Assistant Professor, Department of Linguistics, UC Davis
They are the billionaire class in language. A small group of extremely influential words like "the", "a", "and", "or","of", "to", and "not" that make up most of our speech, while the majority of words rarely get a chance to show up. Why are function words so powerful?
Function words encode abstract logical and combinatorial concepts such as negation, disjunction, time, and spatial relations. They are like the nuts and bolts that hold sentences together and make communication of complex thought possible.
The abstract and combinatorial meanings of function words hold the key to understanding the primitives of human thought. My lab studies the meanings of function words and how humans learn them. We combine insights from formal and theoretical semantics with experimental methods in psycholinguistics, and modeling techniques in computational linguistics and machine learning.