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Cross-linguistic Variation in Semantics


Admission requirements

The course is open to students who followed an introduction to formal semantics AND to students with a solid background in descriptive linguistics and/or typology.


The main topic of this course is cross linguistic variation in the domain of semantics, focusing on the count/mass distinction. The difference between countable objects (e.g. pens) and non countable stuff (e.g. water) has consequences for the way nouns such as pen and water combine with for instance numerals (cf. two pens vs. two cups (or liters etc.) of water).
When looking at ways in which languages encode countability, a large amount of cross-linguistic variation can be observed.For instance, English count nouns such as pen directly combine with a numeral if the noun is marked with plural -s (two pens). In Mandarin, the noun bǐ ‘pen’ can only be used with a numeral when a so-called ‘numeral classifier’ (CLF) is added indicating the unit of counting. English two pens is rendered as Mandarin liǎng zhī bǐ ‘two CLFbranch pen’, a structure that literally means something like ‘two branch pen’, with zhī ‘CLFbranch’ expressing the fact that long thin objects are being counted. In this respect the Mandarin word for ‘pen’ resembles English mass nouns such as water: when using a numeral with a mass noun, an expression such as cup has to be added that indicates the unit of counting, as in two cups of water. Other languages use neither plural marking nor a classifier, and simply use ‘two pen’ (Tagalog, Yudja). Or they allow for different structures: ‘two pen’, ‘two unit pen’ or ‘two pens’ (Indonesian, Armenian).
This course investigates linguistic variation in the domain of the count/mass distinction on the one hand, and looks at semantic approaches that deal with this variation on the other. Moreover, we will address the question how the types of patters we find are connected to human cognition.
For their term paper, students can choose to focus on formal semantic aspects or on language description and typology.

Course objectives

  • Students can critically apply analytical and descriptive linguistic research methods to cross-linguistic data;

  • They understand how semantic theory can be used to predict and explain linguistic data;

  • They are able to critically evaluate scientific arguments and methods within the sub-domain of semantics and cross-linguistic variation;

  • They are capable to carry out research on a topic related to the course and report about it in the form of a research paper.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Research seminar

Assessment method

  • Assignments, presentations, and participation: 40% (partial resit possible)

  • Paper: 60% (resit possible, minimum grade 5,5)

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

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  • course information, including program and reading list

  • course documents and assignments

  • grades


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

Education Administration Office Reuvensplaats

E-mail address Education Administration Office Reuvensplaats:

Coordinator of Studies