Welcome

I’m a PhD student at Utrecht University trying to figure out the meaning of language, and the meaning of life in my spare time. You can find out more about my research project and other interests under the ‘Research’ tab above. This page also contains a list of papers and publications.

Apart from this, I blog about things that interest/move/amuse/anger me – including but not limited to social justice, food, art, feminism, religion and my latest unfinished sewing projects.

Teaching:

  • Currently on maternity leave

Past teaching:

  • Semantiek 2013/2014 (with Alexis Dimitriadis, Assaf Toledo & Yoad Winter) – course website
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2012/2013 (with Marieke Schouwstra & many others) – course website
  • Foundations of Semantics and Pragmatics 2012/2013 (with Yoad Winter and Assaf Toledo) – course website
  • Semantiek 2012/2013 (with Yoad Winter and Assaf Toledo) – course website
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2011/2012 (with Rick Nouwen)
  • Semantiek 2011/2012 (with Yoad Winter)
  • Inleiding Taalkunde 2010/2011 (with Anna Chernilovskaya and Yoad Winter)

Other:
I’m a co-organiser of LUSH (Leiden Utrecht Semantics Happenings), a series of monthly talks in semantics and pragmatics alternating between Utrecht and Leiden. Visit the website here.

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LUSH / Amsterdam Colloquium

Below you will find (1) the slides for my recent LUSH talk in Leiden, and (2) slides and extended abstract for my presentation at last month’s Amsterdam Colloquium. (I decided, probably unwisely, to keep my AmCol presentation sober and professional, instead of recycling some of the much more entertaining illustrated slides I created for my colleagues a while before.)

kate and william

William’s terminology is a bit sloppy – he means to say either “group nouns range over sets” or “group NPs denote sets”.

- “Number in morphosyntax and semantics: the case of British English group nouns”. Leiden Utrecht Semantics Happenings (LUSH), Leiden University, November 20, 2013. [slides]  

- “Distributivity and agreement: new evidence for groups as sets”. Amsterdam Colloquium, University of Amsterdam, December 18-20, 2013. [slides] [pre-proceedings]

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I want a more fair and sustainable academia.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been weirdly fixated on what I’d consider my inevitable future career as An Academic. Somehow, I had picked up on the notion of doctorates, and decided I wanted one – preferably doing something involving animals and Amazon expeditions and the occasional shiny laboratory, but the specific field wasn’t the most important thing, The Title was. I imagined it would turn me into someone who was Officially Brilliant, someone who could then go on to spend a lifetime thinking for a living, a prospect that greatly appealed to me.

My other childhood ambition was to save the world. This was not, in theory, incompatible with my scientific dreams – at least not until my third year at university, when I decided to drop my major in psychology and cultural anthropology and become a linguist. Gone was every opportunity to spend my professional future saving the earth or fixing humankind. I’ve seen my future, and it involves lots of lambdas and semilattices.

Those of you who know me personally know that this has been kind of a struggle for me. I still want to save the world. I want it to be fair and sustainable and full of people whose human rights are being respected. And I kind of want to contribute more to that world than just my puny habits of buying fairtrade coffee and going to conferences by train rather than plane.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether I, together with anyone who reads this and is interested, could somehow start with academia – after all, this is our world and it’s full of people routinely flying halfway across the world to deliver a single talk, conferences providing unlimited water in plastic bottles & no recycling bins, and huge piles of handouts being printed that no one even looks at. It’s also full of huge egos and people with burnouts and gender biases and commercial publishers with ridiculous profit margins. It’s inspired articles like this and resignation letters like this and scandals like this.

But I don’t really know what to do, let alone how to do it. An online platform where everyone can share their tips and ideas of making academia a better place? Practical guidelines on how to make your conference more sustainable? A kind of pledge for the young and unspoiled to sign in which they promise to stay nice, humble, open-minded servants of Scientific Truth? :)

One thing I do know is that there’s strength in numbers – because some of these fair and sustainable choices involve deliberately not going along with the way things currently are, which might well hurt your career in small but unaffordable ways (these are hard times, and every publication and conference appearance counts). If I decide to take at most one intercontinental trip a year, or only submit articles to less widely known Open Access journals, or become that annoying person who brings up gender imbalances, child care and fair trade coffee at every workshop I organise, fewer people will hear about my work (and like me as a person). But if there’s enough of us, and we manage to turn this stuff into the norm for a new generation of academics, then maybe we can make the world a better place without having to sacrifice our career.

