Schlenker, P. 2005. "Ontological Symmetry in Language: A Brief Manifesto". Final version to appear in Mind & Language.

[Full paper in pdf]

Abstract:  In the influential tradition of quantified modal logic, it was assumed that significantly different linguistic systems  underlie reference to individuals, to times and to possible situations or 'possible worlds'. Recent results from formal semantics suggest that this is not so, and that there is in fact a pervasive symmetry between the linguistic means with which we refer to all three domains. In particular, reference to individuals, times and worlds alike is effected through  restricted, generalized quantifiers, definite descriptions, and  pronouns. In each domain grammatical features (=person, tense, mood) serve to situate the reference of terms as near, far or 'further' from the actual or from a reported speech act. A particularly close correspondence is found between reference to times and reference to worlds, which could suggest that these should be re-analyzed as a single ontological domain of events and states. This reinterpretation leads to a general symmetry between the nominal domain and the verbal domain, one that has been explored from a different angle in the study of aspect and of Noun Phrase and Verb Phrase structure. We conclude with several potential interpretations of this general principle of ontological symmetry.   

An Appendix includes an explicit formal fragment, which (i) treats reference to individuals, to times and to worlds in a completely symmetric fashion, (ii) allows predicates to be evaluated even in the absence of any syntactically represented arguments, and (iii) treats implicit restrictions on quantifier domains in terms of an accessibility relation between sequences of evaluation and objects that are quantified over. (ii) and (iii) are properties usually associated with modal logics. Still, (iv) when the accessibility relation is trivial,  our system has the expressive power and some of the syntactic properties of a logic with full quantification of individual, time and world variables. This system can thus be seen as a compromise between an extensional and an intensional logic.