Floris Roelofsen

Associate Professor · Institute for Logic, Language, and Computation · University of Amsterdam

It is fascinating that by producing a sequence of sounds, gestures, or written symbols people can successfully communicate highly complex ideas and subtle feelings. How does that work?

Linguists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and computer scientists have made tremendous progress in addressing this question. And insights emerging from these investigations have led to many practical applications in language technology and education.

However, more attention has been paid to certain forms of communication than to others. The truth-conditional content of declarative sentences has been investigated in much greater depth than the semantic content of other sentence types, such as questions. Spoken languages have been studied much more extensively than signed languages. My research interests center on these lesser explored forms of communication.

How should theories of meaning be generalised beyond truth-conditional content?

And what can we learn about communication by looking beyond spoken languages?



My work is currently supported by a VIDI grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (2015-2020), a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (2016-2021), and a COVID-19 Grant from ZonMw, the Netherlands Organisation for Innovation in Healthcare (2020).

Short Bio

Main appointments

2015-now Associate Professor. ILLC, Amsterdam
2013-2015 Assistant Professor. ILLC, Amsterdam
2010-2013 Postdoc. ILLC, Amsterdam
2009-2010 Vis. Assistant Professor, UMass Amherst
2008-2009 Postdoc. ILLC, Amsterdam

Visiting appointments

2015 (1 mth) CSLI, Stanford.
2012 (3 mth) Linguistics, UC Santa Cruz
2011 (3 mth) Linguistics, UC Santa Cruz
2006 (6 mth) Computer Science, Harvard

Main grants

2016 ERC Starting Grant (1400k euro)
2015 NWO VIDI Grant (800k euro)
2012 NWO VENI Grant (250k euro)

Publications

1 textbook
> 20 top-tier journal articles
> 30 top-tier conference articles / book chapters
> 2900 citations (see Google Scholar)

Teaching

> 15 courses at ILLC Amsterdam
2 courses at UMass Amherst Linguistics
1 course at Harvard Computer Science
3 mini-courses at San Diego, Göttingen & Beijing
5 courses at international summer schools

Advising

3 Postdocs
5 PhD students
> 10 Master students

Editorial work

Associate Editor, Journal of Semantics
2 special issues (Synthese & Topoi)
5 conference proceedings and 1 festschrift
Frequent reviewing for journals and conferences

Service

2018-2019 NWO VIDI selection panel
Organized 5 international conferences
Organized 8 international workshops
Built the inquisitive semantics website


Meaning beyond truth-conditions

Truth-conditional semantics

It is a commonplace idea that a child has learned the meaning of a sentence like ''The book is on the table'' if it can tell whether the sentence is true or false in any given situation. This truth-conditional notion of meaning has been very fruitful but also has clear limitations. Namely, while declarative sentences can be judged true or false in a given situation, this does not hold for other types of sentences, such as questions.

Inquisitive semantics

Generalising the truth-conditional notion of meaning to overcome this limitation has been one of the main aims of my work over the last ten years. Together with several colleagues and students, I have developed a semantic framework called inquisitive semantics, which is based on a more general notion of meaning. This opens up new horizons for all disciplines concerned with linguistic interpretation. We are currently exploring these horizons in linguistics, logic, and philosophy, and are also looking toward applications in computer science.

Interacting alternatives

Besides questions, there are various other constructions that require a refinement of the truth-conditional notion of meaning. What many of these constructions have in common is that they generate alternatives. A question like ''Where is Mary?'' asks the addressee to choose between alternative locations. An indefinite referential expression like ''somewhere in the south of France'' does not refer to a specific location but introduces multiple referential alternatives. In a statement like ''Mary only likes FRENCH wine'', the emphasis on ''French'' generates so-called focus alternatives (Italian, Spanish, etcetera) which together form the quantificational domain of ''only''. Alternatives are everywhere.

An important open issue in the field is how the various types of alternatives (question alternatives, referential alternatives, focus alternatives, among others) relate to each other and how they interact in the interpretation process. This general question is one I want to address over the next couple of years.


Language beyond spoken languages

Sign language: linguistic structure made visible

My daughter, now five years old, was born deaf. Learning Dutch Sign Language (NGT) and using it on a daily basis has opened up a new world to me, both at a personal and at an academic level. Investigating sign languages has the potential to yield important linguistic insights which are much more difficult to obtain by investigating spoken languages alone, because linguistic structures are sometimes much easier to detect in sign languages than in spoken languages. Quite literally, sign languages often make linguistic structure more directly visible.

Breaking language barriers

Not only can science benefit from investigating sign languages; it also has an important role to play in diminishing the language barrier between deaf and hearing people. Deeper insights into the grammar of sign languages are essential in training sign language interpreters and to lay a solid foundation for sign language machine translation technology.