So – do you self-identify as an academic (in any field) and does this post resonate with you? Please let me know and we might think about this stuff together, because I can’t do this on my own. And if you have any other ideas or comments, I’d love to hear them!

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Mijn mening over Zwarte Piet is niet zo belangrijk

Als je het per se wil weten: ik denk dat Zwarte Piet, hoe onhandig we hem ook proberen te ontdoen van alle sporen van het Nederlandse slavernijverleden, te onlosmakelijk verbonden is aan zijn wortels als racistische karikatuur om ooit iets anders te kunnen zijn dan dat. En ook: ik ben dol op Zwarte Piet. Sinterklaas zonder Piet, dat kan gewoon niet – dat voel ik gewoon in mijn blanke, Hollandse onderbuik.

Maar dat maakt allemaal niet zoveel uit, want mijn mening over Zwarte Piet is helemaal niet zo belangrijk. Er is maar één bevolkingsgroep die kan beoordelen of Zwarte Piet racistisch en kwetsend is, en dat is de groep die er al dan niet door gekwetst wordt. En daar hoor ik niet bij, dus wordt het tijd om mijn mond te houden en te luisteren naar de mensen die er wél verstand van hebben.

Iets waarvan ik wel met tamelijk veel zekerheid durf te zeggen dat het racistisch is: dit hele debat, of althans de manier waarop het gevoerd wordt door de pro-Pieten-kant. Je zou er zo een bingospelletje van kunnen maken (dankjewel, Google). “Jullie interpretatie van Piet is verkeerd/ongeldig/getuigt van een gebrek aan historisch besef”? Check. “Stel je niet aan, azijnpissers”? Check. “Ik ken ook Surinamers die zich niet gekwetst voelen door Zwarte Piet”? Check. “De slavernij is eeuwen geleden, get over it“? Check. “Jullie zijn de racisten, met jullie gefocus op de huidskleur van Piet”? Check. Ik kan nog wel even doorgaan.

Een bekentenis: ik was net zo. Ik heb louter positieve ervaringen met Zwarte Piet, want ik hou nu eenmaal van snoep en cadeautjes en gedichten en heb het geluk in een maatschappij te leven waarin mijn huidskleur op geen enkele manier een issue is. Het is helemaal niet zo raar dat ik daarom lang geloofd heb dat iedereen dus blij zou moeten worden van Zwarte Piet, of dat huidskleur in het algemeen op geen enkele manier een issue is in Nederland. Elke blijk van het tegendeel vatte ik welhaast persoonlijk op, als een gemene poging om mij mijn blije geluksbubbel te ontnemen. Geen wonder dat ik daar een beetje geïrriteerd en defensief van werd. Geen wonder ook dat een groot deel van Nederland daar een beetje geïrriteerd en defensief van wordt.

Alleen: blijven hangen in die geïrriteerde, defensieve fase is niet zo volwassen. Volwassen is het om te beseffen dat je niet het middelpunt van het universum bent, dat jouw perspectief niet het enige is, en dat andere mensen ervaringen kunnen hebben die volledig anders zijn dan die van jou en tóch niet minder waar of geldig zijn. Pas als we de ander verwelkomen als gelijkwaardige gesprekspartner en zijn emoties en ervaringen niet bij voorbaat van tafel vegen omdat ze anders zijn dan die van ons, dan pas kunnen we het gesprek op een constructieve manier aangaan.

In de Volkskrant van afgelopen zaterdag schrijft Robert Vuijsje hoe hij zijn Surinaamse vrouw en een klasgenootje van vroeger eens vroeg hoe ze als kind eigenlijk het Sinterklaasfeest hadden ervaren. Zijn vrouw vond het feest “ongemakkelijk, pijnlijk en verwarrend”. De vriend, destijds de enige zwarte leerling in een verder volledig blanke klas, had elk jaar weer dezelfde eenzaamheid gevoeld.

