I’ve just been on my first hitchhiking trip in a year – being blessed with a significant other with a car and a natural inclination to laziness (the structural ambiguity in this sentence is intentional), it’s often so much easier to avoid the complications of more sustainable transport (rain, smelly service stations, hours of waiting, awkward smalltalk, the realisation that your French is practically nonexistent) and just drive yourself wherever you want. Still, both Klaas and I used to be fervent hitchhikers in our day, so our honeymoon seemed an appropriate occasion to try it together. (We kind of failed, but that’s a different story.)
When you’re hitchhiking, it’s inevitable that people ask you what you do for a living, and even though I must’ve answered the question dozens of times now and in various languages to boot, it feels I still haven’t quite found the right way to do it. Klaas, who is a physiotherapist, has it easy. But a formal semanticist? I can’t use those words – sometimes I’m not even sure I can use the word linguist without landing myself in dangerous conversational territory. Sometimes I just mutter something about teaching at a university. Often I take care to mention artificial intelligence and Google – I’m never sure how my chauffeur will like the idea of fundamental research in these times of crisis, so I try to leave them with the vague impression that my research has some useful applications. To the really curious, I explain the principle of compositionality, the difference between conceptual and formal semantics, and the (ir)relevance of crosslinguistic research to the study of meaning.
Still, it hardly ever happens that I try to explain my actual research topic to anyone, hitchhiking or otherwise. So I thought I’d remedy that. What’s new in the semantics of plurals and group nouns, what discoveries have I made, and what questions am I currently working on? Expect the first update soon(ish)!