Laufende Projekte / Current Projects

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Research Units

Questions at the Interfaces

Questions at the Interfaces

The Research Unit Questions at the Interfaces (QI) is dedicated to investigating question formation, with a particular emphasis on non-canonical questions (e.g., rhetorical, echo, self-addressed, suggestive). This Research Unit (RU) combines expertise from theoretical, computational and experimental linguistics as well as visual analytics to study how different components of grammar (morphology, syntax, phonology) interface with one another to signal a particular meaning.

"What if?"

"What If?" (FOR 1614): Project P2 (Romero) and project P8 (Biezma)

Conditional and in particular counterfactual reasoning plays an important role in everyday life. It is important to know not only how things are or were, but also how they could have been and how they would be under certain circumstances. Counterfactual thinking plays a similar role in inquiries in the natural sciences and humanities. Yet one might be concerned about the scientific standing of counterfactual reasoning. Both a satisfactory (historical) epistemology and a detailed linguistic analysis of the conditional claims used to convey counterfactual thinking are still wanting, as is a description of the role of counterfactuals in more complex narrative and rhetorical structures such as thought experiments.

Counterfactual reasoning and thought experiments take a wide variety of forms in different disciplines. Our group brings together history of philosophy, linguistics, literary studies, philosophy and psychology to examine counterfactuals and/or thought experiments in these domains and from these various perspectives.

Our work focuses on three topics:

  1. The epistemological role of counterfactual reasoning and practices of simulation
  2. The semantics and pragmatics of counterfactual discourse
  3. The psychological and social dynamics of counterfactual thinking


Individual Projects

Decomposition of Comparative and Superlative Quantificational NPs at the Syntax/Semantics Interface

Decomposition of Comparative and Superlative Quantificational NPs at the Syntax/Semantics Interface (Penka)

Nominal expressions in natural language cannot only be used to refer to particular entities, but also to state the quantity of a set (e.g. 'all students', 'most professors'). How these quantificational noun phrases (Q-NPs) come to mean what they intuitively mean is one of the central concerns of natural language semantics. According to the standard approach represented by Generalized Quantifier Theory, quantificational noun phrases consist of a determiner ('all', 'most') and a noun. It is assumed that the essential semantic contribution is made by the determiner, where determiners are taken as unanalysed basic units. In recent years, however, there has been a growing body of evidence indicating that this approach is too simple and cannot account for the semantic contribution of Q-NPs in its full generality. Instead, a more insightful analysis of Q-NPs is needed, which takes their internal morphosyntactic make-up into account and derives their meaning compositionally from the meaning of the parts involved. As an example, the meaning of 'fewer than ten' should be derived from the combination of the meaning of the parts it consists of, i.e. 'few', the comparative '-er than' and the numeral 'ten'. The aim of this project is to further develop and bolster the compositional approach to the semantics of Q-NPs. To this end, we investigate whether and how the meaning of Q-NPs involving comparative or superlative morphology ('more/fewer than n N', 'most N', 'at least/most n N') can be reduced to the semantics of comparatives and superlatives that have been proposed for the adjectival domain.

Bias in Polar Questions

Bias in Polar Questions (Braun & Romero) within SPP 1727

Beyond their (arguably common) truth-conditional contribution, different types of polar questions (e.g. Is Jane coming?, Is Jane not coming?, Isn’t Jane coming (too/either)?, Is Jane really coming?) are often claimed to have different use-conditional content, most notably pertaining to two kinds of bias: original speaker bias and contextual evidence bias. The current empirical generalizations on polar questions and their bias are partial­ ­–existing approaches describe some but not all polar question types– and at times contradictory. Three main lines of analysis have been developed: the first line exploits the notion of “usefulness” of the proposition expressed by the sentence radical (line A), the second line relies on the contribution of the verum operator (line B), and the third line models the differences between the questions at issue in terms of speech acts (line C). Each of these lines accounts for a different set of data and assumes a different pragmatic architecture of discourse and conversational moves and goals.

The novelty of the present project lies in the use of experimental production and perception data that will allow us to decide between these analyses or to develop one of them further. Our first goal is to arrive at an empirically founded characterization of the empirical data. Specifically, we will start out with a large-scale, semi-spontaneous production study in German and English, in which we manipulate the two kinds of bias and analyse the linguistic realization of polar questions (positive vs. negation questions, high vs. low negation, intonation). Crucially, pitch accent placement and type as well as boundary tones, which so far have received little attention in the polar questions at issue, will be analysed in detail. The gathered information will be used to design and conduct perception experiments that tackle three subtle and controversial, but theoretically crucial issues, namely: the split between low and high negation questions, the nature of Ladd’s (1981) ambiguity, and the acceptability of high negation questions with either. The second goal is to evaluate, modify or develop the existing analyses further, informed by the new experimental results. Specifically, we plan to develop a unified and comprehensive account of polar questions (including the contribution of intonation) that can explain the cross-linguistic differences between English and German (and possibly among other languages later on) and that can be extended to similar pragmatic effects in other question types (e.g. rhetorical effects wh-questions). 

"Was tut man, wenn man eine Frage stellt?" / "What is it to ask a question?"

The Emmy Noether junior research group What is it to ask a question? A formal pragmatic investigation of interrogative force is directed by Sven Lauer and funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The project runs from October 2016 to December 2021 and is co-hosted by the Zukunftskolleg and the Department of Linguistics at the University of Konstanz. It is loosely associated with the DFG Research Unit Questions at the Interfaces (FOR2111).