Dat is problematisch. Ongeacht wie er ‘gelijk’ heeft en ongeacht je perspectief op de historische ontwikkeling van Zwarte Piet: elk jaar weer zit een hele groep kinderen zich dus verward en eenzaam te voelen tussen hun zich van geen kwaad bewuste blanke leeftijdsgenootjes. Wie dat a priori niet interessant vindt, wie zijn eigen recht om zich van geen kwaad bewust te zijn belangrijker vindt dan de gevoelens van anderen, wie überhaupt weigert te luisteren naar de gevoelens van anderen en ze bij voorbaat wegwimpelt als irrelevante aanstelleritis, wie agressief en belerend reageert op de pijn van een medemens, die mag gewoon niet beweren dat het met de rassenverhoudingen in Nederland wel snor zit.

Maar toch. Ik ben dol op Zwarte Piet, en zo’n legertje bontgeschminkte Kleurenpieten is toch een beetje een surrogaat. Dacht ik. Ik heb even wat plaatjes gegoogled en werd er eigenlijk best vrolijk van. Wat mij betreft voeren we ze in. Maar zelfs als we besluiten dat niet te doen en Piet ‘gewoon’ zwart te laten – laat dat dan tenminste een collectief besluit zijn, waarbij iedereen gehoord en serieus genomen wordt. Laat er alsjeblieft niemand eenzaam, verward en gekwetst in een hoek hoeven te zitten terwijl de rest pepernoten vreet en zich op de borst klopt dat ze in deze Belangrijke Principekwestie gelukkig geen Duimbreed Geweken zijn.

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De geesteswetenschapper als ontmaskeraar van machtsmythes

hunzijnnogdommerDit artikel verschijnt binnenkort in Radix, waar het zal prijken tussen modaal-epistemische argumenten voor het bestaan van God, discussies over intelligent design en artikelen met ‘Dooyeweerd’ in de titel. Helaas zonder Dooyeweerd, maar mét Walter Wink en Richard Beck en zelfs een zuinig hoofdknikje naar Foucault want daar vroeg de redacteur naar en ik wou natuurlijk niet toegeven dat ik eigenlijk niet zoveel begrijp van de beste man, die ik bovendien structureel verwar met Barthes, Baudrillard en Derrida. Maar ik dwaal af:

Abstract: Onze hele samenleving is doortrokken van subtiele machtsverhoudingen. Of het nu gaat om sociale klasse, leeftijd, etnische achtergrond, sekse, opleidingsniveau, woonplaats of taalgebruik, de mensheid weet zichzelf altijd weer op te delen in groepen met veel en groepen met weinig status. In dit artikel wordt dit geïllustreerd aan de hand van een relatief onderbelicht fenomeen: de hardnekkige maar taalkundig onzinnige notie van ‘goede’ en ‘foute’ grammatica. Vervolgens komt aan bod wat theologen als Walter Wink te zeggen hebben over macht, status en privilege; in navolging van deze theologen betoog ik dat het ontmaskeren van machtsverhoudingen en de mythes die eraan ten grondslag liggen één van de belangrijkste aspecten is van de missie van Jezus, en daarmee ook van de navolging. Tot slot wordt duidelijk dat christelijke geesteswetenschappers hier een belangrijke rol in kunnen spelen: zij hebben zowel de wetenschappelijke middelen om machtsmythes te kunnen identificeren, als de theologische middelen om ze te ontmaskeren.

