The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-lunch 10/23 - Patrick Grosz

Please join us for this week’s Ling-lunch:
Patrick Grosz
“Particle-izing Imperatives”
Thursday, Oct. 23

The semantics of imperatives has been in the focus of recent research such as Portner (2005, 2007) and Schwager (2005, 2006). Schwager assumes a covert performative modal with universal force. Portner claims that imperatives do not encode modal force and suggests a pragmatic account in which imperatives contribute to the hearer?s To-Do List and a rational speaker aims to realize as many entries on her To-Do List as possible. To account for the difference between universal, “commanding” imperatives and existential, “permissive” imperatives, Schwager (2005) develops a pragmatic account that crucially assumes that the hearer has already wanted to carry out the action expressed in the imperative, but has felt that it was prohibited to do so (see also Han 2000 in this context). In contrast, Portner (2007) suggests that such differences are linked to various sections of the hearer’s To-Do List, corresponding to different ordering sources (e.g. orders are deontic and invitations/permissions are bouletic, referring to the hearer’s wishes). Crucially, both assume that imperatives always express “necessity” and the feeling of “possibility” is a derived effect. In this talk I show that this cannot be correct.

In this talk I revisit the semantics of imperatives in the light of the German discourse particles JA (pronounce: “stressed JA”, homophonous with ja ‘yes’) and ruhig (homophonous with ruhig ‘quietly’). These elements occur only in imperatives and in modalized declaratives, but not in non-modalized declaratives. They restrict the modal type of the modal operator they occur with, and are sensitive to modal force (JA only combines with universal force and ruhig with existential force). I show that the distribution of JA and ruhig can only be accounted for by assuming that imperatives contain a covert element that introduces modal necessity or modal possibility. The empirical evidence thus favors an approach that assumes an element introducing modal quantification (such as Schwager’s) over an approach that does not involve quantification (such as Portner’s). However, it also requires a fundamental revision of Schwager, in that we need to assume the imperative operator to be lexically ambiguous between a universal necessity reading and an existential possibility reading.