SOPhiA 2023

The Ontology of Natural Languages

A SOPhiA-2023-Workshop on the Philosophy of Linguistics

University of Salzburg, 07. September 2023, 16:00-20:00 (CET)

For quite a while, the philosophy of linguistics has been languishing some kind of niche existence in the shadow of the philosophy of language. But in recent years, the philosophy of linguistics has become a prominent autonomous discipline, with a broad area of research. Unlike philosophers of language, philosophers of linguistics examines linguistics qua scientific discipline. Thus conceived, the philosophy of linguistics turns out to be a branch of philosophy of science (on a par with philosophy of physics, and philosophy of mathematics etc.). The goals are many. Amongst other things, philosophers of linguistics clarify what
counts as linguistic data, specify what makes for good linguistic theories, and relate linguistics to other sciences (including physics, biology and cognitive psychology), considering whether linguistics can possibly be reduced to these. In this endeavor, the discipline is open for all possible features of natural languages, ranging from the phonetic and phonological properties of natural languages, over morphological and syntactic structures, all the way to semantic and pragmatic phenomena.

One central question concerns the subject matter of linguistics, i.e. what the science of linguistics is about. This question directly leads to the ontology of natural languages, and the question what kind of thing natural languages are. There are different views on the market. One view is that natural languages are concrete things, which can be reduced to, or identified with certain physical aspects. A different view conceives of languages as mental phenomena, which inhere in the minds of human beings. Yet another approach holds that
languages are (abstract) structures, which are comparable to mathematical objects or fundamental laws. Interestingly, there also is a pluralistic view, which conceives of languages as hybrid phenomena, which have physical, mental and abstract etc. components. Also, there are anti-realist views, which go as far as denying that languages exist! But which view is right? This workshop aims to provide some insight to this matter, and raise philosophers’ awareness for questions about linguistics and its subject matter. To this end, we have gathered five speakers (including numerous renowned experts), proposing their views about the ontology of language. They include

  • JTM Miller (Durham): Towards a Unified Ontology of Language.
  • Friederike Moltmann (Nice): tba.
  • Ryan Nefdt (Cape Town): tba.
  • Thorben Petersen (Bremen): Natural Languages as Categorical Hybrids
  • Rob Stainton (Western Ontario): Platonism in The Philosophy of Linguistics.


Miller, JTM. 2020. The Ontology of Words. Philosophy Compass 15:7.
Moltmann, Friederike. 2022. Natural Language Ontology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Nefdt, Ryan. 2019. Philosophy of Linguistics. Philosophy Compass 14:12.
Pelletier, Pullum & Nefdt. 2022. Philosophy of Linguistics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Stainton, Rob. 2014. Philosophy of Linguistics. Oxford Handbooks Online.