Lees het hele artikel hier (het is de drukproef, dus als je jeuk krijgt van verkeerd afgebroken woorden kun je beter een abonnement op Radix afsluiten, de papieren editie van mij lenen en/of me een mailtje sturen voor de opmaakloze versie)

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Semantic intermezzo 1: ‘every’ and ‘only’

In the previous research-related post, I’ve introduced the idea that natural language determiners (these little words or phrases that you can put in front of a noun, like a, the, every, three, most, all but one, several, infinitely many…) can be analysed as relations between sets. The reason that I love this intuitively simple idea so much is that it basically turns meaning into a kind of puzzle that doesn’t require a lot of background knowledge – just some basic math skills. So, as a kind of intermezzo, let’s look at the interesting case of every and only, whose meanings don’t seem obviously related in actual language, but turn out to be each other’s exact mirror images when you look at the math behind them. Then, next time you’re at a party and the topic of formal semantics comes up (as it is wont to do) you will be able to dazzle everyone with this super-interesting case study in applied set theory!

To make things more easy, let’s introduce some basic formal notation. (No! you might object, formal notation makes things hard! I think this is a sad misconception rooted in the allergy-inducing way that math is generally taught in secondary school (an allergy that took me years to get over, especially since I was used to people telling me that I wasn’t very good at math… but that’s a different story). Don’t worry, though – I will try to paraphrase all the formal stuff in actual English as well. And if you really don’t like math, just skip the bits in green – they are not essential to the story.)

We will use D as a placeholder for determiners, and A and B as placeholders for sets. In this way, we can represent every English sentence according to the template D(A)(B), where A refers to the set corresponding to the subject noun, and refers to the set corresponding to the predicate. For example, we can represent the sentence Every student smiles as:

 every(the set of students)(the set of smilers)

or, for short:

every(student)(smile)

This representation doesn’t yet tell us anything about the meaning of the sentence: in order to know the meaning, we need to know what kind of relation between sets every denotes. So let’s define this relation:

every(A)(B) = 1 iff A is a subset of B
“The sentence Every A Bs is true if and only if every member of the set corresponding to A is also a member of the set corresponding to B

So, Every student smiles is true if every member of the set of students is also a member of the set of smilers. (And you can describe the meaning of any determiner in this way, for example:

less than three(A)(B) = 1 iff |A ∩ B| < 3
“The sentence Less than three As B is true if and only if the number of entities that are a member of both A and B is smaller than 3″

half of the(A)(B) = 1 iff |A ∩ B| = |A – B|
“The sentence Half of the As B is true if and only if there are as many members of A that are also members of B, as there are members of A that are not members of B

This is what I meant when I wrote that this way of looking at determiners turns language meaning into a kind of puzzle.)

Another nice feature of set theory is that it’s very easy to illustrate visually. Like this:

every frog is a prince

“Every frog is a prince”

The rectangle represents the universe (the set of all existing entities), the circles represent various sets of such entities. As you can see, the frogs are a subset of the princes (every entity that’s a member of the set of frogs is also a member of the set of princes), so the sentence Every frog is a prince is true.

Now, on to only. What does the visual representation of Only frogs are princes look like? (Think about this for a second.)

Right. It looks like this:

only frogs are princes

“Only frogs are princes”

In order for the sentence Only frogs are princes to be true, every prince must be a frog: the meaning of the sentence rules out the existence of non-frog princes. (It does not care about the existence of non-prince frogs: only frogs are princes does not mean that all frogs are princes.)

So now you see why I claimed that every and only are each other’s ‘mirror images’ in terms of meaning. Here is another way to represent this idea:

Every A is B ↔ Only Bs are A
“The sentence Every A is B is equivalent in meaning to the sentence Only Bs are A

Which means that, in our official notation:

only(A)(B) = 1 iff B is a subset of A (the reverse of our definition for the meaning of every, above)

Let’s summarise all this. Departing from the idea that the meaning of a determiner can be described as a relation between sets, we looked at the meanings of every and only and discovered that they represent the same relation between sets, only mirrored. And this fun little case study is a real-life example of the way formal semanticists look at language – I could do this stuff all day!

Still hadn’t enough? Read more about the linguistic and set-theoretic properties of only below the cut.

Continue reading

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A paradox: me & my body

(This is a personal story. But there’s a point to it.)

