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Monads and Natural Language

ESSLLI Barcelona 17:00--18:30 M-F, 3-7 August 2015

Instructors: Chris Barker and Dylan Bumford, New York University, Department of Linguistics

Course description:

Monads are a concept from the theory of programming languages that allows modular separation of main effect from side effect. For instance, if the main effect is arithmetic computation, the side effect might be reading the value of a variable from a store (a Reader monad), or sending a value to the print queue (a Writer monad), or changing the value of a variable (a State monad). Each of these side effects can be added or removed at will without disturbing the main computation.

It is now well-established that natural languages expressions can be viewed as having a main ("at-issue") effect and side effects. The goal of this course is to explore how the technique of monadic programming can provide insight into semantic composition in natural language. Examples explored in detail include intensionality as a Reader monad (Winter and Ben-Avi, presented at SuB 11 at the Pompeu Fabra, and at ESSLLI in 2007); donkey-anaphora as a State monad; expressive content, as in the damn dog, as a Writer monad (Giorgolo and Asudeh); scope-taking as a Continuation monad (Barker and Shan 2006, 2014); and the Set monad for Hamblin-style indefinites (Charlow 2014).

The course will introduce the basics of monads, including the type constructor, the unit, the bind operator, and the monad laws by developing progressively more complex concrete fragments of natural language in Haskell. The Haskell language (named for Haskell Curry) provides extensive built-in support for monads. The fragments will be applied to progressively more challenging data sets in natural language.

The level of the course will be appropriate for any student who either has experience with a functional programming language (Haskell, OCaml, Scheme, etc.), or who has experience with formal models of semantic composition (Heim and Kratzer, Jacobson, Steedman, Moortgat, etc.) The course will not presume previous familiarity with any specific theory of meaning, and programming techniques will be explained from first principles; nevertheless, the course will be taught at an advanced level, and is not appropriate for students who have neither programming experience nor experience with formal semantic models.

That said, the course is intended to be a way for experienced programmers to leverage their understanding of functional programming to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of natural language meaning, or else to be a way for experienced natural language semanticists to appreciate the value of functional programming techniques for gaining new insights into semantic composition.

There will be simple programming exercises, as well as readings from the linguistics literature. Unger and van Eijck provides useful background on Haskell.

Tentative schedule:

  • Day 1:

    • Introduction
      • Computational goals served by monads: structured computation
      • Linguistic goals served by monads: multi-dimensional meaning composition
      • Survey of applications in linguistics
    • Basics
      • Types and type classes
      • Monads and the monad laws
    • First example, presupposition failure in the "maybe" monad
  • Day 2:

    • Reader monad
      • Indexicals
      • Intensionality
    • Writer monad
      • Expressives and appositives
    • Set monad
      • Alternative semantics
      • Focus
    • State monad
      • Binding
  • Day 3:

    • Groenendijk, Stokhof, and Veltman's 1996 fragment
    • Re-engineering GSV, monadically
  • Day 4:

    • Combining effects
      • Dynamic semantics
      • Monad transformers
      • Demo
  • Day 5: Guest lecture from Simon Charlow

    • Monads, applicative functors, and scope


materials for ESSLLI 2015 course: Monads and Natural Language



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