Assistant Professor of Linguistics
Altshuler was the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Hampshire College from 2010-2011 and a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College from 2011-2012. For three years thereafter, he was an assistant professor of semantics at Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf, Germany before coming back to Hampshire College in 2015.
Altshuler's primary research interests are in the areas of semantics and pragmatics of natural language. His research investigates how compositional semantics interacts with discourse structure and discourse coherence. He recently finished his first monograph (published Open Access with De Gruyter) on the interpretation of narrative discourse and has a forthcoming book on the syntax/discourse interface with Oxford University Press. Altshuler is also interested in developing pedagogical texts that promote student centered learning. He is currently working on "A course in semantics," an undergraduate semantics textbook (under contract with MIT Press). He is also organizing the Institute for Linguistics, Image and Text, to be held during the summer at Hampshire College.
This course will begin with an introduction to Discourse Coherence Theory, which appeals to David Hume's psychological principles to explain why a given text is interpreted as being (in)coherent. This theory will allow us to establish an evaluation metric for translation: one translation is better than another translation if it better preserves the psychological principles used to interpret the original text. We will explore this hypothesis via case studies of several texts which are written in languages other than English and are ambiguous. We will analyze the ambiguity in the original text and in its English translations, compare the analyses, and thereby test our hypothesis about translation. Although students do not need prior knowledge of languages other than English, they should be enthusiastic to study and analyze languages other than English. A prior course in linguistics, literary analysis or philosophy is suggested, but not necessary.
This course will explore how narratives live and die; how society can endanger them and bring them to fruition; how various environments, social and natural, influence production of language and narrative. Among these environments, we will look at writing in and about prison, concentration camps and environmental disaster, with special attention dedicated to the topics of censorship and language death, which we will treat as political and social environments of their own kind. We will ask questions like: (1) Why are narratives censored and why are so many languages dying? Who has a say in the matter and what can be done? (2) How does a censored narrative/dead language become uncensored/revitalized? Why is it often labeled "classic"/"exotic" by virtue of being found/revitalized? (3) Can and should we find extinct narratives/languages? (4) How and why does a human create narratives while knowing it will likely be censored and extinct?
Life and death are central to our everyday experience -- our thoughts, our emotions, our conversations, our creations and our inquiries. It is therefore not surprising that there are many lenses through which one can study life and death. The goal of this class is to study various phenomena, each through a distinct lens, in which life and death are central. On Thursdays, we will have a guest speaker (different each week) addressing a diverse range of topics such as birth, abortion and reproductive justice, euthanasia, the afterlife, evolution, suicidal notes, war and genocide, horror/zombie films, gangster rap. On Tuesdays, we will lead a series of group exercises in which students will discuss the presented material and develop skills in writing and public speaking. This class will be link with a theme in CBD on life and death, and we envision this course as a complement to the first semester tutorial with the goal of offering essential practical skills and continuing to support the first year experience and community. This class is open only to first year students.
This course is an introduction to a scientific approach to meaning. Just like any scientist, a semanticist doesn't pursue the object of inquiry (i.e. meaning) directly, but rather focuses on related phenomena. We will focus on composition: the idea that the meaning of a whole (e.g. "spotted butterfly") is composite of the meanings of its parts (e.g. the meaning of "spotted" and the meaning of "butterfly"). We also focus on truth: the idea that we understand the meaning of a sentence by understanding what the world would have to be like for the sentence in question to be true (e.g. you understand the meaning of "It is raining in Seattle" because you know what the world would have to be like for that sentence to be true). These two phenomena allow us to analyze the meanings of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, quantifiers, tenses and the sentences that contain these expressions.
When you meet a non-native speaker for the first time, you are immediately confronted with their accent. This often leads to questions like "Where are you from?", as well as ethnic and racial profiling (often not conscious). Despite the fact that we are constantly in contact with foreign accents and speak in a way that is foreign to others, we rarely ask how particular accents come about and why we are so drawn to them. Many can and want to simulate a British accent or that of a Russian spy. And many simulate foreign accents without even knowing it, e.g. when singing along or reciting lines from a movie. How do we do it? What are the implications? The aim of this course is to elucidate these questions through the study of linguistic theory. No prior background in linguistics is assumed.
Language allows us to express a lot of information in an efficient way. For example, by simply saying: "There is a gas station around the corner" to someone whose car needs gas, I not only convey the belief that there is a gas station around the corner, but also that the gas station is open. Moreover, when I say: "Juliette is the sun" one ascribes to me the belief that Juliette is very beautiful (and not that Juliette is the star at the center of the Solar System); when I say "I took the train from Paris to Istanbul. I have family there", I convey the information that having family in Istanbul is what caused me to take the train from Paris. The goal of this class to explore how people make such inferences from what is said. To do so, we will study pragmatic theories of conversational implicature and discourse coherence.