Linguistics 247: Bayesian and Game-Theoretic Semantics and Pragmatics (Fall 2014)

1 Course information

Lecture Times Mondays, 4:15-5:45pm; Wednesdays, 11:30am-1pm
Lecture Location AP&M 4301
Class webpage

2 Instructor information

Instructor Roger Levy (
Instructor's office AP&M Room 4220
Instructor's office hours by appointment

3 Course Description

How is it that we're able to mean so much more than the literal content of what we say? Trying to answer this question is the study of pragmatics, a field that lies at the intersection of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and artificial intelligence. In rough strokes, there is broad agreement that the central principles leading to the richness of our utterances' understood meaning include relation with context, what alternative utterances could have been used but weren't, and social reasoning about our interlocutors based on their knowledge and goals. In the last few years there has been explosive growth in our understanding of pragmatics fueled by two key developments: new Bayesian and game-theoretic models of speakers and listeners as recursive, decision-theoretic conversational agents, and improvement in the empirical methods used to test pragmatic theories. This seminar is devoted to reading recent work in this rapidly growing area. Seminar participants will achieve considerable depth of understanding of the computational models recently developed in this field, learn how to test these models both qualitatively and quantitatively using empirical data, and generate their own ideas for models and experiments of pragmatically-based language interpretation.

4 Course organization

We'll meet twice a week and discuss some of the most exciting recent papers in the field. Seminar participants will take turns leading discussion of readings.

5 Intended Audience

Graduate students and highly motivated, well-prepared undergraduates in linguistics, cognitive science, computer science, psychology, economics, and any of a number of related disciplines. Postdocs and faculty are also welcome (though I won't let you out of the requirement that you lead discussion of some readings).

There are no formal prerequisites for this seminar, but we will be regularly delving into the technical details of these papers, so be ready to do some math (mostly high-school algebra plus basic probability theory). Having enough programming experience to implement some of the models we discuss would be an advantage. The programming involved will not be technically complex and any high-level language (Python, Matlab, R, …) would be suitable.

6 Syllabus (subject to modification)

Week Day Topic Reading Materials Handouts Homeworks Background/other reading
Week 1 Mon 6 Oct Initial organizational session        
  Wed 8 Oct Foundations: philosophy & linguistics Grice, 1975; Levinson, 2000, chapter 1 (Roger) Roger   Horn, 1984; Hirschberg, 1985; Sperber & Wilson, 1986; Schelling, 1960
Week 2 Mon 13 Oct Foundations: cognitive psychology Clark & Gibbs, 1986 (Till) Till   Gibbs & Moise, 1997; Clark, Schreuder, & Buttrick, 1983
  Wed 15 Oct Foundations: artificial intelligence Dale & Reiter, 1995 (Matthew) Matthew   Appelt, 1985
Week 3 Mon 20 Oct Game theory in semantics and pragmatics: the iterated best-response model Jäger, 2013 (Megan) Megan   Blutner, 1998, 2000; Franke, 2011
  Wed 22 Oct Ad-hoc scalar implicature Frank & Goodman, 2012; Stiller, Goodman, & Frank, 2014 (Julia) Julia HW1  
Week 4 Mon 27 Oct Corpus data on scalar implicature Degen, under review (Yanan) Yanan    
  Wed 29 Oct Quantity implicatures in the interpretation of referential expressions Rohde et al., 2012; Degen, Franke, & Jäger, 2013 (Meilin) Meilin HW2 Baumann, Clark, and Kaufmann, 2014
Week 5 Mon 3 Nov Game-theoretic approaches to generating spatial descriptions Golland, Liang, and Klein, 2010 (Mark) Mark HW1 solutions  
  Wed 5 Nov Pragmatics in word learning Frank & Goodman, 2014 (Marla) Marla   Smith, Goodman, & Frank, 2013
Week 6 Mon 10 Nov The division of pragmatic labor Bergen, Levy, and Goodman, in prep      
  Wed 12 Nov Roger traveling, no class        
Week 7 Mon 17 Nov Gradable adjectives Lassiter & Goodman, 2013; Qing & Franke, 2014 (Till) Till    
  Wed 19 Nov Pragmatics and the processing of negated sentences Nordmeyer & Frank, 2014 (CogSci Conference) (Melissa) Melissa Nordmeyer & Frank, 2014 (Cognition)  
Week 8 Mon 24 Nov The debate on embedded implicature Potts, 2013     Chierchia, 2004; Chierchia, Fox, & Spector, 2012; Russell, 2006; Levy, Bergen, and Goodman, 2014; Levy & Potts, in prep
  Wed 26 Nov Interpretation of definite plurals Malamud, 2012      
Week 9 Mon 1 Dec Experiments on embedded implicature Chemla & Spector, 2011; Geurts & Pouscoulous, 2009 (Wednesday)      
  Wed 3 Dec Decision-theoretic approaches to questions van Rooy, 2003 (Eric)      
Week 10 Mon 8 Dec Pragmatic halos and hyperbole Kao et al., 2014 (Larry)     Lasersohn,1999
  Wed 10 Dec emergence of Gricean maxims in rich settings Vogel, Potts, and Jurafsky, 2013 (Gary)      
Finals Tue 16 Dec Final paper due        

A more extensive bibliography for this course can be found here.

7 Requirements & grading

The requirements for participation in this seminar are that:

  • You show up
  • You participate in discussion
  • You lead discussion of one or more papers at some point during the quarter, which involves preparing a handout and using it to:
    • summarize the main points of the paper;
    • walk us through the model and/or experiments;
    • lead critical discussion of the paper.

    You should go over the handout with me at least two days before the day of your class.

  • If you are taking the course for credit, you must:
    • complete periodic small homework assignments that I will give at various points throughout the quarter;
    • write a final paper (research or review) on some topic covered in the course.

8 Mailing list

There is a mailing list for this course, which you can access at Please make sure you're signed up for it! This list is both for discussion of ideas in the class and for communications about organizational issues.

Author: Roger Levy

Created: 2014-11-23 Sun 21:16

Emacs 24.4.1 (Org mode 8.2.5h)