Together with several colleagues and students, I am developing a system that can translate sentences from Dutch into NGT, displayed by means of a virtual avatar. Over the next couple of years I intend to develop this system further based on new theoretical insights into sign language grammar, and apply it in several settings, in particular to improve communication between health care providers and deaf patients, and to support parents of deaf children in the early stages of learning sign language.


Publications


Semantics group

Postdocs

Ciyang Qing (2020-2021)
Jakub Dotlacil (2016-2019), now Assistant Professor in Utrecht
Alexandre Cremers (2016-2019), now Postdoc in Paris
Ivano Ciardelli (2016), now Assistant Professor in Munich

PhD students

Thom van Gessel (2016-2020)
Gianluca Grilletti (2016-2020)
Nadine Theiler (2015-2019), now Postdoc at UConn
Ivano Ciardelli (2012-2016), now Assistant Professor in Munich
Matthijs Westera (2010-2017), now Postdoc in Barcelona

Master students

Morwenna Hoeks (2018), now PhD in Santa Cruz
Jonathan Pesetsky (2018), now PhD in Amherst
Hana Möller Kalpak (2018), now PhD in Stockholm
Thom van Gessel (2016), now PhD in Amsterdam
Benjamin Sparkes (2015), now PhD at Stanford
Nadine Theiler (2014), next: PhD in Amsterdam
Michele Herbstritt (2014), next: PhD in Tübingen
Pawel Lojko (2012), now Associate Director, Moody's Analytics
Noortje Venhuizen (2012), next: PhD in Groningen
Ivano Ciardelli (2009), next: PhD in Amsterdam
Sam van Gool (2009), next: PhD in Nijmegen

Current collaborators

Maria Aloni, University of Amsterdam
Ivano Ciardelli, LMU Munich
Liz Coppock, Boston University
Alexandre Cremers, ENS Paris
Jakub Dotlacil, Utrecht University
Donka Farkas, Princeton / UC Santa Cruz
Kees Hengeveld, University of Amsterdam
Sabine Iatridou, MIT
Sunwoo Jeong, Seoul National University
Wataru Uegaki, University of Edinburgh

Past collaborators

Adrian Brasoveanu, UC Santa Cruz
Lucas Champollion, New York University
Sam van Gool, Amsterdam
Jeroen Groenendijk, Amsterdam
Barbara Grosz, Harvard
Morwenna Hoeks, UC Santa Cruz
Rebecca Nesson, Harvard
Kathryn Pruitt, Arizona State University
Luciano Serafini, Trento
Galit Weidman Sassoon, Tel Aviv
Nadine Theiler, UConn


Sign language group

Undergraduate students

Lyke Esselink (2020)
Shani Mende-Gillings (2020)
Judith Corsel (2020)
Jasmijn Bleijlevens (2020)
Bram Smit (2019)
Sander Brinkhuijsen (2019)
Steven de Weille (2019)
Nardi Lam (2018)
Jetske Beks (2018)

Collaborators and advisors

Beppie van den Bogaerde, University of Amsterdam
Onno Crasborn, University of Nijmegen
Roland Pfau, University of Amsterdam
Marijke Scheffener, University of Amsterdam
Anika Smeijers, Amsterdam University Medical Centre
Martine en Roos Wattel, Wat Telt!


News

Recent grants

June 2020: COVID-19 Grant from ZonMw to develop a sign language translation system that improves communication between health care providers and deaf patients in times of COVID-19 and beyond.

February 2020: Visiting Professor Grant from NWO for a month-long visit by Sabine Iatridou (MIT) to Amsterdam.

Some recent output

Inquisitive semantics
Ivano Ciardelli, Jeroen Groenendijk, and Floris Roelofsen. Oxford University Press, 2018.
download pdf get hardcopy

Sign Language of the Netherlands
Addendum for an advisory report by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) Languages for the Netherlands. With Pieter Muysken, Beppie van den Bogaerde, and Onno Crasborn, December 2019.

Upcoming invited talks

Invited talk at the Second Tsinghua Interdisciplinary Workshop on Logic, Language, and Meaning
Beijing, October 30, 2020

Invited talk at Sinn und Bedeutung
Köln, September 2021

Recent presentations of ongoing work

Interacting alternatives: Referential indeterminacy and questions
Joint work with Jakub Dotlacil. Presented at Rutgers University, November 2019. Earlier versions presented in Barcelona, Stockholm, and Amsterdam.

Quexistentials and focus
Joint work with Sabine Iatridou and Kees Hengeveld. Presented at the University of British Columbia and at Princeton, November 2019.

NPIs in questions
Linguistics Colloquium at New York University, November 2018.
Earlier versions presented in Santa Cruz, Munich, and Amsterdam.

Recent events that I helped to organize

The Amsterdam Colloquium
International conference on natural language semantics, Amsterdam, December 18-20, 2019

Semantic Universals
International workshop collocated with the Amsterdam Colloquium, Amsterdam, December 18, 2019

Inquisitiveness Below and Beyond the Sentence Boundary
International workshop on inquisitive semantics and related topics, Amsterdam, June 26-27, 2019