Get to Know Your Instructors: James Pustejovsky

If James Pustejovsky (Brandeis University) is not working on temporal and spatial semantics, he is writing a book, beekeeping, or enjoying a scoop of Coconut Ice Cream from Cape Cod Creamery. James will teach Lexicon in Linguistic Theory with Olga Batiukova at Davis this summer. In this interview, we asked James about his early linguistic days at MIT, his #lingstitute2019 course, and his new book.

1. Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

I went to MIT for my undergraduate study. I started in chemistry, moved to math, and then discovered linguistics. There was only a Ph.D. program when I started taking classes, so I was in graduate classes the entire time. So I think officially, I was the first person to graduate from MIT with an undergraduate degree in linguistics. Chomsky acted as my undergraduate advisor.

I then had a DAAD scholarship to study classical linguistics in Marburg, Germany, after which I joined the Ph.D. program in the linguistics department at UMASS Amherst, where I received my Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics, focusing on the syntax-semantics interface. That was in 1985.

I then became interested in more formal and computational approaches to semantics and “knowledge representation”, as it is known in AI. I did a postdoctoral fellow for two years at UMASS Amherst in the Computer Science department, where I started working on the semantics of tense, aspect, and events.

I then joined the faculty at Brandeis University, where I continued studying event semantics and began developing an early model of the Generative Lexicon, a distributed and richly compositional model of semantics projected from lexical information.

For the past 25 years, I have been interested in both theoretical linguistics and computational models of linguistics and language-based inference. I’ve continued working on lexical and compositional semantics, but have also specialized in temporal and spatial semantics, as well as the semantics of communicating using multiple modalities (gesture, language, gaze, action).

Another area of interest has been the development of theoretically-grounded standards for linguistic information. Hence, I’ve worked on ISO and community standards for temporal and event information (ISO-TimeML), spatial information (ISO-Space), and factuality and veridicality information (FactBank).

2. When did you first join the LSA?

I have been an off and on member of LSA for 30 years, since graduate school.

3. Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

The course is based on a just-released textbook from Cambridge University Press, that I wrote with my colleague Olga Batiukova. We are hoping to teach a truly comprehensive course on the role of the lexicon in linguistic theory, and the contribution of lexical knowledge to linguistic processes and computations. An important focus of the course is to point out the central role played by words in the grammar, and that the lexicon is an active process, not different from syntax or semantics.

4. What research are you currently working on?

I am working on several topics at the moment. I am interested in how languages talk about space, particularly what I call “spatial aspect”, which is how language identifies where events happen in space. I’ve developed a hybrid modal logic for modeling this. I am also working on the semantics of counterfactuals. Particularly, what I call “lexical counterfactuals”, which in fact refer to any lexical causative in language. I am interested in the formal properties of common ground in discourse and dialogue between agents using multiple modalities (speech, gesture, gaze), and developing a situated semantic model for such interactions. Finally, I am working on reconstructing visual spaces from images and linguistic descriptions of interiors. This brings together my interests in spatial semantics, dynamic updates, frames of reference, and the integration of visual information and language.

5. What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

Running, hiking, biking, reading, bread baking, beekeeping.

6. In a parallel universe in which you are not an academic/linguist, what would you be?

A scribe or a scuba diver.

7. What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

Presenting the new book to students. This is the first time a course on the lexicon has ever been offered at the Summer Institute. I hope to get schools interested in adding the lexicon as a regular course in the curriculum within linguistics departments.

8. Ice cream or Cake? Cats or Dogs? Quarter system or Semester system?

Cape Cod Creamery’s Coconut Ice Cream. Standard Poodles and poodle mixes. Semesters.

9. What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Be willing to link and connect your love of language and its structure to other disciplines, such as computer science, math, cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.