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Grounding as a Side-Effect of Grounding

Journal article
Authors Staffan Larsson
Published in Topics in Cognitive Science
Volume 10
Issue 2
Pages 389-408
ISSN 1756-8757
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Pages 389-408
Language en
Keywords Grounding, Dialog, Formal semantics, Perception, Cognition, Learning, words, discourse, language, context
Subject categories General Language Studies and Linguistics


In relation to semantics, grounding has (at least) two relevant meanings. Symbol grounding is the process of connecting symbols (e.g., words) to perception and the world. Communicative grounding is the process of interactively adding to common ground in dialog. Strategies for grounding in human communication include, crucially, strategies for resolving troubles caused by various kinds of miscommunication. As it happens, these two processes of grounding are closely related. As a side-effect of grounding an utterance, dialog participants (DPs) may adjust the meanings they assign to linguistic expressions, in a process of semantic coordination. Meanings of at least some expressions (e.g., concrete nouns) include perceptual aspects which enable DPs to classify entities as falling under the expression or not based on their perception of those entities. We show how perceptual grounding of symbols can be achieved in a process of interactively adding to common ground. This requires that perceptual aspects of meaning can be updated as a result of participating in linguistic interaction, thereby enabling fine-grained semantic coordination of perceptually grounded linguistic meanings. A formal semantics for low-level perceptual aspects of meaning is presented, tying these together with the logical-inferential aspects of meaning traditionally studied in formal semantics. The key idea is to model perceptual meanings as classifiers of perceptual input. This requires a framework where intensions are (a) represented independently of extensions, and (b) structured objects which can be modified as a result of learning. We use Type Theory with Records (TTR), a formal semantics framework which starts from the idea that information and meaning are founded on our ability to perceive and classify the world, that is, to perceive objects and situations as being of types. As an example of our approach, we show how a simple classifier of spatial information based on the Perceptron can be cast in TTR. Larsson tackles a fundamental problem in formal semantics: modeling how people update their interpretation of words when they encounter trouble in using them in communication. Taking the example of concrete nouns he explores how changes in the low-level perceptual classifications or symbol grounding' of a noun can be triggered by the logical-inferential semantics of the communicative grounding' involved in using that noun in conversation.

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