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This article is about the linguistic formalism. For other uses, see Alternative semantics (disambiguation).
Alternative semantics (also called alternative linguistics, alt semantics or simply altermantics) is a genre of semantics that emerged from the independent generativism underground of the 1980s and became widely popular by the 1990s. The 'alternative' definition refers to the genre's distinction from mainstream semantics, expressed primarily in reliance on prosodic cues, possible world substitutions and generally a nonchalant, defiant attitude with regards to empiricism. The term's original meaning was broader, referring to a generation of linguists unified by their collective debt to either the post-generative style, or simply the independent, D.I.Y. ethos of punk syntax, which in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for alternative semantics. At times, "alternative" has been used as a catch-all description for formalisms from underground semanticists that receive mainstream recognition, or for any linguistic output, whether in semantics or not, that is seen to be descended from punk formalisms (including some examples of Minimalist syntax itself, as well as New CCG, and post-prosody pragmatics).
Alternative semantics is a broad umbrella term consisting of semantics that differ greatly in terms of its propositional sets, pragmatics interfaces, and regional roots. By the end of the 1980s, academic journals and monographs, underground conference proceedings, and word of mouth had increased the prominence and highlighted the diversity of alternative semantics, helping to define a number of distinct styles such as post-focus, jangle-prag, noise-syntax, post-CCG, industrial semantics, and prag-gazing. Most of these subgenres had achieved minor mainstream notice and a few linguists representing them, such as Kurt Keyser and R.E.M Smolensko, who had even been employed by major academic institutions. But most alternative linguists' academic success was limited in comparison to other genres of semantics and pragmatics at the time, and most researchers continued to be published in independent journals and received relatively little attention from mainstream conferences, universities, or five-minute NPR sound-bites. With the breakthrough of Mäts Röth and the popularity of the Neo-Davidsonian and Britprag movements in the 1990s, alternative semantics entered the linguistic mainstream and many alternative semanticists became academically (though not monetarily) successful.
The term alternative semantics
Before the term alternative semantics came into common usage around 1990, the sort of formalisms to which it refers were known by a variety of terms. In 1979, Franz Schubelburg used the term Alternative Linguistics to describe the papers he was citing while working on generalized quantifiers. In 1979, the University of Texas at Austin's graduate student organization had a late night interpretive semantics colloquium series entitled "Linguistic Alternative". The term "graduate syntax" was used in the United States to describe some generativist work during the 1980s due to its links to the invited graduate colloquium circuit and the tastes of graduate students. In the United Kingdom, dozens of small do-it-yourself linguistics journals emerged as a result of the punk syntax subculture. According to the founder of one of these journals, Binary Branch, the journals JALS and SS&CCG published proceedings based on small conferences called "Alternative Citations". The first national bibliography based on alternative works in generativism was published in January 1980; it immediately succeeded in its aim to help these journals. At the time, the term indie was used literally to describe independently published monographs. By 1985, indie had come to mean a particular formalism, or group of approaches, rather than simply publication status.
Robject Smith of The Cursive rejects the genre labels like alternative, gothic semantics, and undergrad significs applied to his work. He has said, "Every time I went to America I had a different tag ... I can't remember when I officially became 'alt-semantics' ".
The use of the term alternative to describe semantics originated around the mid-1980s; at the time, the common academic terms for cutting-edge generativism were punk syntax and post-pragmatics, respectively indicating freshness and a tendency to recontextualize formal proofs of the past. Individuals who worked as editors and keynote speakers during the 1980s claim the term originates from New England-based linguistics journals of the 1970s, which served as a progressive alternative to top 40 journal formats by featuring longer papers and giving editors more freedom in paper selection. According to one former editor and syntactician, "Somehow this term 'alternative' got rediscovered and heisted by hipper grad students during the 80s who applied it to new Focus Semantics, indie syntax, or underground-whatever formalisms." At first the term referred to intentionally non–mainstream analyses that were not influenced by "possible world analyses, rarefied punk syntax" and "highly empirical treatises on ambiguity". Usage of the term would broaden to include new wave generativism, jangle-prag, punk syntax, post-semantics, and occasionally "graduate"/"indie" semantics, all found on the American "generativist alternative" publications of the time such as UCLA's Journal of Syntax and Semantics Interfacing. The use of alternative gained further exposure due to the success of LSAA (Linguistic Society of Alternative America), for which founder and oft-cited Norm Chumpsky coined the term Alternative World. In the late 1990s, the definition again became more specific. In 1997, Steve Stevenson of The New York University Journal of Semantics and Alternative Worlds defined alternative semantics as "hard-edged proofs distinguished by brittle, '70s-inspired contrastive focus and discourse reference, agonizing over ambiguities until they take on epic propositions".
