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Swart, H.E. de

Swart, H.E. de


Henriëtte de Swart, born in Doetinchem, the Netherlands, in 1961. Ph.D. from the University of Groningen. Professor of French Linguistics and Semantics at Utrecht University.

Fellow (1 September 2005 – 30 June 2006)


Linguists are expected to speak many languages, so it often comes as a surprise that most do not, but make claims about different languages nevertheless. I am a semanticist, which means that I study the meaning of natural language. People often wonder why I write about English, Hungarian or Afrikaans, while I am affiliated with the French department. I am intrigued by the way all languages serve the function of communication equally well, but they package the content of their messages in different ways. One issue that illustrates this variation in meaning concerns the expression and interpretation of negation, which I studied this year. Not is a small word in English, and is seems to have a very transparent meaning. The sentence ‘it is raining’ is true if and only if it is actually raining, and ‘it is not raining’ is true if the sentence ‘it is raining’ is false. And if someone asks me who came to the party, and I want to give a negative answer, I can answer ‘nobody’ in English. In Dutch I would use ‘niemand’, in French ‘personne’, in Italian ‘nessuno’, in Greek ‘kanenan’, etc. to convey the same meaning. But in sequences which combine two or more of these expressions, we find important differences in meaning between languages. English ‘Nobody said nothing’ means that everyone said something, but Italian ‘Nessuno ha detto niente’ means that nobody said anything. French ‘Personne n’a rien dit’ is ambiguous between the two interpretations. These observations have drawn the attention of linguists, because they seem hard to reconcile with the view that negation is a universal category of natural language, and presumably of human cognition. In this year’s NIAS project, I developed a semantic model for this cross-linguistic variation, which explains the variation between the languages, but maintains the universal features of human cognition. I applied the model to early second language acquisition to find out more about the emergence of the unmarked negation, and drew inferences from this “restricted linguistic system” towards language genesis. Negation might very well be the first expression that arose which allows recursion, that is, embedding of a category under an expression of the same category (as in a sentence ‘not S’ embedding another sentence under ‘not’). Given the discussion on recursion as a feature that distinguishes human language from animal communication systems, the analysis of negation in “restricted linguistic systems” leads to new insights about language genesis.