I have never liked physical exercise much. Not just that – I also regarded this as a key component of my personality, taking an odd pride in the fact that I was the kind of person who just didn’t bother much with bodily things. As a child, I’d spend my lunch breaks reading a book in the corner of the playground, until my teacher put a stop to this and told me to go run and play with everyone else. As a teenager, I dreaded my PE classes, especially when there were balls involved that could hit you in the face if you failed to pay attention for a second. (I did do a lot of dancing, but since that didn’t leave me exhausted and/or sore and sort of added to my status of class weirdo, I figured it was Art, not Exercise.)

I didn’t bother with my body much in general, and thought this was a Good Thing. Other girls forever seemed to be peering into mirrors and watching their diets; I considered this shallow and irrational and sort of sad. If I felt like it, I’d have cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner without worrying about my calorie intake. I’d feel vaguely proud of this, as if this lack of concern with my culture’s beauty standards established me as an intelligent, level-headed person.

I didn’t hate my body. I didn’t love it either. It was just something that was there but didn’t have a lot to do with me.

Later, though, something began to change. I was entering my mid-twenties and I was getting too old to be promising - soon, someone would take a critical look at my life and find me wanting. Everything I did accomplish felt vaguely disappointing – so boring and prosaic compared to the things I’d dreamed about doing. I felt out of place in academia. My love life did not deserve the name. I didn’t know if my friends were still my friends. (If I had written a TV pilot about my life back then and gotten HBO to broadcast it, I bet no one would’ve heard of Lena Dunham today.)

And when I looked in the mirror, at this Other, this body-that-wasn’t-part-of-me, I suddenly saw that it was all wrong. Soon I couldn’t eat without thinking about it and I couldn’t not eat without thinking about it. It was always there, silently walking with me, influencing me, setting my agenda, holding me back, taunting me with its disproportioned presence. It was embarrassing – here I was, this level-headed girl always so blissfully free of body issues, catching myself thinking that I might feel better about myself if I just skipped lunch for a day or two.

I did not think of all this when I decided, on a whim, to take up classes in… a form of fitness that has gradually been losing its stigma and is enjoying increasing popularity. If anything, I was probably hoping that it would make That Body somewhat prettier so I might like it better (I still felt, vaguely, that physical exercise was meant for people with an unhealthy focus on looks, but these people now included me).

After my first class, I was sore for a week. But I had paid for eight classes, so I continued. It was less bad after the second class. The third class got me high on endorphins for the first time in my life. After the eighth class, I booked another eight.

2013-04-18 19.28.13

reverse poisson

And something changed. But it wasn’t That Body – not much, anyway. It was the gradual realisation that That Body could do pretty awesome thingsI stopped looking at it with disappointment and dislike; instead, I gained a respect for it that was entirely new. I felt proud and excited about inhabiting it. And later still, I stopped thinking about my body in terms of inhabiting – I realised that The Body was me, as much as my mind was.

I’m writing all this because of an article that some of my friends shared on Facebook a while ago on ‘how to talk to little girls‘. The message: don’t focus on their bodies. Focus on their minds.

It sounds reasonable enough, but taken to its extreme, it’s precisely this idea that made me so unhappy with my body a few years ago. If you pretend that your body isn’t an important part of you, if you never learn to respect it and be proud of it, there might just come a day when you look into the mirror and see nothing but a bothersome Other.

So yes, please focus on girls’ interests, opinions, creativity and talents. But don’t forget that that’s only half of their identity. We’re physical creatures too. We need to learn to appreciate how our bodies enable us to experience the world, express emotions, and forge intimate connections with others. We need to experience the fun of trying our body’s strengths and abilities, of training it, of feeling it ache and grow and develop. We need to realise that our bodies are ours as much as our minds, especially when we’re the kind of person who’s naturally inclined to a more cerebral existence.

It still feels like a bit of a weird paradox – that I made myself vulnerable to body issues by focusing so much on mind over matter. I guess if the only function of your body is to enable your mind to exist, it is really nothing but a façade, of which very little can be said except whether it is nice-looking or not.

It’s not that I stopped having an opinion about the façade, or occasionally wishing for more womanly curves and a proper waist. It’s just that the particulars of my waist-to-hip ratio feel so utterly trivial when I just managed to deadlift myself into helicopter position.

