Semantics in other minds (Special Workshop 2)

Convener: Wolfram Hinzen

Language is not the only system in humans that has meaning with some formal structure, and it is not uniform among humans either: there is systematic genetic variation in our species giving rise to different cognitive and linguistic phenotypes, across which the structure of meaning need not remain the same (Hinzen, 2017). Semantics, this seems to suggest, is not cut in stone but rooted in biology and hence affected by variation inherent to the latter. It also suggests that changes in semantics could illuminate the nature of language and cognitive disorders alike.

In autism spectrum disorders, in particular, language deviance is widely seen affecting its normal referential function, grasp of word and sentential meaning, and communicative and narrative use (Boucher, 2012). These language changes, moreover, which can range from the total absence of language development to forms of language production behaviourally indistinguishable from neurotypical individuals, show an ‘autism-typical’ linguistic profile, in which semantics has been argued to play a prominent role (Naigles & Tek, 2017). Impairments in pragmatics are widely regarded as universal in the autism spectrum. Nonetheless, as of now, research on semantics in autism, both at a word and sentential level, has remained relatively scarce and is near-absent in low-functioning autism.

Schizophrenia is another major psychopathology where distinctive changes of language are seen (McKenna & Oh, 2005), which can have diagnostic and predictive significance, apart from potentially illuminating the neural correlates and etiology of this disease and specific symptoms such as formal thought disorder or auditory verbal hallucinations. Similar points have been made for Alzheimer’s disease, where language changes can predict disease onset years if not decades ahead, and linguistic analysis can therefore potentially play an important clinical role (Kemper et al., 2001).

Changes in thought of the kind seen in different psychopathologies have also been a core interest in research in philosophy, where phenomenology and philosophy of mind/cognition have long used atypical cognitive phenotypes to illuminate neurotypical forms of thought and experience. This workshop wants to open a first forum for work in this area to help giving it a place in the landscape of research on semantics, showcasing different ways in which semantics can change and illuminate cognitive disorders. Contributions are invited for all disorders in which linguistic change is seen, particularly including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and dementias.

Some references

Boucher, Jill (2012) Research Review: Structural language in autistic spectrum disorder – characteristics and causes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 53(3): 219–233.

Hinzen, Wolfram (2017) Reference across pathologies: a new linguistic lens on disorders of thought. Theoretical Linguistics 43(3-4): 169–232.

Kemper et al. (2001) Language decline across the life span: findings from the nun study. Psychology and Aging 16(2): 227-239.

McKenna, Peter & Tomasina Oh (2005) Schizophrenic speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Naigles, Letitia R. & Saime Tek (2017) Form is easy, meaning is hard revisited: (re) characterizing the strengths and weaknesses of language in children with autism spectrum disorder. WIREs Cognitive Science e1438.