Tag Archives: Semantics

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.

LingLang Lunch (11/19/2014): Scott AnderBois (Brown University)

The discourse particle wal in Yucatec Maya: a decompositional approach

Dating back to the philosopher David Lewis, it has been common to think of discourse in terms of a shared “scoreboard” comprising various information about who has said what, what things we know, what our goals are, etc. Discourse particles are elements in sentences which intuitively do not contribute to the content of sentences in which they occur, but rather make reference to the discourse scoreboard itself (e.g. English oh; German ja, doch; Japanese yo, ne). They thus provide a unique lens into understanding the structure of the discourse scoreboard and the ways in which speakers’ utterances interact with it. In this talk, I focus on one particular discourse particle, wal, in Yucatec Maya (an indigenous language of Mexico). Wal serves many seemingly quite different functions. In declaratives, it conveys uncertainty in some cases, but a warning or threat in others. In imperatives, it does two seemingly opposite things: “softening” an imperative to a permission or offer in some cases, and, again, conveying a warning or threat in others. I develop an analysis in which wal has a uniform meaning, serving to highlight a decision problem the hearer faces following the speaker’s turn. The various functions of wal, then, are argued to arise from the interaction of this meaning with intonation, aspects of the utterance in which it occurs, and reasoning based on world knowledge.

LingLang Lunch (2/25/2015): Timothy Grinsell (University of Chicago)

Verdicts, Voters, and Vectors: Three Sources of Evidence for One Theory of Vagueness

This talk presents three sources of evidence for the notion that linguistic vagueness results from the aggregation of a set of judgments. The word healthy, for instance, aggregates judgments along a number of contextually supplied “dimensions,” including blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. (with the relevant dimensions contextually determined). Given certain weak assumptions, the combinatorial problems associated with aggregating judgments along multiple dimensions explain healthy’s vagueness effects.

I present three sources of evidence for this view. The first comes from jury verdicts. In some cases, juries are required to assign percentage values to a defendant’s negligence, representing that portion of fault attributable to the defendant (e.g. 80% negligent). A study of about 800 jury verdicts (Best & Donohue 2012) shows that juries tend to assign these percentages in clumpy ways. This clumpiness provides evidence for a discontinuous scale structure, consistent with the aggregation hypothesis. Second, the well-known distinction between “absolute” and “relative” adjectives (Rotstein & Winter 2004, Kennedy & McNally 2005) provides evidence that unidimensionality reduces or eliminates vagueness effects, consistent with research in political science (like the Median Voter Theorem) that unidimensionality eliminates the aggregation problem (Sen 1970). Third, a topological view of the aggregation problem (Chichilnisky 1982) finds support in the representation of concepts as continuous spaces, in which dimensions are vectors (Gärdenfors 2000, 2014).

LingLang Lunch (3/4/2015): Tania Rojas-Esponda (Stanford University)

Discourse particles and focus effects in a question-under-discussion framework

Discourse particles provide important signals in conversation, by helping speakers and hearers coordinate on the course of an interaction. Therefore, a precise understanding of discourse particles will provide new insights into the pragmatics of conversation. I will present a framework based on questions under discussion that allows us to capture the key information-theoretic structures in conversation that seem to affect the use of discourse particles: the presence or absence of presuppositions, the issues guiding a conversation, and how interlocutors move between these issues. In this talk, I will present two case studies of German discourse particles that highlight central aspects of the QUD framework: ‘überhaupt’ and ‘doch.’ These raise a challenge found in particle systems in many languages: lexicalized focus. Many languages possess particles that can occur with or without focus, and the meanings associated with the unfocused and focused variants are often very different. Since intonation can have discourse-managing functions similar to that of discourse particles, the effect of having or lacking focus marking directly *on* a particle is different from the effect of focus on regular content words. I will identify patterns that allow us to systematically distinguish the meanings of focused and unfocused particles in a focused/unfocused pair. This serves as a stepping stone towards understanding the interplay of grammar, intonation, and interaction.

