Focus Area Semantics


The Semantics focus area in the MA Linguistics programme aims to develop and solidify students’ knowledge of formal semantics acquired during their Bachelor’s studies, while also providing them with the opportunity to explore newer areas of formal semantic research, investigate semantics from an interdisciplinary perspective and develop important research skills.


The seminars offered cover a range of topics, including both traditional formal semantic courses on topics such as modality and adjectives, with seminars on newer areas of interest in semantics research, such as gestural meaning and iconicity, also being offered. There are also two compulsory seminars students must participate in; Semantics III and the Semantics Colloquium. Semantics III provides a refresher in the basics of formal semantics and type logic before expanding to more complex topics. The Semantics Colloquium exposes students to the latest research in semantics through talks on a wide range of topics from both members of the department and researchers from other institutions.

Examples of other optional MA Seminars offered in semantics in recent semesters include:

  • Privative Adjectives
  • Crosslinguistic Variation in Modality
  • Presuppositions and Common Ground
  • Compositionality of Adjective Noun Constructions
  • Gesture Semantics
  • Ideophones and Iconicity
  • Superlinguistics and Visual Communication.

Below are two example course announcements, taken from courses offered in the summer semester 2023.

Exemplary course announcements

Visual Communication

The seminar investigates the special features and linguistic significance of visual communication. This comprises sign languages as fully developed natural languages which exclusively rely on the visual channel for communication, but also visual means that enhance spoken language such as gestures or written language such as emojis. Recent research on sign language and co-speech gestures in spoken languages shows that the visual-gestural modality provides direct insights into the semantic and pragmatic structure of utterances. In addition, iconic aspects of language play a central role in the evolution and constitution of meanings in sign language and co-speech gestures. In this seminar, we will discuss selected formal analyses of gesture semantics, sign languages, and the semantic contribution of emojis. The focus will be on topics such as iconicity, demonstration, perspective, emojis, co-speech gestures, and sign languages.

Skillful-type adjectives under the microscope

In the first part of this seminar, we will explore the compositional challenges that come along with adjectives like skillful, gifted, talented, famous or successful. In earlier approaches (e.g. Montague 1970, Kamp 1975), skillful-type adjectives have been analyzed as intensional modifiers and have thus been grouped with other intensional modifiers, such as alleged. Newer approaches (e.g. Winter&Zwarts 2012, Alexeyenko 2015), on the other hand, tend to reanalyze skillful-type adjectives as being intersective after all. We will take a look at the differences and similarities between skillful-type adjective and adjectives from other classes, and see how the different accounts capture the observations made for skillful-type adjectives. Taking a look at analyses that have been proposed for beautiful (e.g. Larson 1998, Maienborn 2020) will also be interesting in this respect. Importantly, we will see that the context-dependence of skillful-type adjectives needs to be accounted for. This will lead us to the second part of the seminar, where we will carry out a small corpus analysis together to investigate the noun- and context-dependence of skillfultype adjectives. How often does skillful actually occur with a noun like teacher (in which case an interpretation as `skillful as a teacher’ is possible)? And how often does skillful actually occur with a noun like man (in which case `skillful as a man’ is not a possible interpretation and the relevant skill must therefore be determined from context)? This type of data is missing in the
literature, so we will take a look at how the situation actually is in the natural use of language. For this part of the seminar, your own proposals for a small corpus study/experiment that investigates skillfultype adjectives are also welcome!