Clause Structure and Utterance Meaning: Word Order, Particles, Emphasis

Clause Structure and Utterance Meaning: Word Order, Particles, Emphasis (Bayer) is a DFG-funded research project at the University of Konstanz. It runs from April 2013 to September 2018.


The project aims at the development of an explicit syntactic account of illocutionary meaning, i.e. the meaning of utterances. Research will start from standard generalizations about the role of word order in clausal typing and will move from there to a thorough investigation of the functional architecture of the clause. Discourse particles as they are found in German, but also in weakly related languages such as Bangla, play a central role in the formation of utterance meaning. They turn basic sentence types such as questions into more fine-grained types such as rhetorical questions, surprise questions, disapproval questions etc. The working hypothesis is that they have shifted from heterogeneous sources (often adverbs) to the repertory of functional heads, and as such contribute in fundamental ways to the functional set-up of the clause.

Certain options of word order, sometimes in combination with discourse particles, yield an emphatic character (also called ‘mirativity’) that is typical for the expressive side of utterances and often endows them with an exclamative flavor. Both German and Bangla offer good reasons to assume that (at least certain forms of) emphatic marking is ‘hard-wired’ in grammar, and that it must be distinguished from information structure. Consideration of German and Bangla will help reorienting research on utterance structure from a restrictive focus on the so-called ‘left periphery’ to the entire clause including lower segments and, importantly, also the post-verbal space. Among the Indo-Aryan languages, Bangla is known for its rich particle vocabulary and is as such a top candidate for comparison with German. Although it is now the sixth largest language of the world in terms of the number of speakers, it is linguistically under-researched. An offshoot of the theoretical work on Bangla will be the development of a reference work and a data bank on Bangla particles which should be useful for a broader audience.

Der slavische Verbalaspekt in süd- und westslavischen Sprachinseln

Representations of scales and times in natural language

This project brings together two notions – temporal reference and scalarity – that have individually received much attention in the linguistic semantics literature (and the related fields of cognitive science and philosophy), but whose interface has not yet been adequately addressed. It uses the tools and methods of formal semantics combined with novel data collected from fieldwork on Luganda and Washo, two understudied and typologically diverse languages, to inform theories of cross-linguistic variation and language universals within the realm of natural language meaning.

The project addresses the following questions:

  •  Q1: To what extent can certain temporal expressions share formal properties with gradable adjectives like tall? 
  • Q2: What are the relevant parameters of cross-linguistic variation that are needed to account for the typology of temporal reference systems in the world’s languages? 
  • Q3: Can the lessons learned from studying graded tense languages be applied to scalar temporal adverbs in other languages, such as English just and recently, or German gerade and vor kurzem?

Supported by a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung to Ryan Bochnak from April 2017-December 2018.

Contact: Ryan Bochnak (website)

Evaluation Metrics for Visual Analytics in Linguistics

Within linguistics, the use of large sets of data via a combination of rule-based and stochastic methods is now standardly part of the analysis of language structure. However, though scatter plots, bar or pie charts, and trees as provided by R, for example, are standardly used, novel visual computation techniques have only just begun to be explored. The overall aim of this project is to evaluate whether visual analytics indeed represents a methodology that can yield improved results for linguistic research and to establish metrics for the evaluation of visual analytics approaches by conducting linguistically motivated case studies on historical data.

Project page

Principal Investigator: Prof. Miriam Butt

Linguistic Resources for Urdu

The study of linguistics in Pakistan has largely been limited to the field of Applied Linguistics, specifically English Language Teaching, and Sociolinguistics. Very little work has been done within descriptive and theoretical linguistics and there is an equally limited capacity in this area (active linguistic researchers number no more than a handful internationally), even though there is significant need of capacity in this area in Pakistan, where more than 66 languages are spoken. The current project aims to collaboratively advance research in Pakistani linguistics, focusing on grammatical and semantics aspects of the national language of Pakistan, Urdu. This collaboration will help train researchers, mature the field of linguistics in Pakistan and develop a sustainable relationship between Pakistani and German universities.

Project page
Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Miriam Butt

Kann man die Weisheit mit Gabeln fressen? Die Speicherung und Verarbeitung komplexer Wortgefüge im Gedächtnis

Wir Menschen besitzen die Fähigkeit, Bedeutungen in Form von komplexen Wortkombinationen zu konstruieren, wobei die Bedeutung der komplexen Formation eine ganz andere sein kann als die der Einzelteile. Zum Beispiel lässt sich die Bedeutung des Wortes umkommen nicht aus den Bedeutungen von um und kommen zusammensetzen, ebenso wie sich die Bedeutung eines Idioms wie die Weisheit mit Löffeln fressen nicht aus den Bedeutungen der Einzelteile ergibt. Das vorliegende Projekt geht der Fragestellung nach, wie diese komplexen Wortgefüge und ihre Bedeutungen in unserem Gedächtnis gespeichert und verarbeitet werden. Die Anwendung von interdisziplinären Methoden aus der Psycho- und Neurolinguistik soll Einblick in diese Gedächtnisstrukturen geben: Wird die Bedeutung der komplexen Wortformationen unabhängig von der Bedeutung der Einzelteile gespeichert und abgerufen? Studien an Kindern werden außerdem Einblick in die Entwicklung dieser Gedächtnisspuren geben, und Vergleiche mit anderen Sprachen sollen Besonderheiten der deutschen Sprache zum Ausdruck bringen.

Project page
Principal Investigator: Dr. Eva Smolka