LingLang Lunch (4/1/2015): Junwen Lee (Brown University)

Lah revisited – A modal analysis

The linguistic function of the Colloquial Singapore English (CSE) particle lah has been characterized variously as a marker to convey solidarity, warmth and informality; an attenuation or emphasis marker; an assertion marker; and an accommodation marker. As the particle can be pronounced using several pitch contours, the particle has generally been analyzed as either a set of homonymic variants that are distinguished by pitch and function, or a unitary particle that has the same meaning despite tonal differences. However, I argue against both approaches – the former conflates pragmatic function and semantic meaning, while the latter ignores the systematic differences in function that correlate with tonal differences. Instead, I propose that lah is a modal particle that conveys the not-at-issue comment that the lah-marked proposition is entailed by the conjunction of all factors that make a difference to its truth, which is then interpreted by the addressee as justification for the speaker’s lah-marked assertion. In other words, if we consider all the factors that affect the likelihood of the lah-marked proposition p being true to be the set of evidence that together underwrite the speaker’s assertion of p, then lah indicates that this set of evidence is completely reliable in predicting p. However, unlike previous unitary analyses, I propose that this single particle meaning then interacts with a separate effect of intonation to produce the different pragmatic functions that have been observed in the literature.

LingLang Lunch (4/8/2015): Magdalena Kaufmann (University of Connecticut)

Free choice as a form of dependence

Disjunctive imperatives like “Post the letter or burn it” are generally thought to invariably grant the addressee the choice between the actions named in the individual disjuncts (leading to Ross’s paradox). I argue that this is incorrect. Building on a propositional analysis of imperatives (Kaufmann 2012) and a compositional analysis of “depending on” I argue that all disjunctions denote sets of propositional alternatives that correlate with distinctions the speaker may or may not be able to indicate explicitly. Free choice arises as the specific case when the partition is induced by the preferences of the addressee. I discuss some ideas of why this is particularly natural for imperatives and performative modals. Moreover, I argue that the analysis of “depending on” shows that the individual disjuncts have to be accessible to the computation. This comes for free in a Hamblin-style analysis or in Inquisitive Semantics, but requires very specific assumptions in a Fox-style setting of locally exhaustified classical disjunctions (e.g. Fox).

LingLang Lunch (4/30/2015): Eladio Mateo Toledo (B’alam) (CIESAS-Sureste, México)

The Destinative Construction in Q’anjob’al (Maya)

Purpose constructions involve two situations linked by a purposive relation where a situation, expressed by the matrix predicate, is performed with the intention/goal of obtaining the realization of another situation, the purpose clause (Cristofaro 2005:506, Schmidtke-Bode 2009:20, Verstraete 2008:764). Therefore, they involve intentionality on the part of an argument of the main clause; the purpose clause is intrinsically future oriented; and the outcome is intended or hypothetical. These features are illustrated in (1) (based on Simonin 2011:2).

(1) A monkey picked leaves or fruit in order to eat them, but it never ate them,
     though that was certainly its intention.

Q’anjob’al has two purpose constructions: motion-cum purpose and a finite purpose clause. In this talk, I present a related construction that I call the destinative construction (2).

(2) a. Max-ach             y-i-teq                     ix         s-q’ume-j
          com-abs2sg       erg3-bring-dir       clf       erg3-talk-tv
          ‘She brought you to talk to you.’
      b. Ay-ach             ek’        j-ante-j
          exs-abs2sg       dir       erg1pl-cure-tv
          ‘You are here for us to cure.’

Analyzing this construction as a purpose clause is problematic because intentionality is not necessary, as in (2b). Furthermore, person inflection is rigidly transitive or intransitive in Q’anjob’al but this construction violates it as the second verb, otherwise transitive, lacks a second person argument. However, this inflectional pattern also occurs in complex predicates like the ditransitive one in 3).

(3)  Ch-ach             ul             hin-say                   w-il-a’
      inc-abs2sg       come       erg1s-look.for       erg1s-see-tv
      ‘I come to look for you (for myself).’ {txt062}

I have three goals in this talk. Following Simonin’s (2011) work on English and that of Polian et.al. (2015) on Maya, I firstly show that (2) is a destinative construction and not a purpose clause (‘the construction denotes a situation where the matrix verb makes available an entity that is earmarked for a particular use, specified by the second verb’). Second, I show that the Q’anjob’al destinative and the English weak purpose clause, with different syntax, are licensed by the same types of predicates. I finally show that the Q’anjob’al destinative clause has features of both complex clauses and complex predicates; this makes it unique in Q’anjob’al and Maya.

