of which the hierarchical tree structures are constructed. Rothstein’s research focuses on how the meanings are expressed and constrained by syntactic structures, with a particular focus on issues with the syntax and semantics of aspect and of counting and measuring.
The current questions that Rothstein and her group are addressing concern the syntax and the semantics of the mass/count distinction and the expression of the contrast between measuring and counting. Although grammatical expressions of both measuring and counting are numerical operations, they make use of number in very different ways. Counting is putting entities in one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers and presupposes an often context-dependent decision as to how to individuate entities, or put differently, presupposition as to what counts as 'one' entity. In contrast, measuring is the operation of assigning a numerical value to a quantity on a scale. It turns out that the difference in these grammatical operations is expressed by different syntactic structures as well as different morphological markings.
Aspect involves reference not to individuals and quantities but to events, but addresses many of the same questions. The aspect of a verb or verbal complex reflects the temporal contours and boundedness of the events in the denotation of the verb, and this itself presupposes criteria for event individuation, what counts as 'one' event. Because events are inherently constructs that we, when we use language, impose on the world, event individuation is a more complex issue both conceptually and grammatically than the individuation of entities that is presupposed by counting.
An important facet of Rothstein and her group’s recent work is the emphasis on crosslinguisitic variation. Together with colleagues from Brazil, China, the Netherlands and France, they are investigating the question of how fundamental semantic concepts and semantic oppositions are, as expressed in languages with widely different morphosyntactic properties. The contrasts they are investigating include those discussed above, mass versus count, measuring versus counting, atelic versus telic. The group which includes graduate students and postdocs, many of whom are native speakers of languages other then Hebrew and English, is also exploring crosslinguistic differences in the use of bare nouns to denote kind terms. The first set of results indicate that there are some deep crosslinguistic structural commonalities in the expression of these semantic phenomena, although these commonalities may be disguised or hidden because of the very different morphosyntactic properties of the languages under consideration. This gives some indication of general principles underlying how exactly syntax and semantics constrain each other.
The results of this research obviously have clear cognitive implications concerning the computational mechanisms underlying language processing. Together with colleagues from abroad the team has begun to explore some of these implications, especially with respect to the mass count distinction.