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Dutch Protestant Church files complaint against state for its treatment of illegal immigrants

It’s so easy to be cynical about Christianity, particularly in its institutionalised form, that I was almost shocked when this week’s news made me cheer for the Church not just once, but twice.

First, there was the consistently awesome Pope Francis’s visit to Lampedusa, where he celebrated Mass with both locals and refugees, and cast a wreath into the sea to commemorate the many immigrants who died in their attempt to find safety and happiness in Europe (at least 18,567 people since 1988 according to the organisation Fortress Europe, which has documented the known victims here). The Pope used a chalice made from the wood of one of the refugees’ boats, which nearly moved me to tears because I’m soppy like that (and a sucker for symbolic references to Matthew 25).

And then on Tuesday came the news that a complaint filed last January by the Dutch Protestant Church (PKN) against the Dutch government will be taken up by the European Committee of Social Rights. Of course, the bigger news is that the Church filed a complaint against the state in the first place, but I had missed that one back in January so this was the first time I heard about it. According to the PKN, the way the state treats undocumented immigrants – essentially kicking them out onto the street as soon as it becomes clear that they won’t be given legal status – denies them their basic human rights of food, clothing and shelter, so the Dutch state should be obliged to provide these human rights to everyone within their borders regardless of legal status.

[W]here extreme vulnerability could not be proven, the right to assistance and shelter was denied, leaving the person without shelter, sanitation or food. This applied even in the case of a 61 year old man with reduced heart function, swollen liver, diabetes and swollen feet and lower legs, and in the case of two men with AIDS. (…) The situation of those living undocumented in the Netherlands, some year in, year out, can only be described as frightful. To survive on the streets, deprived of food, clothing and shelter, forsaken, is terrifying.

The situation of undocumented immigrants is currently a big issue in the Netherlands, mostly thanks to a large group of them who took up residence in a squatted church in Amsterdam and quickly (but briefly) became a kind of absurd national pastime. Within a few days they had received so many clothes that they had to donate most of them to charity shops. They were visited by celebrities and TV personalities, culminating in a Refugee Church Christmas Service featuring, among other things, a concert of Dutch rock star Anouk. The hype died down after a few weeks, of course (I guess Christmas was over and the problem hadn’t magically disappeared with the interference of the likes of Anouk and Arie Boomsma), but at least the issue had entered the public debate. The PKN complaint briefly mentions the episode, noting with a certain irony that

…whether destitute people obtain help depends upon whether public opinion is swayed. Only those who that protested, who had the courage and physical strength to camp outdoors, were offered shelter. Others, who were physically too weak to join the protests, were not.

Then, there was the suicide of Russian asylum seeker and activist Aleksandr Dolmatov, who had been detained in one of the infamous Dutch deportation centres. The circumstances in those detention and deportation centres have been subject to international criticism for years – see this report from 2008 from Amnesty International – but it took a long time before the general public took any notice of it. Following Dolmatov’s suicide, Secretary of State Fred Teeven recently proposed to detain only ‘criminal’ or ‘aggressive’ immigrants, which would be a big step forward if he weren’t planning, at the same time, to make illegal presence in the Netherlands itself a criminal act.

(The situation of undocumented immigrants has recently become a relevant issue for me personally as well – since a week and a half our house, which was way too big for the two of us anyway, is now also home to Jeanne from Congo & possibly other temporary roommates in the future. If you live in the Utrecht area and are able to offer emergency or longterm shelter – at least until the Dutch state is officially chastised by the ECSR for not doing so itself! – please contact the STIL foundation.)

Anyway. There’s a saying that churches should ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’, and even though I often feel that Western Christianity has lost much of its prophetic voice in this respect (not to mention how, in its attempts to be hip and contemporary, it tends to confuse actual relevance to society with the overuse of cringeworthy sports- and Facebook-themed metaphors) – both Pope Francis and the PKN have managed to do both this week. I applaud them – for speaking truth to power, for standing up for the weakest in society, for afflicting the comfortable, and for giving me some hope for the future of the Church.

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