Institut Jean Nicod

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Jeremy Kuhn studies natural language semantics, with a particular focus on sign language data (including French Sign Language and American Sign Language). His work investigates the unique properties of the sign language modality (e.g., space, iconicity) in order to inform general questions regarding semantic composition, as well as the cognitive origins of abstract semantic categories in natural language. Over the last five years, Kuhn has done important work in the domain of plural dependencies (Kuhn 2017a, Kuhn 2017b, Kuhn 2019). This work spans from the marking of dependencies in the nominal domain (distributive numerals, same/different) to the marking of plurality and dependency in the verbal domain (pluractionality). This work has contributed to recent theoretical developments within the framework of dynamic semantics. 

In ongoing work, Kuhn investigates the ways in which iconic properties of sign language can inform general cognitive biases underlying natural language semantics. If pre-linguistic cognitive pressures influence semantic typology (i.e. what is attested and what is not), the same pressures should appear in other, extra-linguistic communicative settings, and, in particular, in the interpretation of iconic signs and gestures. For example, Kuhn observes that negative concord is very rare in sign language, despite being very common in spoken language. This can be explained by iconic pressures on sign : it is impossible to demonstrate the non-existence of an entity by pointing at something. Echoing Kuhn’s work on the dynamic semantics of plurality, this observation supports a novel theory in which negative concord, too, is fundamentally linked to discourse reference.