LingLang Lunch (10/7/2015): Stephen Emet (Brown University)

“I’m sorry I ever went to that talk”: NPIs in Affective Contexts

Negative polarity items (NPIs) like the English any and ever are thought to be licensed only if they occur in a downward entailing environment (one which supports inferences from sets to subsets). These NPIs are also licensed by affective predicates like surprise, sorry, and regret. I argue that these predicates are not downward entailing, and propose an alternative account of the licensing of NPIs in affective contexts. On my account, such NPIs are licensed by virtue of strengthening the informational content of the utterance they are a part of. I argue that such an account better can explain certain facts concerning the acceptability of NPIs in so-called “roofing” constructions.

LingLang Lunch (10/21/2015): Polly Jacobson (Brown University)

You think there’s Silent Linguistic Material, but I don’t: Neg Raising meets Ellipsis

The first part of this talk will set the stage with material that some but hopefully not all of the LingLangLunchers have heard. This background part is my ‘take’ on the existence of so‐called Silent Linguistic Material (SLM) in so‐called ‘ellipsis’ constructions (the relevant one here is VP Ellipsis). The issue of whether or not there is “SLM” is illustrated by the following question: since the sentence in (1a) can easily be understood as (1b) (and, without additional context, this is pretty much the only interpretation, is (1a) actually at some level the same as (1), where ski that course in 4 minutes is deleted or silenced?

(1) a. Bode can ski that course in 4 minutes, and Lindsay can too.
     b. Bode can ski that course in 4 minutes and Linday can ski that course in 4
          minutes too.

There is a wealth of literature going back decades arguing that this is so, and within the SLM approach there are two main competing hypotheses: (a) that ski that course in 4 minutes in (a) is silenced on the basis of formal identity with the VP in the first conjunct, or (b) that it is silenced on the basis of semantic identity with (the meaning of) the first VP. I begin this talk with reasons to doubt the conventional wisdom (in either of its incarnations); there is particularly strong evidence against the formal identity view. I will also (depending on the time) answer some of the traditional arguments for the SLM view, particularly a couple based on how (b) is understood (which is a very old argument) and on new arguments based on processing considerations.

I then turn to new material here (tentative and in progress) centering on the interaction of Neg Raising and VP Ellipsis. Neg Raising is the phenomenon by which (2a) is easily understood as (2b) where the not is in the lower clause:

(2) a. Bernie doesn’t think we should be talking about the e‐mails.
      b. Bernie thinks we shouldn’t be talking about the e‐mails.

One view is that there is a syntactic process moving a negation from lower to higher clause. The alternative view is that the negation in (2) semantically is in the higher clause, and there is a pragmatic strengthening. I will be concerned with cases like (3) (and more elaborated versions):

(3) Bernie doesn’t think we should be talking about the e‐mails, and neither does
     Hillary.

The full argument requires more elaborated examples, but the bottom line will be that if there is syntactic Neg Raising, then the conditions for SLM must be formal identity. But there is good reason to reject that view. And so, turning this around: assuming there is no SLM (especially no SLM sanctioned by formal identity) then there cannot be Neg Raising, and some version of the pragmatic strengthening story must be correct.

(NOTE: This is in preparation for an upcoming talk at a workshop honoring Laurence Horn; he has done extensive work on Neg Raising, arguing against the syntactic solution.)

LingLang Lunch (4/6/2016): Matthew Barros (Yale University)

Sluicing and Ellipsis Identity

This talk focuses on sluicing constructions, the ellipsis of TP in a Wh-question leaving a Wh-phrase “remnant” overt. Sluicing is subject to an identity condition that must hold between the sluiced question and its antecedent. There is currently no consensus on whether this condition should be characterized as syntactic or semantic in nature, or whether a hybrid condition that makes reference to both semantic and syntactic identity is needed (Merchant 2005, Chung 2013, Barker 2013). I provide a new identity condition that captures extant syntactic generalizations while allowing for enough wiggle room to let in detectible mismatches between the antecedent and sluice. The new identity condition also lets in “pseudosluices” alongside isomorphic sluices, where the sluiced question is a cleft or a copular question while the antecedent is not. Pseudosluicing has often been proposed as a last resort mechanism, only available when an isomorphic structure is independently ruled out (Rodrigues et al. 2009, Vicente 2008, van Craenenbroeck 2010). I defend a view where pseudosluicing is not a special case of sluicing, so that the identity condition should not distinguish between copular and non-copular clauses in the determination of identity. The new Identity condition achieves this in making no reference to the syntactic content of the ellipsis site.