“diviser chacune des difficultés [...], en autant de parcelles qu'il se pourrait, et qu'il serait requis pour les mieux résoudre.” René Descartes, Discours sur la méthode.
My research follows the principle that the meaning of a sentence comes from the meaning of its parts. Unless learned as formulaic material, these parts provide an abstract indication that is enriched by context to relate to the shared experience of speakers. Questions arise as to how abstract indications are represented, how they are enriched by contexts, what constraints bear on this enrichment process, and whether these are language-specific or relate to general cognitive mechanisms.
I study the abstract aspects of meaning through grammatical phenomena such as negation, indefinites and qualitative expressions. The variation of interpretation of underspecified items across contexts in English and French helps me identify representations and mechanisms internal to linguistic meaning organisation, as does regional variation, historical evolution and difference between languages. It is often useful to consider language acquisition patterns to help decide whether a phenomenon is best thought of as a language specific quirk or a reflection of a more general cognitive pattern, and I do a lot of that with my postgraduate students.
At the moment, I’m very interested by how information known both to speaker and hearer influences the shape of negative sentences. It is in these discourse-old contexts that new negatives are assumed to emerge in the history of French, and I have shown that this is where some are found before they disappear altogether. Unexpected uses such as positive polarity item with a clause-mate negative, negative doubling, negative adverbial questions and (self) corrections are found to be made possible by discourse-old information. The dynamics of information structure is optimally assessed through less formal exchanges, calling for the creation of new resources such as the Anglo-Norman Year Books Corpus and the Français légal ancien de Normandie.