LingLang Lunch (10/29/2014): Sophia Malamud (Brandeis University)

Utterance modifiers and the emergence of illocutionary force

Recent years have seen much research addressing expressions whose contribution to meaning seems to modify the illocutionary force of an utterance, rather than its truth-conditions. These expressions range from clause-type morphology (e.g. Portner 2007, Starr 2010), to utterance-level adverbial modifiers (Potts 2005; Scheffler 2008, among others), to discourse connectives (e.g. Blakemore 2002; Webber 2004), to evidentials (e.g., Murray 2009, 2014). This research has shown that the tools of formal semantics are useful in modelling grammatical constraints on illocutionary force. It has also shown that illocutionary force modifiers can provide insight into a number of questions that arise at the semantics-pragmatics interface: Which aspects of illocutionary force arise compositionally from the grammatical meaning of the utterance and the modifier, and which aspects are computed through general reasoning based on speakers’ assumptions about rationality? Do context and rationality serve simply to resolve underspecified or ambiguous grammatical representations, or do they provide additional meaning above and beyond the literal and direct? Is (in)directness a categorical distinction, or is it a gradient – and if the latter, how can this be modelled? What are the universals and what is the cross-linguistic variation in the way illocutionary force is conveyed?

I explore these questions using Mandarin particle ba, as well as English tag questions and rising intonation; time permitting, I will suggest a follow-up study using English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta. The Mandarin particle ba occurs with a variety of speech acts and clause types, typically declarative and imperative, but in rare cases interrogative as well. The English reverse-polarity tags (John is here, isn’t he?) occur with declarative utterances, as does rising intonation (John is here↑) which also occurs in other types of utterances (Congratulations↑). English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta are canonically used in imperative requests, but occur in other clause types (Can you help me, please?) and other speech acts (Can I sit?—Please do.).

I build on my prior work (Ettinger and Malamud 2013, Malamud and Stephenson 2014, inter alia) to offer a model of conversation where a unified semantics of clause types (cf. Starr 2010) constrains the range of interpretations for an utterance. A pragmatic conversational scoreboard tracks speakers’ public commitments to propositions, issues, and actions/preferences (cf. Farkas & Roelofsen forthcoming). These commitments constitute a target for collaborative updates; conversational moves may fall short of this target. Moves that fall short place their at-issue content on different parts of the Table, depending on the degree of authority the speaker and the hearer exercise over this content. Mandarin ba signals a lower degree of speaker authority, and potentially higher degree of hearer authority than would otherwise be expected for assertions and requests; pragmatic reasoning then derives the various effects of the utterance modifier.