LingLang Lunch (5/8/2013): Kathryn Davidson (University of Connecticut)

What can sign languages tell us about the semantic/pragmatic interface?

As adult language users, we are all aware that sometimes we mean exactly what we say, and sometimes we mean a lot more. Understanding precisely how language meaning arises from the complex interplay of semantics (what we say) and pragmatics (what we mean) is a difficult question. In this talk, I will focus on two phenomena at the semantic/pragmatic interface: scalar implicatures and the restriction of quantifier domains, from the point of view of American Sign Language (ASL), gaining new insights into the relationship of semantics and pragmatics based on the behavior of ASL. In the case of scalar implicatures, ASL makes frequent use of general use coordinators instead of separate lexical items “and” and “or,” which I show leads to strikingly fewer exclusive interpretations of disjunction than a lexically contrasting scale like English . In the case of quantifier domains, the gradient use of vertical space in ASL can provide clearer judgments about domains for quantification than the gradient options available in spoken languages, such as intonation. In both cases, I show how the manual/visual language modality allows linguists, philosophers, and psychologists to test important issues concerning the relationship of semantics and pragmatics in natural languages.