LLI Meeting: May 21, 2013

This week in LLI, Raj Signh will give a dry run of his talk for a workshop on implicatures at McGill. The talk will be from 1-2:30pm in DT 2203 on Tuesday May 21st.

Here is the notice for the Workshop talk, including the abstract:

Raj Singh (Carleton University)
Presenting joint work with:
Kenneth Wexler (MIT)
Andrea Astle (Carleton University)
Deepthi Kamawar (Carleton University)
Danny Fox (MIT/Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: Children interpret disjunction as conjunction: Consequences for the theory of scalar implicature

Background reading:
Barner, D., Brooks, N., & Bale, A. 2011. Accessing the unsaid: The role of scalar alternatives in children’s pragmatic inferenceCognition, 188, 87-96.
Fox, Danny. 2007. Free choice and the theory of scalar implicature.

Abstract: We present evidence that there is a stage of development at which children assign disjunctive sentences (e.g., “the boy is holding an apple or a banana”) a conjunctive interpretation (e.g., that the boy is holding an apple and a banana). We explain this finding with two assumptions: (i) that children at this developmental stage have acquired the inclusive disjunction meaning of “or” from their target grammar (following Chierchia et al. 2001; Gualmini et al. 2001; Crain, 2008; Crain and Khlentzos, 2010) and (ii) that whereas adults derive an exclusive disjunction scalar implicature for “A or B,” children at this stage derive a conjunctive scalar implicture “A and B.”

Our proposal in (ii) is based on the combination of two assumptions that have been defended in the recent literature, one pertaining to the cognitive mechanisms that enter into the computation of scalar implicatures (SIs) by the adult (an assumption about the adult steady state — see (a) below), and the other pertaining to differences between children and adults with respect to the computation of SIs (an assumption about development — see (b) below):

(a) The assumption about the adult steady state is that the algorithm that computes SIs can sometimes lead to a conjunctive interpretation for a disjunctive sentence. Specifically, the assumption is that this happens when the set of alternatives possesses a logical property which we characterize here and call CONJ. The presence or absence of CONJ has been argued (Fox, 2007) to be responsible for the fact that in the adult state atomic disjunctive sentences “A or B” do not give rise to conjunctive SIs, but disjunctive permissive sentences do: a sentence like “you’re allowed to eat the cake or the ice-cream” typically gives rise to the so-called free-choice SI that you’re allowed to eat the cake and you’re allowed to eat the ice-cream (the algorithms for the computation of SIs proposed in Chemla, 2009 and Franke, 2011 are sensitive to CONJ in similar ways).

(b) The assumption about development is that children at this stage have acquired the same semantics and implicature computing mechanism as adults and differ only in the alternative sentences used in the computation (e.g.,Chierchia et al. 2001; Gualmini et al. 2001; Barner & Bachrach, 2010; ; Barner, Brooks, & Bale, 2011). We provide a precise statement of this difference, and show that under this difference the child’s alternatives for “A or B” end up satisfying CONJ; assuming that the rest of the adult system is in place, this is what allows children to interpret disjunctions as conjunctions.

We situate this proposal in current debates concerning the domain-specificity of implicature computation, arguing that the data can be naturally explained by the “grammatical theory of implicature” but remain mysterious under neo-Gricean alternatives. If the explanation is correct, it demonstrates the relevance of ontogenetic development to questions concerning the building blocks of human cognition. Specifically, competing theories predict a different distribution of possible “missing components” of the implicature mechanism through different stages of development, which in turn predicts a different distribution of possible implicatures available to the child during development. Studies of developmental stages thus provide access to data that might reveal insights into underlying cognitive mechanisms in ways that would not be possible in studies of the adult steady state alone.

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