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Research seminar in Linguistics with Caterina Mauri (University of Bologna)


Date: Thursday 9 June 2022

Time: 15.00 – 16.30

Location: C389, Department of Linguistics

Welcome to a research seminar with Caterina Mauri, Associate Professor at the University of Bologna.



In this seminar, I will discuss how the concept of otherness is coded in natural languages and communicated in discourse, by adopting a converging evidence methodology. A broad crosslinguistic perspective will be integrated by an in-depth study on the diachrony and discourse use Italian altro. After discussing the linguistic data, I will briefly present a larger project on otherness, possibly involving other disciplines too. 

In logic, we find two comparison operators of equality (=) and inequality (≠), the latter consisting of the negation of the former, which roughly correspond to the concepts of identity and otherness. If we turn to natural languages, however, we see much more ambiguity and polyfunctionality than in logic, as is frequently the case: “I want another beer” may mean (i) a different one or (ii) one more, equal to the one I just drank. In other words, the same expression can be employed to convey opposite meanings. Based on the case of Italian, I will discuss the ambiguity attested in natural languages, which is revealing of the intersection between the equality vs. inequality dimension and the semantic dimension of quantity. ‘Other’ is indeed ambiguous in many languages between a quality (‘different’) and a quantity (‘one more’) meaning (Gianollo & Mauri 2020 for Italian; see also Charnavel 2015, Bortolussi 2015 for French; Eguren & Sánchez 2004, Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2011 and Brugè 2017, 2018 for Spanish). Yet, I will show that there are also languages that lexicalize this domain in a more distinct way: if we compare German and Italian, for instance, we immediately see a difference, with German offering two different lexemes to disambiguate between the quality and quantity meaning of otherness (anderer and weiterer, respectively). This option is not available in Italian, where altro covers both values. The discussion of data from the KIParla corpus of Spoken Italian will allow for a fine-grained analysis of how altro is used and interpreted in discourse, focusing on the contextual and linguistic factors reducing its ambiguity.

We will then turn to a diachronic perspective focusing on Romance languages, which derive otherness expressions (It. altro, Sp. otro, Fr. autre) from Latin alter, which meant ‘the second, other of two’ and was limited to comparisons between two items (cf. the dual suffix -ter). Alter coexisted in Latin with the non-dual lexeme alius – whose destiny, despite its higher versatility, was to disappear (Gianollo & Mauri 2020). The intersection between quality and quantity will pop up again in a different form, this time involving the number of items and their respective order. Based on
CLICS (Rzymski and Tresoldi 2019), I will show that the most frequent colexification pattern involving ‘other’ shows a strong link exactly with the meaning of ‘second’, with 19 different languages having the same lexeme for the two concepts. The other concepts that appear to be frequently expressed by polyfunctional ‘other’ lexemes are ‘foreign’, ‘one’, and ‘next’. This will give us an idea of the degree to which the semantic domain of otherness is intertwined with quantification, ordered sequences (see ‘next’ and ‘second’) and with the social dimension of identity construction (see ‘foreign’).

I will then show the questionnaire that is being prepared to gather data from language experts, addressing some specific methodological issues that must be dealt with in order to observe the attested cross-linguistic variation in the linguistic expression of otherness.

– Caterina Mauri