My research interests encompass different topics that fall into the areas of semantics and pragmatics proper, are located at the syntax-semantics interface, or are connected to the philosophy of language. I am especially drawn to the less well-studied uses/interpretations of linguistic expressions: they force us to re-evaluate previous analyses of the better studied/standard interpretations of these expressions, and they lead to a better understanding of the connection between semantics and pragmatics and their interfaces.
Methodologically, I am interested in corpus linguistic and experimental methods and how they can be applied fruitfully to semantic and pragmatic research. Most of my theoretical work is informed by corpus data and/or experimental studies.
Cross-linguistically, the dominant use of dedicated impersonal pronouns (e.g., English one and German man) is a 'generic use', in which they seem to contribute a meaning similar to 'people in general'. In some languages, e.g., in German, French, or Italian, impersonal pronouns allow for other uses, as well; for instance, German man has an existential use in which it is interpreted close to English someone. The aim of this project is to shed light on the semantics and pragmatics of the different uses of impersonal pronouns in German and other Germanic languages. My current investigations of the impersonal pronoun man in German, Norwegian, and Swedish is funded by the EC (project number: 842363) as part of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.
In the course of exploring the semantics of German existentially used man, it became clear early on from extant discussions in the literature and discussions with colleagues that existentially used man shows striking parallels to implicit agents of short eventive passives, which also receive an existential interpretation. Hence, my investigations into this use of German man has been extended to also cover the semantics of implicit agents of short eventive passives.
In connection with the generic use of dedicated impersonal pronouns, I investigated a semantic restriction observable for English one and German man and linked it to results from the literature in habitual sentences. The main upshot of the paper is that English one and German man cannot license the presence of the generic operator by themselves. This result opens up new, exciting questions about the type of variables the generic operator can bind, and how this binding relation is induced.
In order to investigate German man in comparison to Norwegian man and Swedish man, I compiled an annotation manual with properties of sentences containing man that allow us to infer the likely use of man in these sentences. The results of a first round of annotations and subsequent evaluation of the data support the conclusion that in written German, Norwegian, and Swedish, man has both a generic use and an existential use.
Like impersonal pronouns, second person singular pronouns cross-linguistically also frequently allow for a 'generic use', e.g., English generic you and German generic du. In contrast, generic uses of first person singular pronouns are rare -- one example is German generic ich; and third person singular pronouns do not seem to allow for generic uses at all.
German als-phrases and English as-phrases (e.g. als Kind / as a child) occur in various different uses, which correlate with the syntactic position of the als/as-phrase and the choice of main predicate in the containing clause. Hence, they shed light on the connection between the syntactic position of a constituent and its potential semantic interpretation -- a connection that also influences the interpretation of adverbials. In addition, als/as-phrases always associate with arguments of the main predicate. In that sense, they parallel secondary predicates.
The aim of this project is to provide analyses of the different usage classes of als/as-phrases.
In a related line of inquiry, I investigate the determinerless predicative use of bare singular nouns in German, which is used in copular clauses and in als-phrases to different extents.
I discuss the interplay of weak adjunct als-phrases with impersonally used personal pronouns in more depth here:
1) Particles in questions and conditional antecedents (joint work with Eva Csipak)
Discourse particles are usually assumed to fit the content of an utterance to its discourse context, i.e., they are taken to be "discourse navigating devices". Most current research focuses on discourse particles in declarative sentences/assertions. Discourse particles that (sometimes exclusively) occur in interrogative sentences/questions and embedded clauses, e.g., conditional antecedents, have received less attention so far.
The aim of this project is to describe and formally analyze these less well-studied particles.
2) Differences between Federal German and Austrian German particles
In the pragmatic literature, German is (among others) famous for its many, diverse discourse particles. For different varieties of German, however, the particles that are available to speakers and potentially their contribution(!) may differ -- a fact that should be taken into account in particle research.
The aim of this project is to shed light on the differences between particles in Federal German varieties in contrast to Austrian German varieties.
(includes joint work with Jakob Majdic)
Bavarian varieties of German have a verbal prefix der- that is not part of the morphological inventory of other German varieties. In some of its uses der- corresponds to the verbal prefixes er-, zer-, and ver-, which are also part of Standard German. However, for some uses of der-, there is no Standard German equivalent. In one such use, der- expresses successful completion of an action in the same way as, for instance, English manage to.
The aim of this project is to analyze the semantics and pragmatics of Bavarian verbs formed with der- in this use and to identify the meaning contribution of the prefix.
(joint work with Dolf Rami)
The verb to exist poses questions both from the point of view of the philosophy of language as well as from the point of view of formal semantics. On especially interesting question is how the verb interacts with bare plural noun phrases, as in Horses exist. What does this sentence make an existential statement about? Is the claim comparable semantically to Horses are extinct and Horses are numerous? Are we dealing with an extensional or an intensional/modal claim?
The aim of this project is to shed light on these questions.
The Impersonal Use of German 1st Person Singular Ich.
Zobel, Sarah. 2021. The Impersonal Use of German 1st Person Singular Ich. Linguistic Inquiry (Online first).