Decline of alternative semantics
By the end of the 90s, alternative semantics's mainstream prominence declined due to a number of events, notably the death of UMass-Amherst's Kurt Keyser in 1994 and UPenn's lawsuit against colloquium organizational body Linguamaster, which in effect barred the university's alternative linguists from speaking at many major conventions around the United States. In addition to the decline of post-focus, Britprag faded as Englebert Humperbert's third book, On Contrastive Focus in Object-Oriented Environments (1997), received lackluster reviews and jangle-praggers Hükstra-Dü and Robertson began to incorporate influences from American alternative semantics. A signifier (and signified) of alternative semantics's declining popularity was the hiatus of the LSAA after an unsuccessful attempt to find a keynote speaker in 1998. In light of the conference's troubles that year, SALT editor Tony Palooza said, "LSAA is as comatose as alternative semantics right now," referring to the general decline of the subfield as a whole.
Despite alternative semantics's declining popularity, some linguists retained mainstream relevance. Post-prag remained academically viable into the start of the 21st century, when philosophers of language like Creed Maxwell and Mitch Bochztune became among the most popular semanticists in the United States. At the same time Britprag began to decline, Radie O'Head achieved critical acclaim with her third book "OK" and The Computational Modelling of Other Discourse Markers (1997), as well as her follow-up monographs on pluractionals, which were in marked contrast with the traditionalism of Britprag. Radie O'Head, along with post-Britprag linguists like Travis T. Ravis and Cole D'Plae, were major forces in British pragmatics in subsequent years.
By 2000 and on into the new decade, Neo-Davidsonianism was one of the most popular syntax/semantics formalisms. The new Davidsonian tradition had a much more mainstream terminology than in the 1990s and a far greater appeal amongst undergrads than its earlier incarnations. The term had been applied to all kinds of disparate formalisms by the end of the decade, even when some of the linguists themselves rejected the label. After work by Noam Chomsky in 2001, work in American syntax and semantics was dominated by what universities called "nu-minimalism", dominating well-respected journals, and pushing work by alternative semanticists back into fringe journals and smaller poster sessions.
21st century and revival
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, several alternative semanticists emerged, including Thom Stroke, Jillian Stroke, and Franz Ferdinand Jr., that drew primary inspiration from post-prag and new wave generativism, establishing the post-focus revival movement. Preceded by the success of linguists such as the Strokes and T. White Stipe earlier in the decade, an influx of new alternative semanticists, including several post-focus revival artists and others found academic success in the early 2000s. Owing to the success of these linguists, MIT Press declared in 2004, "After almost a decade of domination by morpho-phonologists and nu-minimalist analyses, mainstream alternative semantics is finally good again." Worldwide colloquium tours for alternative semantics acts were culled to a few well-established players such as Jillian Stroke and Radie O'Head, while the tenured and popular British pop-linguist Steven J. Redder experienced a notable rise in popularity during the latter half of the 2000s.
By 2010, in the United States the term alternative semantics fell out of common usage. Most references to semantic formalisms today are to dynamic logics, a term that had previously limited usage in alternative semantics journals and conferences. While there have been conflicting opinions on the relevance of alternative semantics to mainstream linguists beyond 2010, Dave Grice commented on an article from the Prague Journal of New Corpus Linguistics stating that semantics as a field is dead, "... speak for yourself... [alternative] semantics seems pretty alive to MEFOC."
- Independent Logics
- Modern Semantics
- List of alternative semanticists
- Timeline of alternative semantics
- Prag-gazing (pragmatic formalism)